Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Prosper's Demon by K.J. Parker

Every reader has weak spots: kinds of books that reader is always a sucker for. If you read in public, the way I do, it's important to make that clear: it's entirely possible that you love something vastly more than other people just because it's so exactly the thing you love.

Prosper's Demon is a novella published as a book: other people have said for several generations that's a perfect length for great SFF; I agree with them. It's a dark fantasy, told in an engaging first-person voice by a character who is not a good man at all, is tolerably honest about what kind of man he actually is, is sneaky and smart and twisty in telling his story but not generally over the actual line of being unreliable. And he does some very bad things over the course of this story, for what he firmly believes are good reasons -- or perhaps because that's all he can do, being who he is in the world and place he is.

And it pushes a good half-dozen of my buttons along the way: it is exactly the kind of book I love. (I've read some K.J. Parker in the past: I was a big fan of his early Scavenger Trilogy, and bought them for the SFBC, but have not kept up with his novels since. I get the sense that I would enjoy his longer books nearly as much as I liked this one, and I have several on the shelves to read "someday," like so much else.)

This may not be your kind of thing: it is dark, and it is short, and it is fantasy, and it is entirely in the mind of a narrator who works exclusively as a exorcist in a semi-Renaissance secondary world. So keep that in mind as I praise it.

We don't know his name: he is our narrator, the lens through which we get the story. Call him the exorcist; it's what he does. It's what he's had to do, since he was very young. There are demons -- 72,936 of them, according to the Church, which would know -- and they are indestructible and eternal. They can possess humans, and a few humans have the power to speak to them and compel them to come out.

Demons can do a lot of damage on the way out, though, especially if they've had time to get established. But, on the other side, demons have some sort of grand, incredibly long-term plan to destroy humanity, so even if leaving a demon in place might be better for the individual human, it could have bad consequences for humanity.

Exorcists each have a territory, and a group of demons that they tend to see over and over again: to find, and then cajole or convince or order out of their current host. They are always successful, in that the demon is cast out. If you count success as the life or health of the host, the metric would be different.

And exorcists, or at least the one we follow, are exorcists perhaps because their minds are particularly easy for demons to enter. Oh, they can kick the demons back out quickly, once they realize what has happened, without any mental consequences themselves. But if a demon takes over while the exorcist is asleep, that demon could do an awful lot of horrible things before the exorcist comes to the next morning.

And they do.

This exorcist has tangled with a demon he calls Him -- demons don't have names, or genders, but are individuals -- since the very beginnings of his career. (No, earlier than that. The earliest possible beginning of a career casting out demons.) You might say they are each other's nemeses, or archenemies. The exorcist goes out of his way to torment Him when they meet again; He goes out of his way to set up complicated plots that could cause the exorcist's death.

This time, it's a doozy. The greatest mind of the age, Prosper of Schanz, has been entrusted with raising the newborn son of the Grand Duke Sigiswald of Essen into a perfect philosopher-king: given immense latitude in all things.

And there's more than one demon mixed up in the situation. Him, of course. And another demon, one the exorcist has never met before: polite and refined and smart and interesting and perhaps even seductive in an intellectual sense. That demon the exorcist comes to call Her. (He's not a good man in oh so many ways, some of them more self-damaging than others.)

It's clear this is part of that long-term demon plan to destroy humanity. Maybe not quickly, maybe not even speeding things up all that much. But definitely something sneaky aimed at causing mass death and pain some time in the future.

So the exorcist needs to talk to Prosper of Schanz, his world's foremost rationalist, about demons. And the exorcist needs to find a way to thwart the plots of these demons: that's his job.

No matter what it costs.

As I said, this book is dark. I found it a fun, zippy kind of darkness: Parker doesn't dwell on the pain and death that demons and exorcists bring; he just makes it clear those things happen. And the prose is bright and wonderful as well; I've marked several quotes in this short book to post on this blog later.

So I need to read more books by this Parker person, I think. I knew that already: but I have a new example to make it clearer. And if this sounds like your kind of thing as well, I can tell you it's really, really good of its kind.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of May 10, 1998

Without any new books to write about this week, I'm thrown back to old books. So the RNG gives me 1998, and here's what I was reading this week twenty-three years ago:

James Clemens, Wit'ch Fire (bound galleys, 5/2)

This was Clemens' first novel, launching an epic fantasy series that I did not personally love but I'm pretty sure acquired for the SFBC. (Memory is fuzzy and I'm trying to be kind to a first novel, but this may have been something I made fun of at the time - the apostrophe in the title is giving me vague flashbacks, or perhaps I mean headaches.) Clemens (which was itself an Anglicization of his real last name, Czajkowski) has since rebranded as the thriller writer James Rollins and made a much bigger name for himself; another case of someone who learned his trade in the SFF mills and then lit off for the territory to make his fortune somewhere else. Good for him: I think I was the wrong reader for all of the things he's wanted to write in his career but I'm happy he's still doing it and hitting bestseller lists.

Also, and not really related to Clemens' writing or anything else: this book has a great cover, which definitely did not hurt. Really striking, and a great way to launch a series and a career. Del Rey was really good at this kind of fantasy in those days, all the way through the process.
 Tad Williams, Otherland: City of Golden Shadow (5/7)

Let me hit this below with the sequel.

Scott Adams, I'm Not Anti-Business, I'm Anti-Idiot (5/8)

Similarly, what I have to say about late-90s Adams is better served all in one wodge.

Scott Adams, Seven Years of Highly Defective People (5/9)

So this was long before Adams became a right-wing crank - that may be overly reductive; I get the sense he's a crank in lots of ways that aren't clearly right-wing, too - but he'd already quit his cubicle job to cartoon full-time. I have a theory that people who work alone on things they make entirely out of their own heads have a strong tropism to crankdom: it's seen most clearly in comics, especially among the self-educated, and I like to call it Dave Sim Disease.

Adams has an advanced case. But that was not yet apparent in 1998.

Anti-Business was the annual collection of the regular comic, which was still pretty well tethered to real life and actual work concerns. It was less than a decade into the run, and Adams's art had plateaued at its current generally-professional level. He seemed to have a great network of readers who would feed him ideas, which made Dilbert feel like a secret communique from random workplaces across the country, when it was at its best. That all went to hell later, but everything does.

Seven Years was the "how I got here and what these jokes mean" book, in the larger format; I don't have any independent memory of it. So I could claim here that it clearly showed that Adams would become a crank, or insist that he was still a thoughtful, connected creator and so it shows the essential tragedy of his work...both of those would be me making things up twenty years later. I don't know, now, what this book is like, and, since I don't have a copy anymore (blah blah, 2011 flood, blah blah), I'm unlikely to ever look at it again.

Tad Williams, Otherland: River of Blue Fire (bound galleys, 5/10)

Otherland was a four-book SFF series - I think we considered it SF at the SFBC for which-page-to-put-it-on purposes, but it was a fuzzy sort of mostly-in-VR SF by a writer who has spent the entire rest of his career writing fantasy - that came out between 1996 and 2001. Author Tad Williams was very important to his then-publisher DAW, and my memory is that they wouldn't even let us consider the first book when it came out in 1996. (So we didn't: the world is big, and full of books, and there was no one book that was a must-have. We didn't even have Lord of the Rings for several decades until I did a deal in about 1999, ahead of the movies.)

When the second book was coming up for publication, two years later, I believe DAW allowed for the possibility that a sufficiently large truckload of money might convince them to let the crummy SFBC purchase rights to their perfect darling. So I read the first two books, back-to-back, with an eye to making them what we called a Dual Selection.

Now, we already always had two selections per magazine: one SF and one fantasy. (And, yes, both of those definitions are infinitely arguable. But we aimed for one book most sane people would consider SF and ditto fantasy each time.) But, once in a while, one of those "books" was gigantic enough that it was more than one volume. As I recall, that's what we did for Otherland volumes one and two; the back half of the series was offered, when they emerged, more normally.

That's all inside baseball, and a million years old. What about the books themselves?

I haven't read all that much by Williams, I have to admit. He was a particular favorite of my boss, Ellen Asher, so she grabbed most of his books. (And he's a slow writer of fat books, so they didn't come every year.) I'm not sure why I got this one: Ellen might have still been annoyed at the you-can't-even-consider-it diktat, and left it to me as a less invested party. Or maybe we had concerns about how skiffy this SF was, and if it would appeal to a new audience for Williams.

So I read this series, and (somewhat earlier) Caliban's Hour (which I loved, and still love), but not a whole lot else.

I remember enjoying these books, but I plowed through long books at speed in those days, scribbling down notes for readers' reports to make sure I had all of the names spelled correctly and the details of the plot straight enough for our descriptive copy. And these were very long books, full of lots of people running around doing things. So I think I liked them for what they were, but what they were for me was work: pleasant work, done well, but still work.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Quote of the Week: Kipple

Getting rid of clutter is hard, even for the most unsentimental and meticulous householder. You can't just throw stuff away; some of it might be worth something. Some of it could have great sentimental value or become a family heirloom, with time, and some of it might even be of use in the future, assuming there's a sudden and unexpected global crisis that can only be solved by a heroic act involving two types of unfashionable hat, a selection of tiny ceramic statues, and a huge pile of dog-eared paperbacks.

 - Fraser McAlpine, Stuff Brits Like, p. 242

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Wicked Things by John Allison, Max Sarin, and Whitney Cogar

I have to assume the plan - or maybe the hope - was that this would replicate Giant Days's success, and turn into a long-running comics series. And maybe it still will: I get the sense that the days when a publisher could say, mid-run, "hey, the numbers are great, and we're just going to keep on going with this book!" are now over, and were even basically over in 2013 when Giant Days started. So there could be another Wicked Things series: we're still in early days, since this paperback came out (checks planned posting day) last month.

Anyway, Wicked Things. It collects a six-issue series from 2020 about Charlotte "Lotty" Grote, the biggest character from writer John Allison's Bad Machinery webcomic, who also made a few appearances in his popular Giant Days comics series. He's joined here by the core end-Giant Days crew, with Max Sarin on art and Whitney Cogar on colors.

(I pause here to mention that I've seen reviews of Wicked Things issues that refer to Lotty as a fan-favorite who first appeared in Giant Days and thus afterward appeared in Bad Machinery, which betrays an essential lack of understanding that time is a thing that goes forward.)

Anyway (once again), Lotty has spent the few years since Bad Machinery ended still solving odd crimes in Tackleford, even if the rest of the Mystery Tweens gave up and went on to more normal teen lives. As this book opens, she's on her way to the gala Solver Awards in London, where's she's nominated in the Teen Detective of the Year (16-18) category. She is also accompanied by Little Claire, the only other character old fans will recognize.

And, as the reader settles in, expecting a biting satire of comics awards and related stuff, the whole story shifts: Lotty wins her award, but isn't there, because she's being framed for a murder.

Well, attempted murder. Luckily for her, the victim is alive. Unluckily for her, the victim is also in a coma, and unable to report that Lotty is not the (attempted) murderess. And one of the top coppers on the case is convinced enough by her protests of innocence - no one else is; it's a very good frame - to put her on a kind of work-release to "assist the police with their inquiries."

In this case, that means spending her nights in a kind of halfway house, locked in with a few other possibly-reformed criminals and monitored by ankle bracelet, and spending her days at the cop shop making tea and being ignored by the actual police as she spins crazy but generally-correct theories about the crimes those cops are investigating. She does remarkably little investigating of the actual murder she's accused of, possibly because Claire is digging into that (not well) and possibly because she's more excited by the other crimes the cops around her are working on.

It does all come together in the end, more or less. (The moment where Lotty is cleared of the attempted murder seemed less than definitive to me.) Lotty's crime-fighting instincts are nearly always correct, but nearly always unheeded, which is amusing but would need to be adjusted if Wicked Things turns into an ongoing series.

And it reminded me that Allison keeps doing big action stuff - Scarygoround was full of it, and Bad Machinery measured it out more carefully in bursts at the end of each case - but not always successfully in an American floppy-comics context. (It's one of the things that I thought made his By Night, which also tries not-entirely-successfully to translate his essential Britishness to a middle-American setting, not as strong as it could have been: he's just not the guy for the big fight scene.) It works reasonably well here, but Wicked Things, if it returns, would be less slice-of-life and "bigger" than Giant Days was, so I do wonder if his current audience would be as interested.

I would love myself more Lotty Grote, especially on a regular basis, so I hope they would as well. Globe-trotting teenage detectives - or even mid-England-trotting - would be a lot of fun. Let's hope Allison, Sarin and Cogar get to do more.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Stuff Brits Like by Fraser McAlpine

I have to wonder if other countries have anything similar to the Anglophile Empire of the USA. Is there a thriving industry in France about "Understanding your German cousins?" Do the Thai spend a lot of time working out the intricacies of Filipino life? Do Venezuelans take courses in traditional Brazilian-style meals and have little afternoon parties to celebrate?

I tend to doubt it. It feels like a bizarre post-colonist thing, the kind that only emerges long post-colonialism, after the new nation considers itself not just independent, but equal or even better than its founding nation. And few countries have hit that point, or have anything like the boundless (and often groundless) self-confidence of Americans, to even think a platonic love affair with the old motherland would be a good thing.

But it does exist in the USA. It's a big deal. There are a sizable number of actual Brits - expats and even people still living in the old country - gainfully employed at packaging the details of British life for American consumption. The two countries are close enough, with enough important differences, to make those cultural products interesting and zippy, but the same thing could be said of, for example, comparisons between Australia and the USA (which might actually be more interesting), and those are much rarer.

One of the emanations of that urge was Fraser McAlpine's 2015 book Stuff Brits Like, which has an admirably concise and on-the-nose explanation of its appeal for a title. (Phrased in an American way, of course.) I read it because this kind of stuff is fascinating to me, because it looked breezy and fun, because I got it cheap, and because, inevitably, I'm a consumer of the vast Anglophile Empire myself.

McAlpine is Cornish - he makes a point about this several times, so that even dim Americans are not likely to miss it - which gives him a somewhat different viewpoint into the multiple nations that make up the so-called United Kingdom. (The Home Counties English, the usual producers of cultural products like this, will always give lip service to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and usually to Wales as well, but are less likely to mention Cornwall and Northumberland and the other pockets of pseudo-nationalism bubbling deep in the British stew.) Related to that, his book is more modern and multicultural than the similar book of a generation ago would have been: being British here doesn't mean "a pale person whose ancestors have lived on this patch of land since the bloody Jutes came through" the way it might have in the past. The actual cultural products, though, are the same, because they're all British (the people and the cultural artifacts): it's just that the darker-skinned Brits also watch Downton Abbey and the pale people, as we all know, love to murder a curry.

So McAlpine provides more than a hundred short chapters - there's no table of contents, and I'm not about to count them, but each one is three or four pages long and the book has 360 pages, so you do the math - about those things that, as he says, British people in general mostly like. First, though, is Pedantry, which lets him get in early with the point that British people love to argue about things and love to be performatively unhappy about things, and so pre-emptively cover a whole range of objections to any or all of his choices.

I am not British. None of the audience of this book is British. My cynical side wonders if McAlpine was editorially guided to focus as much as possible on British cultural and social products that Americans have actually heard of, but it's pretty big and full of odd things, so, even if so, it was not a strong guiding hand. And my guess is that this is pretty much the book McAlpine wanted to write: semi-random, wandering, celebratory but in a tasteful, quiet British way.

McAlpine is a witty, amusing writer: he has the dry wit that a Brit writing for Americans about the British is expected to deliver. I dog-eared half a dozen pages while reading this for quotes to post here; they might not actually work that well out of context, actually, but I hope the impulse says good things about the book.

If you, too, spend much of your time living in the Anglophile Empire, you will enjoy this book. If you hate all things British for whatever reason, you should stay far away.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Bad Doings & Big Ideas by Bill Willingham and various artists

The odds-and-soda collection has a long and glorious history, which I'm not going to get deeply into here. But I will say that in comics, and especially DC Comics, it's a way to squeeze another piece of product out of a current top performer, since that top performer probably did a bunch of random shorter stuff that can be slapped profitably between two covers.

(Previous examples of the form: The Sequential Art of Amanda Conner, DC Universe by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days and The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman. No, I don't know why Gaiman gets the definite article when creating the DC Universe, and Moore does not.)

In 2011, Bill Willingham was the biggest creator DC's Vertigo imprint had, smack in the middle of the hugely popular Fables series and spinning off sidebars mostly co-written with others (Jack of Fables, Fairest, Cinderella). But no corporation is ever happy with what it has: it always wants more.

And so, somewhere, in some office high above Manhattan, the idea of a Willingham odds-and-sods collection was born. It turned out he had a lot of DC odds, mostly related to the Neil Gaiman Sandman-verse, the previous heavyweight Vertigo champion. And it was the era of big bug-crushing omnibi, so DC was presumably happy to see they had enough to slaughter several beetles at once.

Bad Doings & Big Ideas came out at the end of 2011, collecting basically the Venn diagram of "by Bill Willingham," "from Vertigo," and "not Fables." It has over five hundred pages of comics from roughly the decade 1999-2009, including three graphic-novel length stories (of six, four, and four issues each), three more full-issue stories, and eight more shorter pieces. It has both a general (though short) introduction by Willingham and notes on each story, along with detailed who-did-what credits for every story and a detailed table of contents. And it was all wrapped up in a new James Bennett cover, which is good and eye-catching and yet makes me wonder if Willingham offered to make a cover himself and was let down gently. (On the other hand, I don't think Willingham has ever been a painter, and a book like this just looks classier with a fully-painted cover rather than a drawn-and-colored one. So maybe it was even his idea.)

The first big story is Proposition Player, a comics series drawn mostly by Paul Guinan (it started off as an all-Willingham joint, which lasted not quite halfway through the first issue) about a professional poker player who gets mixed up with the supernatural in a very Vertigo way. It was intended to be an ongoing series, but the market did not agree, so it got just the initial six issues to set up the premise and has sat dormant ever since. It's a decent set-up, with that core Willingham cruelty baked in around the edges, but, in retrospect, might not have given as much scope for additional stories that Fables did, just three years later.

The second and third big stories are the two "Thessaly" miniseries, about an ancient witch who showed up in Sandman and walked out of that series still alive and mostly untouched, which was rare. Shawn McManus, who also worked on Sandman, illustrated those two stories, which are a little bit too tight and plotty for their own good: Willingham throws out hooks for things he doesn't have space to reel in, but the stories themselves are solid in that neo-horror Sandman style.

And then the rest is partly comedy (a one-shot about Merv Pumpkinhead as a "spy" in the real world) partly horror (several of the shorter pieces), partly already odds-and-sods (a one-short with multiple artists called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Dreams But Were Afraid to Ask), and then partly more-or-less just adventure stories ("The Further Adventures of Danny Nod, Heroic Library Assistant," from the miscellaneous book The Dreaming). Some of the short pieces I didn't call out specifically fit into multiple of those categories, or not clearly into any -- there's a short series of backups from House of Mystery that seem to be mostly "Willingham gets to work with artists he loves and has never collaborated with before."

It is miscellaneous; that's the point. And it's very much for the audience of people who found Willingham through the Fables door and want more kinda like that. (People who found Willingham through the Elementals door are older, crabbier, and still waiting for our collection.) Whether that's much of an audience a decade later, I can't say: I was vaguely looking for this for several years, finally found it cheap, and then it sat on the shelf for a while after that. I am happy I finally found and then read it, though: I'd missed Proposition Player at the time (pretty much everyone did) and didn't even know about most of the short stuff.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/1/21

One book this week: I bought it, and actually even pre-ordered it, which is vanishingly rare for me. (I was ordering other stuff, saw this was coming out in about a week, and figured I might as well order it then rather than forgetting about it. But I still generally don't think of myself as a person who would ever pre-order things: I used to get stuff well ahead of publication, he said, shaking his fist at a cloud, so I'm not going to turn into that kind of uber-consumer if I have any say in the matter.)

The book is Martha Wells' Fugitive Telemetry, the sixth book about Murderbot. It's novella-length, matching all of the books aside from the immediately previous one, Network Affect, which is mildly surprising. (Usually, when a series makes the jump to novel, it doesn't typically jump back.) From the card page, it may be that the novellas are "The Murderbot Diaries" and the novel is its own separate thing, which would be deeply weird...but so is book publishing in general.

In any case: new book about Murderbot, about 190 pages long, hit stores earlier this week. The cool kids probably read it Tuesday and posted quick takes on Insta, but I'm a lot slower than that these days. (He said, starting to wax poetic about the days he used to hang an onion from his belt, and reminiscing about how he used to get a manuscript in the mail in the morning, read it that night, and write the reader's report first thing in the office the next morning.) I do expect to start it this weekend, which is the past weekend as you're reading this. So I may actually already have read it, though I doubt I have managed to finish it. (And now I'm starting to dive into time-travel tenses, which is a sign to end this post.)

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Books Read: April 2021

Here's what I got through this past month, listed here mostly for my own reference in Latter Days:

George R.R. Martin and Raya Golden, Starport (4/3)

James Gleick, Time Travel, (4/3)

Bob Eckstein, editor, The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons (4/4)

Herge, Land of Black Gold (in The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 5, 4/10)

Herge, Destination Moon (in The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 5, 4/11)

Herge, Explorers on the Moon (in The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 5, 4/10)

Bill Willingham and Shawn McManus, The Thessaliad (in Bad Doings & Big Ideas, 4/18)

Bill Willingham and Shawn McManus, Thessaly: Witch for Hire (in Bad Doings & Big Ideas, 4/23)

Fraser McAlpine, Stuff Brits Like (4/23)

John Allison, Max Sarin, and Whitney Cogar, Wicked Things (4/24)

K.J. Parker, Prosper's Demon (4/25)

Peter Milligan and Jamie Hewlett, Hewligan's Haircut (4/25)

Friday, April 30, 2021

Quote of the Week: Literary Forefathers

Gernsback was an extraordinary person: a self-made inventor, an entrepreneur, and what people of a later time would term a bullshit artist. Around town he wore expensively tailored suits, used a monocle to examine the wine lists of expensive restaurants, and ran nimbly from creditors. When one of his magazines failed, two more would rise up.

 - James Gleick, Time Travel, p.65

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 5 by Herge

I am still not your Tintin expert - I'm in the middle of my first reading of this series, seventy years or so after it was published and a good forty years after I was in the target demographic - but I did just read The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 5, the first major post-war chunk of the adventures of the Belgian boy reporter (ha!), so I can, I hope, tell you a few things.

I've previously gotten through the earlier omnibuses: one, and two, and three, and four. I have not yet found the first two, semi-forgotten books Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, which are generally considered to be racist and/or dull and/or not up to Herge's later level; I may get to them eventually, though the library copies I originally expected to read seem to have been quietly removed from circulation since I first thought about reading Tintin.

This volume starts off with Land of Black Gold, the story interrupted by WWII - Herge started it in 1939, was interrupted in 1940 by a small Nazi invasion of Belgium, and did six other books before getting back to this in 1948. [1] I didn't know that until I read it on Wikipedia a few minutes ago, so major props to Herge and/or his estate for smoothing that transition out. Then it dives into what I see is the last two-book story in Tintin's history: Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, in which a pre-teen Belgian boy, his sea-captain buddy, and their absent-minded professor accomplice become the world's first astronauts in a program run by a random Eastern European country, because comics, that's why.

Black Gold does feel pre-war, with some vaguely escalating tensions in the background - mostly seen commercially, in oil prices - but the focus of the plot, as I think was always the case with Tintin, is on individual evil people rather than The Land of the Evil People or SMERSH or anything like that. Oh, the evil people are organized, and come from somewhere, but it's not the named, re-used Land of the Evil People, it's just a place where these particular Evil People came from. This one is also deeply colonialist, obviously - how could it be otherwise?

And then Professor Calculus has been recruited by Syldavia to run their space program, because a small Balkan monarchy of course has a space program in 1948. (Admittedly, everyone wanted a space program in 1948, at least on the V2 level, and fictioneers are not obliged to let reality impinge too heavily on their worlds.) A rival country - unnamed but probably Borduria, unless I missed something - attempts skullduggery both before the launch (in Destination) and during the trip to the moon (in Explorers), but, as always in Tintin, is foiled by the forces of good and right and spiky-haired Belgianness.

This series is still the same kind of thing: everything I said about the earlier books still applies. They are very wordy for adventure stories, which makes this small-format omnibus a less than ideal presentation. These pages should be large, to be savored and to let the word balloons be somewhat less overwhelming. The comic relief is deeply slapstick, entirely silly, and mostly successful. The plots aren't complex, per se, but they are complicated, full of additional wrinkles and problems as Herge rumbles through his stories and makes sure he has sixty-some pages of stuff for Tintin to overcome each time.

I expect I'll finish up the series, and maybe even find the old suppressed books if I can, because I am a completest. But if you didn't grow up with these, they're just OK. Solid adventure fiction for boys, yes. Deathless classics of any kind, no.

[1] It's all much more complicated than that, and I say "books" when I mean "serialized stories in a series of different magazines, which were then collected into books not always in the same sequence and then re-edited and revised multiple times over the next few decades, including but not limited to during different rounds of translation into English." But they're books now.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons edited by Bob Eckstein

Some books just have perfect titles: this is one.

Oh, sure, we could quibble about that "ultimate." But we have to allow some puffery, don't we? (And I mean that absolutely literally: "puffery" is a legal term of art, one of the many random things I've learned from my current odd career.)

Anyway, this is The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons, edited by cartoonist Bob Eckstein, who does indeed take the opportunity to include seven of his own cartoons in the book.

That seven is matched by Nick Downes and Bruce Eric Kaplan and Robert Leighton and P.C. Vey, exceeded by Edward Koren and Mick Stevens and Jack Ziegler, and nearly doubled by Sam Gross, by the way. Work from twenty-four other cartoonists is also included, with big names like Marissa Acocella, George Booth, Pat Byrnes, Roz Chast, and Liza Donnelly before I even get off the first page of contributor bios.

And, yes, all of them are represented by single-panel cartoons, each one presented on a single one of the roughly 140 pages of this book, in the way books like this always work. Those cartoons are in their turn all about books: usually in the general sense (book stores and book authors and book publishers and reading books and blurbing books and writing books) but, in some cases, in the specific sense of Moby-Dick and Poirot and so on.

Humor is subjective: I found this quite funny, but I worked in the book mines for over twenty years and have not entirely extricated myself even now. (I now work with the 21st century version, "content," which pays vastly better and has much more job security.) You may also find this funny. You may find it horrible and tedious and dull, which would only prove you are a sad loathsome little person, so please don't tell me if that's the case -- I would prefer to believe all of my readers all stalwart and true.

And I wrote this pointless, silly little blog post purely because I'm in the habit of doing this for everything I read, and habits die hard. So thanks for reading, and have fun going about the rest of your day.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Time Travel by James Gleick

Is there a fancy literary term to say "review of the literature" (in the scientific sense)? Because that's what this book is: Gleick idly wanders through the fields of physics and SF to pick out interesting theories of time, and time travel, and related concepts, stringing them together in ways that seem most pleasing to him.

That's Time Travel: Gleick starts with Wells, as he must, and ends with...well, somewhat Gibson's The Peripheral, somewhat with the Internet in general, and somewhat with we-are-all-time-travel-theorists now, which is at least true of anyone who will read this book. Along the way, he hits every 20th century physicist you've ever heard of (Einstein and Kip Thorne and John Archibald Wheeler, Feynman and Hawking and Heisenberg), several major SF writers (Dick and Ballard, Bradbury and Heinlein, even Simak and Ray Cummings), and the big media properties most appropriate for a writer in the early 2010s (Doctor Who's "Blink," the inevitable George Pal, La Jetee and Twelve Monkeys, Back to the Future).

It's divided into fourteen more-or-less thematic chapters -- each one starts with a particular vision of time travel, from a physicist or SF story, and then explicates that vision as best Gleick can until looping around to return to more or less where it started. Time loops are at least two or three of the visions, actually, so the book is something of a text-based test-bed for itself.

Time Travel is full of quotes, both from physicists explaining what is possible and what isn't (with regard to something that has never happened and quite possibly never will) and from SF writers gleefully making up their own rules and breaking them even more gleefully. At times, a cynical reader could even wonder if it is a book with an existence on its own, or only an extension of the notecards Gleick took during his preparatory reading. But that would be unkind. (And pointlessly snarky: this book was a bestseller at least twice, and probably sells more copies a year even now than the average new SF book.)

This is a book for people who like the idea of time travel, who know a bit about the history of the literature of time travel and/or the physics theories that might allow time travel, and who want to spend time with a book that makes reasonable demands and leaves the reader feeling smarter than he started. It can also be a good engine to build an expanded to-read list, though Gleick makes some books sound more appealing here than I found them in reality. (Case in point: Charles Yu's How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which I was not a fan of a decade ago and still sometimes remember with grinding teeth.)

And it will make you, at least for a short time, feel smarter for having read it. But that's the point of a book published by Vintage, so maybe don't put too much weight on that.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/26/21


This week, one book that I bought came in the mail, so it will be a short post.

That book was Wicked Things, which collects a six-issue comics series of the same name by John Allison (writing), Max Sarin (drawing), and Whitney Cogar (coloring). It's set in Allison's usual shared universe, like his webcomics Scarygoround and Bad Machinery and the recently-ended comics series Giant Days, and, as usual, time keeps moving forward. (Allison has occasionally done flashback Bobbins strips online, but it doesn't seem to stick; there's something about his particular muse that always wants to tell the next story and move on with his character's lives. It's an admirable thing in a muse.)

I haven't read this yet, so the blurb could be inaccurate, but it looks like the story of a now basically grown-up Charlotte "Lotty" Grote, the terror and breakout character of Bad Machinery, getting caught up in some dangerous situations as she tries to become a real detective.

The world needs as many John Allison comics as it can get, especially those about his young, quippy, driven young women, and Lotty is the current champion of that in the Allisonverse. So I'm happy to see this, and hope there will be more soon.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Starport by George R.R. Martin and Raya Golden

Stories are inherently molded by their format. A novelization is different from a movie: it typically will include scenes and lots of interior monologues absent in its model. The same happens in any adaption - the original format has certain strength and structures, the new one does things differently.

Starport is a TV pilot: it declares that in every second the reader experiences it. I also found it to be a somewhat quaint TV pilot, in the '80s/90s vein, because George R.R. Martin wrote it as a script in 1993 and it's been mostly sitting in a drawer ever since. (It was published, as a script, in the GRRM collection Quartet nearly two decades ago.) But it was available, and, for whatever reason, it was dusted off and artist Raya Golden took that TV script (of what seems to be long enough for a three-hour TV movie, planned to launch a series, and that length may be a clue why it never happened), adapted it into a comics script (of about 260 pages, if I counted correctly). Golden keeps the TV beats and structure: Starport in its graphic novel form is divided into twelve chapters, each one just the right length to fit between commercial breaks.

In this universe, the inevitable Harmony of Worlds contacted Earth the day after tomorrow (Super Bowl Day, to be exact), and invited us to join the previous 314 species in intergalactic peace and prosperity. Starports were built in Singapore, Amsterdam, and (last and most troubled) Chicago. [1] That last one is the focus of the story, and smart people will realize all of that allows the production to use normal US exteriors and sets, with just a few skiffy specifics and a lot of rubber facial prosthetics and a few carefully-husbanded FX shots to sell the aliens.

It's a post-ST: TNG SF pilot, with no hint of X-Files, to place it in time -- DS9 and B5 were in development when Martin wrote the script, and he may have been able to see finished episodes before he turned the Starport script into Fox. Possibly more importantly, it's post-Hill Street Blues, and I would not be surprised if one of the pitches was "What if ST: TNG aliens were in HSB Chicago?"

This is a cop show, with a large cast. We have the new detective getting promoted and joining the precinct responsible for the Starport; we have his new partner, the Buntz character; we have two duos of uniformed cops; we have the tough-as-nails female sergeant and her tired-and-ready-for-retirement captain; we have the honor-obsessed alien cop whose anatomy is compatible enough to be fucking a human main character secretly; we have the womanizing, super-successful undercover cop; we have a harried and potentially corrupt alien starport overseer; we have a bar where all the human cops go to drink together and make sure the reader can keep them and the plot straight. I may be presenting them all as stereotypes; in my defense, they are stereotypes. The point of this script was to establish exactly which stereotypes each of them were, to slot them into a dependable American TV framework and allow the actual actors to start expanding those roles if and when it went to series.

It did not go to series; it was never produced at all. And twenty-five-plus years later, it's so much an artifact of its time that I doubt it ever could be. So this is the only version I expect we will ever get, with Golden's slightly cartoony art well-suiting the era and aliens but falling a little short on the moments of high drama.

Technically, Starport is a complete story: it sets up a conflict and resolves it. Several major characters have arcs as well. Realistically, it was designed to set up larger conflicts and concerns that Martin hoped would run for several years in a prominent hour-long prime-time spot nationwide, and give him a lucrative showrunning job for the mid-90s. That did not happen; after Starport, Martin felt burned out on Hollywood and focused his attention on what he planned as a fantasy trilogy, starting with the novel A Game of Thrones three years later. (You may have heard of it.)

So this is a road not taken, and, frankly, I think any Martin fan reading it will be happy about that. This could have been a decent TV series, maybe better than that. It could even have broken out and been a massive sensation, as X-Files was about to do at the same network Martin pitched Starport. But Martin's prose fiction is better than this, and we've gotten two-plus decades of that fiction since then in large part because Starport failed.

And now we also got something like the pilot of Starport that never happened, so I think we've gotten the maximum we could reasonably expect.

[1] That the backstory of Starport includes a Super Bowl in Chicago is the least likely thing about it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Book Tour by Andi Watson

Any author would agree that a book tour has the potential for horror. It could be wonderful, of course -- but what in human life is ever purely wonderful? There's going to be something that goes bad. And there's always the chance it could all go bad.

Which brings us to Andi Watson's graphic novel The Book Tour, in which things go wrong, first very quietly and subtly then more and more obviously, for journeyman author G.H. Fretwell as he sets off on a tour for his new novel Without K [1] of what seem to be minor cities in some unnamed European country. It could be today, it could be the late 19th century. Fretwell takes steam trains, he stays in hotels - shabbier and shabbier, dodgier and dodgier as the tour goes on. And the tour does go on - that's  one of the things that goes wrong, from Fretwell's point of view.

He sets off with high hopes, a nice suit, and a suitcase full of books. He comes to the first stop on his tour, a cozy and quaint bookshop, sets up at a table in a corner with a stack of books and a good pen, and waits for readers.

It's only the first of many bad experiences when he doesn't sell a single book that day, or interact with a single person who cares about his work. The hotel that night is good, but things don't go as well as he hopes. This is as good as its going to get for Fretwell.

There are shocking stories in the newspaper, which Fretwell does not read: he focuses only on the literary pages. There are dangers and surprises and troubles which he barely notices, even as they get closer and closer to him.

He meets with an editor: not his editor, who is unavoidably detained somewhere else. He is invited to a literary event verbally, but is unable to enter without a printed invitation. He finds the shops and hotels getting less appealing, and his itinerary getting longer and more onerous.

And then it gets much worse.

This is a different kind of book for Andi Watson: he's spent most of the past decade and a half making fun, light adventure stories for younger readers, and close to a decade before that making resonant stories for adults that were not necessarily romances but centered on personal and family relationships. This is a more literary book, a book of quiet depths, where he implies much more than he shows, and shows vastly more than he tells.

The art is quicker-looking as well, with rough panel borders and lines that have a feeling of speed. Watson's mid-century character designs - I always see a lot of UPA in his people's faces - are precise and expressive while still being deeply caricatured, always in a style that fits the look of the book. The panels are tight, mostly in a grid - he does open up, here and there, but the overall feeling is tightness, closeness, with a lot of vertical lines for looming buildings and rain and grim functionaries and towering stacks of books and other ominous things.

The Book Tour can read quickly, but there's a lot that happens in the gutters between panels and a lot that is implied by what people mention to Fretwell. So don't read it quickly: this is a book to linger over, to think about, to enjoy the drawings and think about what may really be happening while poor Fretwell is distracted with his ever-worsening book tour.

[1] In-universe, this is a reference to Fretwell's wife's name, Rebecca (without a 'k'). Doylistically, it could also be a subtle Kafka reference.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Fire Never Goes Out by Noelle Stevenson

No one's story is as smooth and clear as it looks from outside. It might seem like someone has had only success after success, rising quickly, winning awards and conquering worlds at a young age. But you'd have to ask that person what it was really like.

The Fire Never Goes Out is a "what it was really like" book, covering roughly the past decade in Noelle Stevenson's life. That was a decade where she went through art school in Baltimore, was discovered by an Internet audience, got a literary agent and a book deal, published a graphic novel that was a bestseller and an Eisner winner and a finalist for real-world literary awards too, graduated and got jobs writing and producing in Hollywood, was showrunner for an acclaimed popular TV show, fell in love and got married.

The comics collected here are about what that all felt like to Stevenson, how she was driven and tormented and felt like she was both on fire and had a hole straight through her body. (Comics are an ideal medium for this kind of personal reflection: Stevenson can just draw herself the way she feels, burning or covered with spikes or with a gaping hole in her chest, talking with her younger self or changing looks and style from drawing to drawing. And she does: she makes great use of the freedom comics gives her.) From the outside, it looks great: that rising arc of a career and life that we all think our twenties will be or should have been. From the inside...my guess is that Stevenson was both driven by her passions and demons to achieve what she did, and that those passions and demons made it all much harder and the crashes worse than it would otherwise have been.

But she did get through it: this is the story of getting through it. Assembled from the comics she made at the time, starting in 2011 in that first year of art school and running through her marriage in 2019. Much of the book is made up of long year-end posts she did - I'm not sure what social platform, or if they're still available there, but they were stories made to be told in public and shared with her regular audience immediately - on her New Year's Eve birthday every year from '11 through '18.

This book is triumphant, through adversity. It is true. It is aimed at the generation coming up after Stevenson, living their own complicated lives and feeling their own fires and holes in their chests, and I think it will help a lot of them, either directly or by telling them it's OK to ask for help.

She has the fire. I believe her when she says it will not go out.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of April 19, 2003

No new books in the mail (or otherwise) this past week, so instead I fired up the old RNG to pick a random year when I was keeping track of what I read but not yet writing about every last thing here. The first time the RNG first gave me 2009, when I was keeping track of everything. So I tried again, and ended up in 2003.

(After wasting close to an hour reading my own archives, which sounds naughtier and more productive than it actually is. Does anyone else do that? Looking at what I wrote a decade ago always fascinates me, even when I think that guy was totally wrong.)

Joe Sacco, Palestine (4/12)

This was Sacco's first big book, in 1996 -- he won an American Book Award for it, and it launched the career he's had since then, where he goes somewhere where something is going wrong (generally not as horribly now as it was back in his early days), spends a long time there, and then puts out a big book of comics trying to make sense of that thing going wrong. By 2003, he'd done the same thing again with Safe Area Gorazde and (on a smaller scale) with The Fixer -- so I think I probably came to one of those books first, and was catching up on Sacco's backlist here.

I think this is still relevant, unfortunately. His Balkan books probably less so, but Palestine has been stuck in the same horrible rut for about three generations now - I'm not going to try to characterize that rut, or claim that one side is responsible, but I hope we can all admit it is horrible and shows no sign of getting any better.

Charles de Lint, Spirits in the Wires (typescript, 4/13)

I read this for work: it was de Lint's new novel for 2003, coming out that summer and set in his usual fictional city of Newford. Even at the time, all of de Lint's books tended to blur together in the mind, and I definitely can't separate them now. The Newford books were not overly plotty: they were books about people and places, and their relationships, in that vaguely countercultural way that was feeling more and more quaint by the early Aughts. I see from online reviews that this is the one with two new female characters who may or may not be "real," interacting with a whole passel of established de Lint folks. And I'm afraid I have no opinion at all eighteen years later on its literary merits: until I started typing this, I'd entirely forgotten that I ever read it.

Peter David, One Knight Only (bound galleys, quit unfinished, 4/14)

I probably shouldn't say anything here: it's not fair to write about something I didn't finish two decades ago. But I liked David's writing - most obviously in comics, with his long run on Incredible Hulk around that time and on other titles as well, plus his writing about comics in places like CBG, and his generally light and fun fantasy novels - so I'm going to at least say that, and then try to figure out what this book was. Aha! This was the sequel to Knight Life, with King Arthur appearing in the modern USA and the hijinks that ensued. I know I read and liked that one, but I'm not clear at this late date whether I was reading the sequel thinking about doing it as a single book (because the SFBC had an edition of Life) or if it was a potential 2-in-1. For whatever reason, I stopped partway through: something (sales, or the book itself, or maybe something more important to read quickly for work) stopped me, and that was that. But David's novels from around this time are light and fun, for those looking for books like that.

Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World (4/15)

Winchester, of course, is of The Professor and the Madman fame; this, I think was his follow-up book, taking another obscure British eccentric who did something useful (William Smith, the first major geological map) and building a big edifice around that and allowing millions of book-readers to feel educated and cultured and smart. I'm pretty sure I grabbed this free from work - I can't imagine a world in which the BOMC of circa 2003 would not have had this book available - and read it on my commute because I, also, wanted to feel educated and cultured and smart.

And I do. I do.

Robert B. Parker, Back Story (4/16)

This was the thirtieth of the forty novels about the Boston PI Spenser that Parker wrote during his life; other people have written more since, proving my theory that people are stupid and easily led. (Do I mean the readers or the writers? Why not both!) The Spenser books were once excellent mysteries, but by this era had been stripped down to the tightest possible essentials: laconic dialogue, enough description so the reader knew these people exited in places, and events that basically followed from each other and added up to a story. A couple of years later, I described a book from this period as "Parker whittled his prose down to the absolute minimum number of words necessary to tell his stories; there's not an ounce of fat anywhere in these books."

I'm not sure now, a decade after Parker died, if that was necessarily a good thing, but it was a thing, and it was a thing for roughly the last twenty years of his career. So if you want to experience that thing, there are a lot of options. And the first half-dozen or so Spenser books are more conventional, well-regarded PI novels, too.

Robert Byrne, compiler, The 2,458 Best Things Anybody Ever Said (4/17)

Not just a big quote book: an omnibus of several big quote books, shoved together between two covers in a cheaper package for people like me who wanted their witty sayings sold by volume. I had a small notebook of quotes I liked - started it in college, had it in my desk when the 2011 flood destroyed all paper in my basement - and I read quote books on and off for twenty-some years finding things to add there and to post here as "Quotes of the Week." This was a good 'un.

Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane, The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959 (4/18)

I'm assuming this is exactly what it says it is: I don't remember it well, and I don't think I still have it, post-flood. I always liked Chandler: he was a tricky, meaty writer whose work rewarded careful reading, and I gather that his ephemera (like this) was also worth reading.

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, Dune: The Machine Crusade (4/19)

The second book in an unnecessary - but very popular! - historical trilogy set in the universe of Frank Herbert's Dune novels, written by his son with long-time pro Anderson. Herbert and Anderson did three trilogies over about a decade, if I remember correctly, all of which were genre bestsellers and probably real-world bestsellers as well. They belong to a category of book that I like to call "things that paid my salary for years," and I try not to criticize them unduly, because I am not ungrateful. A lot of people read this and thought the time was well-spent; I was happy to provide it to them through the SFBC. It was not then and is not now my thing, and I've always thought Herbert and Anderson could have spent their time writing books that were much better than their Dune trilogies.

But those nonexistent books would never have sold anything like the Dune books they did write, which is the real point. Consumers want more of the same, over and over again - and, in a consumer society, they will get it. Might as well let people like Herbert and Anderson make good livings out of it along the way.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Giant Days, Vols. 11-14 by John Allison, Max Sarin, & Whitney Cogar

I go on a lot here about endings: how important they are, that it's not a story without an ending, and especially that comics have been allergic to endings for several decades now, much to their detriment.

But that still doesn't mean I'm happy to see a long-running story that I like come to its ending. I get that "what do you mean, there isn't any more?" feeling. It's just that I know it has to happen.

Giant Days is now over. It was the story of three young women at a particular point in their lives, while they were undergraduates at the fictional Sheffield University, and undergraduate life in the UK only lasts three years. Writer John Allison and his artistic collaborators - originally Lissa Treiman as the primary artist, then Max Sarin for most of the run, and Whitney Cogar on colors the whole time - spun out fifty-four issues of the main series and a handful of one-offs over the course of four years of comics, so the comic took more time than the actual life would have.

Now, some artistic teams would have kept Esther, Susan, and Daisy in college for decades or longer - if it was an American comic book or syndicated newspaper strip, they could still be in their first year until at least 2050, or the heat death of the universe, whichever came first. But - and, again, this is important - stories don't work like that. You can put out product in which nothing important ever changes, in which no one ever grows or learns, but you're a hack and you know know it. Allison and Treiman and Sarin and Cogar are not hacks, and they want to tell stories that matter about real people that change.

So this was inevitable: they would graduate, their days at Sheffield would end. It doesn't mean we won't get more stories about some of them, in some permutation, in the future: remember that Esther was a major character in Allison's webcomic Scarygoround for nearly a decade even before Giant Days. But this time is over.

For most people, it ended a couple of years ago. I'm just catching up on the back quarter of the series now, since I finally gave up waiting for more of the Not on the Test hardcovers to emerge. So I read Volumes Eleven and Twelve and Thirteen and Fourteen all together, a year's worth of comics in a day or two. It's not a bad way to read an episodic humor comic, I have to say: stories based on characters get better with familiarity with the characters, so reading a big chunk all at once can be really resonant.

I'm not talking about the specific issues here, because there's more than a dozen of them, and that's really not important. Each one is a small story, one moment in this larger story, and they add up together to Giant Days, all fifty-some of them. They're all good, they're all stories, they center on various parts of the cast - mostly Esther and Susan and Daisy, but some McGraw and even enough Ed and Nina to make me wish I got a lot more of that. (Hey, John Allison! If you randomly read this, Ed & Nina in the Big Smoke together could be fun, at least for a short-run thing. Maybe other people than me would even like it!)

I read these because I wanted to know if Giant Days ended well, and it does. (Well, also because I was enjoying it a lot, and why give up in the middle on something you like?) If you've managed to avoid Giant Days for the last six years, I don't know what I can say here to convince you: it might just be not to your taste. But it's a smart, fun, well-written, colorful, amusing, true, real, occasionally laugh-out-loud series of stories about people I think you will recognize and like, and if that's not what you're looking for I frankly have to worry about you.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 8: My Best Friend's Squirrel by North, Henderson, & Renzi

I'm trying to figure out how far behind I am on Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and it is surprisingly difficult, since this is a Marvel comic. The series ended in late 2019 with issue 58, but the trade paperbacks are still dribbling out, since they're all slim. I believe Marvel has only managed to emit Vol. 12, which probably collects issues 47-51, meaning there's one or two more books yet to come.

But none of this is simple, and places like Wikipedia and the Grand Comics Database and the Marvel Database fail to list those trades at all. But, I am behind, though the series has now ended, so I won't get any further behind from this point.

Anyway, I'm here to talk about The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 8: My Best Friend's Squirrel, written by Ryan North, drawn by Erica Henderson, colored by Rico Renzi. It collects issues 27-31 of the second series (let's not get into that) and Not Brand Ecch #14, which appears to be a 2018 one-shot continuing the numbering of the 1967-69 series, which is exactly what you want to do for a story about a girl who likes squirrels and computer science and whose core audience are six-year-old girls. (Marvel, once again: there's nothing they can't make more complicated and difficult for no good reason.)

It follows the previous collections one and two and three and four and the OGN and five and six and seven; see my posts on those if you're feeling particularly bored today.

Squirrel Girl is still Doreen Green, second-year computer-science student at Empire State University, and her super-powers are (most obviously) being super-strong and talking to squirrels and (most usefully) actually being a thoughtful, friendly person who can talk out problems, unlike every other human being ever extant in the Marvel Universe. And this volume, as usual, collects a big four-issue plotline in which she defeats a Major Threat (less Major this time, since she's already run through all of the big Marvel supervillain names) and then a single issue in which odder things happen.

The four-issue story sees Doreen's best friend, Nancy, and her sidekick, Tippy-Toe, whisked away to a world on the other side of the galaxy where a race of intelligent squirrels (well, squirrels on Earth seem intelligent enough when Doreen talks to them, so maybe I mean civilized?) are under threat from a shakedown from Galactus's herald the Silver Surfer. The SS says he and his similarly-shiny buddies - all of whom are stereotypically "surfer" types - will leave this planet along if they give all their valuables to the SS and compatriots.

Long-time readers of Marvel comics may well be confused, since the actual SS is more prone to zooming around on a surfboard, emoting at great length in bad pseudo-poetic prose about how sad his life is and how anguished he is and how he desperately needs to find a nice snackable but uninhabited planet or else his master will slaughter billions yet again, oh the misery. They may suspect this is an impostor, and they would be correct.

Eventually, Doreen makes her way to the squirrel planet, along with some allies, and there is a series of confrontations, which all end peacefully, because this is Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. (Doreen does fight the actual SS on sight, which I think is the first time that very hoary superhero trope actually happened in this comic.)

The one-off story is a kind of timeslip tale: an accident with a villain's weapon strands Doreen and Nancy in hypertime, living much faster than everyone else in New York City. So, over the course of one weekend, they live the entire rest of their lives, leaving written messages for their friends, saving everyone in the city from everything for three whole days, and working on a time machine to save themselves before they die of old age. And maybe doing something else, which is hinted at but not spelled out in this book larger for pre-teens.

Squirrel Girl by North and Henderson was dependably fun and positive and kid-friendly and just about every appreciative adjective I could think of: it was nice down to its core, creating a world that was equally nice, which has never been common in Marveldom. I think these were the last Henderson-drawn issues, so, if I continue, I'll get to see if whoever came next was able to maintain that sweetness.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis

Every book wants to be read in the context it was created. Every book is read in the context of the reader. And that gulf can be huge, because of the specific reader, because of time since creation, because of shifts in the world.

Eleanor Davis conceived The Hard Tomorrow, I would guess, in 2018, or maybe a little earlier, and finished it in early 2019 for publication in October 2019. I didn't read it until March of 2021. That's not much time, but the protests in Hard Tomorrow, and the tactics of the police responding to them, now resonate much differently after all of the 2020 protests and, as the massive counter-example, January 6.

So Hard Tomorrow is already an alternate future, I guess. Davis shows rather than tells this very mildly SFnal story, but it's clearly set after a different 2020 election, and maybe also a 2024 election. 2030 is still in the future, but the president is named Zuckerberg -- yes, that one. Literal killer Facebook drones sweep the skies. Protestors are loud and passionate, and, as far as this story shows, utterly useless and ruthlessly suppressed, they way they would be in a dictatorship.

Our main character is Hannah, an activist with Humans Against All Violence (HAAV). She's a regular, but not a leader: passionate and devoted to protesting against war. There seems to be some level of US-backed chemical warfare going on in the middle east - probably using those killer drones as well. Again, Davis never stops to infodump or give background; we see events and guess at the background. Hannah lives in a camper and pickup truck with her boyfriend, Johnny, a minor drug dealer and would-be farmer who is (far too slowly for her) building a house on the land they own. They're in Louisville, Kentucky, or a town on the outskirts, I think: the book never says so, but the local media are the Courier-Journal and WLKY.

Hannah may be part of HAAV in large part because of Gabby, a woman she is fascinated with and may be quietly in love with. Davis implies this - or has her characters hint and joke about it - but doesn't really let us see what Hannah thinks about that. Is Gabby just a model to her: a woman of the kind she wants to be? How real is that sexual tension?

Hannah's day-job is an in-home health aide for an elderly woman she calls Miss Phyllis, who is sick and tired in multiple ways and wants to die but can't. Hannah is positive and helpful: her job is to be positive and helpful, and she's good at it. She's a good person, as we see her: in all areas of her life, she's as good a person as she can be. She's also trying to get pregnant: Hard Tomorrow, in its quiet, unshowy way, is about building a good future for the next generation. I think it mostly comes down on the side of "God, no! It's horrible to bring any new life into this crapsack world," but the last few pages go in the exact opposite direction. Maybe Davis is conflicted herself.

Hard Tomorrow follows Hannah, and to a lesser extent Johnny, for a few eventful days in what I think is the spring of whatever year this is. Call it 2023 or 2025: the protests feel like off-year protests, aimed at the President rather than at anyone who will be facing voters that year. Things are not good for HAAV to begin with; there's no sign that anyone is or ever will listen to their protests, that their voices will or could change anything. And then it gets much worse, in multiple ways, very quickly.

And then...the whole book shifts tone and ends on a quiet note of uplift. I'm not sure I believe it. I don't think that moment is earned from the events beforehand, frankly.

Hard Tomorrow is a book that mixes the personal and political, but prioritizes the personal. It's somewhat hampered by the time Davis created it: protests became much more personal, and the matter of protests in particular, the year after she finished this book. Protesting chemical warfare on the other side of the world is a very different thing than protesting police violence in your own community. If the protests in Hard Tomorrow were more personal - maybe about anti-Semitic attacks, since anti-Semitism does get mentioned a few times - it might have welded those concerns together more tightly.

As it is, this is a beautiful, thoughtful, almost meditative book that comes from an entirely different historic moment. That moment was only two years ago, but it feels like ages now. Davis's art is gestural and evocative as always, with a deep energy and swiftness. But this doesn't feel like our tomorrow -- not that ours will be necessarily better, or even that a lot of the details couldn't be the same.

That's the splendor and danger of near-future SF always, though. The world moves. At times, it can move much faster than any of us. It did this time. Hard Tomorrow is still worth reading, worth thinking about.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/10/21

Four books this time out -- one from the library and three from the Gods of Publicity. As my religion demands, the latter must be praised first:

Unity is the first novel by Elly Bangs, post-apocalyptic SF in a world that seems to be rumbling fitfully towards another, even more definitive apocalypse. Its main characters live in what's left of civilization, an underwater city (what seems to be one of several, parts of new polities with their own struggles potentially leading to that second apocalypse), but leave that to explore what's up above on the land. I suspect there might be some kind of hive-mind thing going on, too, but I'm allergic to that, so I hope not. It's a trade paperback from Tachyon, hitting stores on April 13.

How to Mars is also a SF novel, this time by David Ebenbach. It may officially be a debut SF novel, but Ebenbach wrote one previous novel (Miss Portland), several collections of stories (including the amusingly titled The Guy We Didn't Invite to the Orgy and Other Stories), non-fiction, and several poetry collections. This one looks lighter, and I just accidentally read the first five pages, so it's fun and easy to get into. It's the story of a scientific expedition/reality show on Mars, and the six scientists stuck there for the rest of their lives, as told by the one of them who learns in sentence one that his scientist girlfriend is pregnant, a thing which was supposed to be impossible. It also looks to be told mostly in first person and partially in quirky ways, which I am a sucker for, so I'm going to try to get to this one quickly if I can. It's also from Tachyon, publishing on May 25.

Robot Artists and Black Swans collects Bruce Sterling's "Italian Fantascienza" stories, which he wrote "as" Bruno Argento (this looks to have been an, at best, Nora-Roberts-as-JD-Robb thing rather than a solid pseudonym). The nine stories here were published various places, a few of them only in Italian, and this is the first time they're all collected together. I think these stories are not set in a shared universe -- what they share is "being Italian," in some sense I don't quite understand yet -- but are all "by" this alter-ego of Sterling and their SFnalness is particularly Italian. This is also from Tachyon, and has already been loosed upon the world, hitting stores at the end of March.

And from the library is The Adventures of Tintin, Vol.5, collecting three of Herge's stories from the 1950s, including the two most obviously SFnal entries in the series. (The ones with "Moon" in the title, because Tintin goes there. Because a moon mission obviously needs a Belgian boy reporter who has never filed a story in his life.) Anyway, I never read these as a kid, so I've been getting to them slowly in my middle years: so far, I'm finding them well-done adventure stories that are thoroughly of their time and place, but still enjoyable. Let's see if these strike me any differently!