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Choose This Catastrophe!

29 August 2011 | 09:15 am

So on Friday, this showed up:



This is mine and Michael's first full-length novel, and it is pretty exciting.  You should go buy a copy.  I just finished it this morning, and I was surprisingly pleased with the whole thing.

Steve

P.S. I can't believe that LiveJournal's new rich-text editor is still plagued by errors weeks after its release. Do they vet these things at all?
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Reading Roundup: Two Science Fiction Anthologies from 2010

28 August 2011 | 11:41 pm

Masked edited by Lou Anders
New York: Gallery, 2010. Trade paperback, 399 pages. New bookstore purchase, August 2010.

Masked is a set of prose tales about superheroes, and like most anthologies, it's a mixed bag.  I tried to create a theory of Masked, stating that stories that tried to deconstruct superhero stories were better/worse, but that wasn't actually true: the better stories were better, the worse stories were worse.  You might think that being in prose would naturally lend the stories to being somewhat deconstructionist, but that's not true either; many of the stories play their premises completely "straight." 

These include one of the best stories in the book, Matthew Sturges's "Cleansed and Set in Gold," about a man with an unusual superpower.  The story really works through the implications of this and delivers a chilling tale.  Chris Roberson's "A Knight of Ghost and Shadows" was a fun take on the 1930s pulp hero, though one feels like he was beat to the idea by Sandman Mystery Theatre.  Many were varying degrees of fun; I especially liked stories that posited really inventive "superpowers," like Mike Carey's "The Non-Event" and Daryl Gregory's "The Bubblegum Factory," though clearly the best story in this regard was Bill Willingham's sprawling "A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (Villains Too)."

Other stories, though, do the same thing but with no panache, like James Maxey's "Where Their Worm Dieth Not," telling stories that want to be DC/Marvel, but would have been generic and dull even if they had been.  Peter and Kathleen David's "Head Cases" did nothing for me as well.  (Also, Anders's intro blurb for Kathleen fails to mention anything that indicates she has an independent existence from Peter.)

Some do the "deconstruction" thing a bit.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it's not as clever as the author thinks.  More often it's mixed, like Paul Cornell's "Secret Identity," which has a great concept but a poor story.  Then there's stories like Mike Baron's "Avatar," which might be clever in a world without Watchmen and the 25 years of subsequent comics.  Stephen Baxter's "Vacuum Lad" tries to create a hard sf superhero, but forgets to have an actual story to go with it.  Ian McDonald's "Tonight We Fly" is a fun tale of an ex-superhero in a nursing home-- what do you do after saving the world?

There are two overall things that annoyed me about Masked.  The first is the fact that the stories are constantly reaching for generic terms for superhero tropes such as the Justice League; there were a lot of things like the "Law Legion" and the "League of Heroes" and so on.  The second is the cheesy comic book lettering used for headings and such. (As in Grant Morrison's Supergods, the type chosen would look like crappy lettering in a comic book; it certainly doesn't look good outside of one.)  But though the book had its weakenesses, its strength is that it treats the superhero story like a legitimate literary genre, not one that has to be ghettoized to comics or films.  Anders gets very defensive about the genre in his introduction to the book, but the book's existence is defense enough.

Shine: An Anthology of Near-future, Optimistic Science Fiction edited by Jetse de Vries
Oxford: Solaris, 2010. Mass market paperback, 453 pages. Amazon.com purchase, September 2010.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that Michael Schuster and I submitted a story to de Vries for Shine and it was rejected.  I hope this hasn't colored my reception of the book, but I did have a reaction that was more negative than not.  Part of what bothered me about the book was the sameness: many of the stories featured a future-Earth in the throes of environmental collapse, all of them seemingly obligated to slap the prefix "wiki-" onto something.  Then, at the end, one small thing happens... hardly optimisitc, to be honest.  De Vries wants stories where there's been serious positive change in the world, but his writers have perpetrated the scame crime he accuses much of contemporary sf of: they cannot conceive of how it could actually happen in the short-term future.

Even aside from conceptual problems, many of the stories in the book didn't interest me.  Many felt generic, with people bravely fighting climate change or something with an "innovative" idea.  Their samey futures meant that these stories lacked the strong sense of wonder that can make good sf; there was a lot of sub-cyberpunk stuff here that just failed to impress me either way.  Less than a month since I finished it, and already much of the book I've forgotten.  However, I particularly disliked "The Church of Accelerated Redemption" by Gareth L. Powell & Aliette de Bodard, which features a creepy cult kidnapping a woman and forcing her to work for them... and I think we're supposed to sympathize with the cult?  Eva Maria Chapman's "Russian Roulette 2020" was also bad, a version of M. T. Anderson's Feed without the attention to character that makes Feed work; a noble savage Russian woman who walks around naked to teach the value of "real" sexuality tells our American hero how to stop being so capitalist and smell some flowers.  Ugh.  Then there were stories that weren't even stories, just short pieces where a character goes "I have an idea to make the world more awesome!" and then it just happens easily: Lavie Tidhar's "The Solnet Ascendancy," Silvia Moreno-Garcia's "Seeds," and Jason Andrews's "Scheherazade Cast in Starlight."  The worst story, though, was "Paul Kinosha's Childen" by Ken Edgett, an overly sentimental story of a man who makes an educational television series that inspires all Africans to go into space or some such nonsense.  Please.

There is some good stuff, though.  I didn't expect to like Mari Ness's "Twittering the Stars" (Shine is littered with crappy stories from Outshine, de Vries's "Twitterzine"), but it did something inventive with the Twitter form, especially in the way it unfolded backwards, introducing surprisies that didn't feal contrived.  In "At Budokan," Alastair Reynolds doesn't give much of a story, but he does depict some great ideas on the evolution of rock and roll.  Neither of these stories seemed to have anything to do with the optimistic premise of the book, however.  My favorite story, though, was Gord Sellar's "Sarging Rasmussen: A Report (by Organic)," which tells of a group of pick-up artists who decide to use their abilities to manipulate social situations to enact positive environmental change.  What a great idea!  Unfortunately, it's one of a scant few great ideas in a book of dreary ones.  Shine is a great concept, but if de Vries tries for optimistic sf again, I'd like to see it be two things: 1) actually optimisitc and 2) actually good.

Steve

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Reading Roundup: Two Books I Taught This Summer

21 August 2011 | 09:14 pm

These books (which I reread as I was teaching them) were for different assignments in my summer class.  I first had my students read Ghost World, both as a way into comics theory (we then read McCloud) and adaptation theory (we watched the film), then they later read Feed as part of a unit about the Internet; I paired it with excerpts from Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows.  I'm currently going through the "reading evaluations" I always have my students do at the end of the semester, and this is what they had to say about these books:

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2008 (1993-97). Comic trade paperback, 80 pages. New bookstore purchase, June 2011. Previously read, March 2011.
  • "I enjoyed Ghost World the comic because it was an interesting storyline that was easy to follow."
  • "...the comic itself was funny."
  • "Ghost World the comic book was good. I'm just not a big comic book fan."
  • "I thought the comic was very good for the class since it was very interesting and relevant to us."
  • "Ghost World (comic) was a reading I thought was interesting since I never read a graphic novel before."
  • "Ghost World as a comic book was decent, but it was still a bit difficult to interpret. I still enjoyed it."
  • "I liked Ghost World (comic) because it was interesting and funny."
  • "I thought the comic version of Ghost World was very boring and bland."
  • "I thought this comic was interesting..."
  • "I didn't like the comic book style of Ghost Wold, and never really related to the story. I felt the girls were too opposite of my personal views."
When I asked them to rank the fiction works we read on a scale of 1 to 3 (1 being the best and 3 being the worst), it received an average score of 2.2, coming in second.  On the other hand, the film version received a 2.8, coming in last.

Feed by M. T. Anderson
Cambridge, MA: Candlwick, 2004 (2002). Trade paperback, 300 pages. New bookstore purchase, September 2008.  Previously read, October 2008.
  • "'Feed' presented a cooraltion to Carr's text giving much discussion. It is also relatable to our lives in some way."
  • "I enjoyed feed because there were a number of ways you can interpret what Anderson is trying to say. When you interpret something in a way that other may not, it makes writing more interesting."
  • "'Feed' was an awesome book, in which I read in one night!"
  • "I thought Feed was a very interesting book. The reading level was a little low for me, but that just made it easier to read."
  • "I liked Feed because I found it very interesting and relevant."
  • "I really enjoyed Feed and thought it was interesting to see Anderson's ideas on technology for the future."
  • "I... felt it was a pretty interesting reading topic"
  • "I liked Feed because it was interesting, easy, and fun to read"
  • "It was interesting..."
  • "I personally got into Feed and thought it was a pretty good book."
  • "I liked Feed because it was cool to see what the future might be like."
  • "At first I didn't enjoy reading Feed, I thought it was pointless."
  • "I liked Feed because it was cool to see what the future might be like."
This book received a 1.1 on a scale of 1 to 3, coming in first.  I definitely got a much more positive response to this than Geoff Ryman's Air, which I used in a similar assignment last year.

Steve

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Faster than a DC Bullet #32: The Sandman Spin-Offs (Part IV)

21 August 2011 | 01:13 am

Since Neil Gaiman took over The Sandman, the character has been pretty well confined to the Vertigo portion of the DC universe.  But from time to time, he manages to break out and interact with the rest of the DCU.  The JLA and JSA stories here have aspects other than the Sandman ones, but I'm going to ignore all of them, since someday I'll reread these tales in their proper contexts:
JLA: Strength in Numbers
Writers: Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Christopher Priest
Pencillers: Howard Porter, Arnie Jorgensen, Yanick Paquette
Inkers: John Dell, David Meikis, Mark Pennington, Walden Wong, Doug Hazlewood, Mark Lipka
Colorists: Pat Garrahy, James Sinclair
Letterers: Ken Lopez, Janice Chiang, Kurt Hathaway

Issues Originally Published: 1998
DC Universe Timeline: Eight Years Ago (just before Gotham is devastated by an earthquake)

Grant Morrison's "Return of the Conqueror" marks one of the first-- if not the first-- appearances of the new Dream, the former Daniel Hall, outside Gaiman's own Sandman series.  Dream makes contact with the Justice League when the Star Conqueror hijacks the Dreaming, putting almost the Earth's entire population to sleep in preparation for an attack.  Dream actually isn't very fussed by the whole thing; at the end of the story, we learn that he's primarily acting to return a favor, since early in The Sandman, the Justice League helped his predessor locate one of his artifacts of power. 

Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Green Lantern travel into the Dreaming to stop the Star Conqueror, where only one dreamer remembers the superheroes that exist in the "real" world.  The Dreaming lets Morrison explore themes he would later return to in All-Star Superman, volume 2: the notion that in a world where Superman didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him.  And just like in All-Star, the world without Superman is the false one, the world with him is real, but I think this notion worked better in All-Star. The Dreaming is a seemingly more appropriate venue for this premise than a simulation in Superman's Fortress of Solitude, for what are superheroes but dreams given human form? But the nature of "Return of the Conqueror" means that the superhero-less world is destroyed when Superman and company save the day (a little too easily given the scale of the threat), whereas our own world continues to persist.  We can imagine that we reside in the Superman-less world of All-Star, that one level up in reality, Superman is real, whereas "Return of the Conqueror" precludes us from imagining that we could wake up some day and be in the world where Superman exists.

There are some nice moments, though: I loved the conversation between the Green Lantern and Dream, and the true nature of Michael Haney was good, too.  On the other hand, Morrison's Dreaming is much more muted and prosaic than Gaiman's, but I suppose that's the nature of the corner of the Dreaming we're in.  "Return of the Conqueror" feels conceptually flawed in the end: while superheroes seemed to fit into Gaiman's world just fine, Gaiman's character is too big to fit into the world of the superheroes without losing what makes it special.
 
The Sandman Presents: The Furies
Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: John Bolton
Letterer: Todd Klein

Issues Originally Published: 2002
DC Universe Timeline: Seven Years Ago

Lyta Hall is probably my third-favorite character in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman.  Which is weird, because she isn't exactly up to much. (Though what she is up turns out to be quite important.) She used to be superhero Fury of Infinity, Inc., but within The Sandman, she's the poor woman whose husband turns out to be long dead, manipulated by nightmares escaped from the Dreaming, whose child is taken from her by Dream to become the next Dream, and who is manipulated by agents outside mortal comprehension to bring about Dream's death.  Poor woman-- no wonder she's a bit overwhelmed, and I like the idea of the character, gone from being a powerful young superheroine to a plaything of the gods through a ridiculous series of bad circumstances.

Anyway, I was excited to read a book focusing on her, and Mike Carey and John Bolton's graphic novel did not disappoint.  The Furies sees the Greek god Cronus returning with a complicated plan to destroy the Furies so that he can become the new Furies, in which Lyta Hall, thanks to the link forged between herself and the Furies in The Sandman, is the lynchpin.  It's half a tale of gods and monsters like Neil Gaiman would have told, half a woman trying to figure out her crazy life, but you get the feeling that Carey treats the mythology more seriously than Gaiman ever did and that Lyta might actually acquire some agency for once.  Endowed with superstrength, and she finally manages to do something super, even if it's just getting her life back a bit.

John Bolton's painted art was very nice, sort of Alex Rossian, but with a little less majesty.  It's maybe too realistic: his depiction of Dream (there's Daniel Hall again!, though he seems to have forgotten his mother) and some of the other supernatural characters looked a little goofy because they looked so normal, making their supernatural characteristics a little awkward.  On the other hand, Lyta's journey in the underworld and the appearance of the Furies themselves were fantastic.
 
JSA: Justice Be Done
Writers: James Robinson, David S. Goyer
Pencillers: Scott Benefiel, Stephen Sadowski, Derec Aucoin
Inkers: Mark Propst, Michael Bair
Colorist: John Kalisz
Letterer: Ken Lopez

Issues Originally Published: 1999
DC Universe Timeline: Seven Years Ago (after Starman's return from space in The Starman Omnibus, Volume Five)

There's a tiny cameo by the Daniel Hall Dream (man he's been popping up a lot of late), and Hector Hall, who was the third Sandman (after Garrett Sandford) finally returns from the Dreaming in this story, but the main Sandman element in Justice Be Done, the first volume of the 1990s JSA series, is the legacy of Wesley Dodds, the original 1930s Sandman.  Justice Be Done merges two previously distinct versions of the character: the Wesley Dodds here is characterized the way Matt Wagner wrote him in Sandman Mystery Theatre, especially as regards his romance with Dian Belmont, but he still participated in the more fanciful adventures of the Golden Age version of the character.  His sidekick Sanderson Hawkins even has a big role in this story, even though Sandman Mystery Theatre took some pains to established that "Sandy" didn't exist.

Wesley's brief appearance here culminates in his death, but he goes out like a hero, and it works. Having him battling cosmic forces in the mountains of Tibet jars with the SMT Wesley's encounters with powerless psychopaths in New York sewers, but the SMT was written as so smart and well-intentioned that you've no doubt he could have handled such situations had he been pushed into him.  The building of the JSA memorial is a little harder to buy, and the oft-referenced fact that Wesley once built a "silicoid gun" that turned Sandy into a sand monster doesn't really fit at all, but then again, Justice Be Done isn't a Sandman Mystery Theatre story, but a no-holds-barred nostalgic Justice Society one, uniting a hodgepodge of characters with ties to the organization, from founding members, to the children of other founding members, from an android reincarnation of Hourman (who actually appeared in Sandman Mystery Theatre), to Wonder Woman's mom.

Even if you take Justice Be Done on its own terms, Sandy, who declares himself "Sand" here with some ferociously bad dialogue, is one of the less convincing elements of the story.  The writers seem desperate to give him relevant powers: he starts out with Wesley Dodds's legendary gas gun, and he picks up Wesley's bad dreams as well, but he soon also acquires the power to turn into sand at will, not to mention "hyper-sensitized to seismic activity."  For some reason.  It's a disjointed powerset that reeks of an attempt to make something of this character, as does the hackneyed combination of man-out-of-time and trying-to-live-up-to-a-legacy characterizations, which try really hard to make him more than the most generic of sidekicks that he began as.

On a side note, I was amused by an introductory illustration of the new Justice Society, which labels illustrations of the characters to help the newbies.  In this we see WILDCAT, STAR-SPANGLED KID, STARMAN, OBSIDIAN, BLACK CANARY, HOURMAN, and... AL ROTHSTEIN.  Nice codename, dude.

Steve

Next issue: this thread of Sandman spin-offs comes to an end with another Sandman Presents tale, as well as the first story of the "Little Endless"!

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Reading Roundup: Dark Reign: Young Avengers by Paul Cornell

16 August 2011 | 05:45 pm

Dark Reign: Young Avengers
Writer: Paul Cornell
Penciler: Mark Brooks
Inkers: Mark Brooks, Mark Morales, Walden Wong & Dexter Vines
Colorists: Christina Strain, Emily Warren and L. Molinar & A. Street
Letterers: Cory Petit, Chris Eliopoulos & Joe Sabino

Issues Originally Published: 2009

Only Paul Cornell could get me to purchase the Dark Reign tie-in to Young Avengers, a crossover I know nothing about's intersection with a series I've never had a desire to read.  Despite that, it's a decent book.  As always, Cornell comes up with great concepts for superheroes: a girl who might be an Asgardian enchantress or might be affecting her thees and thous, a girl who views being a superhero as a form of performance art, and a refugees from a universe of microscopic fascists, who's reprogrammed a robot to be her racist boyfriend.  Of course, there's also the violent guy with a skull helmet who calls himself "Executioner," but I suppose you can't win them all. 

The central conflict of the book is that a group of teenagers dubs themselves the Young Avengers, being confronted by a preexisting group with the same name.  The characters-- two groups of six, all with real names and code names-- were too much to keep track of, and the plot's examination of how violent can a group be and still be "heroes" is too tired to fit with the young, fresh voice Cornell seems to be going for.  The team's angsty, overwrought leader, Melter, is what drags the book down the most.  But there were enough moments that worked-- most of them involving Coat of Arms (the artist), Big Zero (the fascist), or the Enchantress (the enchantress).

I was a bit baffled by characters' reactions to Big Zero's tattoos-- she has Iron Crosses on her shoulders.  Everyone acts like these are terribly shocking, but I was not aware of any kind of stigma attached to the Iron Cross.  Google tells me that some people think it is racist, but the immediate vehemence of the reactions makes me wonder if Cornell scripted the tattoos as swastikas, but it was changed by the time of illustration.

Steve

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Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction

15 August 2011 | 03:32 pm

I was quite surprised today to find this waiting for me in my mailbox at school:



It's a honking big book, just slightly smaller than an 8.5x11 sheet of paper, and 991 pages long.  And with small, small print.  It features a ton of sf stories, going back to Samuel Butler and Mary Shelley, and up to Charles Stross and Robert Sawyer, plus a variety of essays on all things sf.  It's supposed to be the ideal all-in-one sf textbook, edited by a man who frequently teaches sf courses but can't find a textbook that does everything he wants.

Of course, Sense of Wonder features my own small contribution, "Space Travel in Science Fiction," a short essay that does exactly what it says on the tin, providing an overview that goes from Verne and Wells up to the mundane sf movement and sneaks in mentions of as many of my favorite sf stories as possible.  (So pleased to get the "Surface Tension" mention in there!)  You can tell how much of a whopper this book is from the fact that my 12-page double-spaced, 3,200-word essay fits neatly into a two-page spread.

The book looks good, and maybe someday I'll teach a class where this book would be an appropriate text!

Steve
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Reading Roundup: Supergods by Grant Morrison

11 August 2011 | 11:14 pm

Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison
New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011. Hardcover, 444 pages. Complimentary publisher copy (EarlyReviewer), May 2011.

Grant Morrison is so good at superheroes that he's the only person who could get me to pick up a Superman reboot.  Supergods is his history/manifesto of the superhero, explaining why the concept has appealed and continues to appeal.  He grounds his statements in contemporary culture-- when discussing Superman, for example, he always takes care to explain why Superman worked in the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s, and so on.  I doubt anyone who is into superheroes will find much new here: what Morrison thinks is the appeal in general is pretty much right in the title.  What really worked about the book were Morrison's detailed analyses of the covers of specific comic books, explaining how stories like Action Comics #1 captured lightning in a bottle just with their very covers-- never mind the equally powerful insides.

As the book goes on, though, more and more of Morrison's autobiography creeps in.  When Morrison is a nerdy kid in 1960s and '70s Britain, this works, since his experiences provide some firsthand accounts of the appeal of the superhero.  But once Morrison enters the comics industry himself, the book shifts to becoming an autobiography with the major changes of the comics industry as background.  Plus, Morrison begins expounding on his crackpot metaphysical theories.  But the major problem here is that his analysis becomes less insightful: I'm wary of what he says of his own work, but even what he says of the work of others, now that he can tell you what his friends meant to do, not what they actually did.  The book flat-out disintegrates near the end, unable to maintain any semblance of order or organization, losing track completely of what made it interesting to begin with.

Steve

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Audio Reviews: Secret Weapon of Doom; The Cold Equations; Crime of the Century

11 August 2011 | 10:23 pm

And three more reviews for Unreality SF.  Rocketing through some recent releases, I've caught up on The Scarifyers and The Companion Chronicles, and I'm nearly there on The Lost Stories.

 
 
  • The Scarifyers #5: The Secret Weapon of Doom. Cosmic Hobo Productions may not be a Big Finish-esque powerhouse, but I thoroughly enjoy their annual releases of The Scarifyers, which star Nicholas Courtney and Terry Molloy as Inspector Lionheart and Professor Dunning-- though they're better known to you and me as the Brigadier and Davros.  These stories, set in 1930s Britain, are hugely fun madcap adventures, the sort of thing I wish I could write for.  This is perhaps a weaker installment, but I enjoyed it all the same.
  • Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles #5.12: The Cold Equations. Oh man-- though I enjoyed The Perpetual Bond, I was not expecting that.  The Cold Equations does what every Companion Chronicle should, which is to invoke nostalgia for the old days of Doctor Who while telling stories it never could.  This is certainly one of those, and plus it boasts lovely writing, fantastic acting, and evocative music and sound design.  The last part of the Oliver Harper trilogy can't come fast enough.
  • Doctor Who: The Lost Stories #2.4: Crime of the Century. Raine Creevy turns out to be an excellent companion, and her presence raises this story above the dull Thin Ice.  Unfortunately, it has little else going for it-- this season is still nothing like the excellence of the real McCoy era, so to speak.
Steve
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Faster than a DC Bullet #31: The Sandman Spin-Offs (Part III)

06 August 2011 | 06:48 pm

Unlike the stuff I looked at last time, these Sandman spin-offs are a bit less tangential.  Two are about the Dreaming, and one is Gaiman's own return to the character he created:

The Dreaming: Beyond the Shores of Night
Writers: Terry LaBan, Peter Hogan, Alisa Kwitney
Artists: Peter Snejbjerg, Steve Parkhouse, Michael Zulli, Dick Giordano
Colorist & Separator: Daniel Vozzo
Letterer: Todd Klein, Steve Parkhouse, Annie Parkhouse

Issues Originally Published: 1996-97

The Dreaming was the second of the three ongoings to spin out of The Sandman (the others being Sandman Mystery Theatre and Lucifer).  Unlike the other two, it's largely uncollected; there are only two trades, which collect a scattered seventeen issues of the sixty-issue series.  Maybe this is because it had a sort of anthology format, moving between different characters and concepts from the Dreaming, the realm ruled over by Gaiman's character-- there's not really an ongoing character narrative.

This first volume collects three different stories, the first of which is Terry LaBan and Peter Snejbjerg's "The Goldie Factor."  This concerns a couple of my favorite characters from the Dreaming, Cain and Abel, the brothers were one is an eternal murderer and the other is an eternal victim.  They set off after Abel's pet gargoyle, Goldie, who is being misled by "the Great Tempto," the snake from the Garden of Eden.  Gaiman's Eve, Matthew the Raven, and Lucien also appear.  It's a decent quest story, mostly worth it for the way that LaBan nails the personalities of all the different Sandman characters; I like the interplay between the feuding brothers especially.  On the other hand, LaBan and Snejbjerg's Dreaming feels too much like a pedestrian fantasy world, not a place you might inadvertently wander into on the fringes of consciousness.

The second story is Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse's "The Lost Boy," is about an architect from 1956 who wanders into 1996 and finds a world he doesn't understand.  Unfortunately, the man-out-of-time story has been done better than here, and though I think the architect is supposed to be a likeable average guy, he's more just boring.  This undercuts an ending which I think would have been sweet had it been written better.  The best part of this over-long story (it is by no means a four-issue concept) is the return of Mad Hettie, the vagrant who popped up from time to time in both The Sandman and Death.  I honestly never paid a lot of attention to her before, but amidst these dull characters, she delights with her matter-of-fact weirdness, as she speaks plainly about mystical happenings to humans and fairies alike.  I really liked Steve Parkhouse's artwork, though.

Last is Alisa Kwitney and Michael Zulli's short "His Brother's Keeper," which follows up on a mention of Cain and Abel's brother Seth from "The Goldie Factor," but then tells a story that has nothing to do with that concept at all.  Baffling and dull.
 
The Dreaming: Through the Gates of Horn and Ivory
Writers: Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Hogan, Jeff Nicholson
Artists: Peter Doherty, Paul Lee, Jeff Nicholson, Gary Amaro, Chris Weston, d'Israeli
Colorist: Daniel Vozzo
Letterer: Todd Klein

Issues Originally Published: 1997-98

The second volume of The Dreaming has more of a throughline than the first, which is probably meant to stop it from feeling like a series of weak imitations of the standalone issues of its parent series.  That said, it's actually one of the standalones that's the best story in this book, Jeff Nicholson's "Day's Work, Night's Rest," which tells of an office drone who dreams that he's working with Merv Pumpkinhead's construction team in the Dreaming.  Merv was my second-favorite character in The Sandman, so of course I loved this, despite a bleak ending at odds with the tone of the rest of the story, not to mention the art.  How could Merv telling everyone that he runs the Dreaming not be fun?

I also really enjoyed Peter Hogan and Gary Amaro's "Ice," which is a mood piece about a number of different Sandman characters some New Year's Eve/Day: Lucien, Merv, Farrell the God of Transport, Nuala, Cluracan.  The Cluracan subplot is baffling, but it's small, and the interplay between Lucien and Nuala, now over Dream and working in a bar on the Earth, is sweet.

Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Doherty, and d'Israeli's "Souvenirs" promises to be interesting because it focuses on my favorite Sandman character, Matthew the Raven, teaming him up with the Corinthian, which worked really well in The Kindly Ones.  Unfortunately, this story is nonsensical, and then is just stops.  Matthew gets some good material, though, such as when someone on the Earth realizes he's a talking raven: "Yeah, Sherlock. I can talk. I'm a talking bird. Now, call him an ambulance or I'm gonna peck your stupid face off."  The story gets a direct followup in Caitlin Kiernan and Paul Lee's "An Unkindness of One," which should be even better but is even worse.  It puts Matthew back in his human body and Lucien back into a raven one, but then does nothing interesting with either concept, aside from the occasional cool image, and there's a lot about Echo, the villain in "Souvenirs" and I just don't care.  How could you mess up what should be the definitive Matthew story this bad?

The book is rounded out by another Peter Hogan story, this time with Chris Weston, "My Year as a Man," which is an okay tale about one of Dream's earlier ravens.  Nothing too bad, nothing too great; the best part is the brief appearance of Abel, Lucien, and Matthew in the frame.

Apparently Caitlin Kiernan essentially took over the direction of The Dreaming after this; maybe I should be grateful that the rest of the issues are uncollected even if they are about some great characters, as based on her lackluster six issues here, she just doesn't get what makes the Dreaming interesting.
 
The Sandman: The Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano
New York: DC, 1999. Hardcover, 126 pages. Borrowed from the library (ILL).

If I remember right, this is Neil Gaiman's first return to The Sandman after the series concluded its venerable run.  It's not a comic book, but a prose novella with illustrations on almost every page.  And it's brilliant-- possibly the second-best Sandman story after Brief Lives.  It's a fairy tale in a vaguely Japenese style about a monk and the fox who loves him.  Like many Gaiman stories, it doesn't know what its focus is, but that works so well here, as the story gently drifts from tangent to tangent, showing love at its best and its worse.  The illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano are gorgeous, and invite the eye to linger over them slowly.  It's hard to explain why I liked this so much; it just hits that primal nerve good stories should hit-- you feel like you've learned something new that you've always known.

Steve

Next issue: some Sandman spin-offs that take us into the world of superheroes, with both the Justice League and the Justice Society popping up

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Audio Reviews: The Crimes of Thomas Brewster; Thin Ice; The Perpetual Bond

04 August 2011 | 11:36 am

I've been on a bit of an Unreality SF hiatus of late.  Not on purpose, as I've continued to acquire audio dramas at a much higher rate than in the past couple years, but because my iPod got messed up, then my computer got messed up so I couldn't fix my iPod.  But all is well now and so I've been rocketing through some semi-recent releases.  Some day I'll write timely reviews, I guess.

 
 
  • Doctor Who #143: The Crimes of Thomas Brewster.  I felt obligated to pick this one up, seeing as it features the third appearance of DI Patricia Menzies, who I'm coming to believe is the 21st-century Brigadier, and I hope Big Finish keeps on using her as such.  By coincidence, Hayley and I actually listed to both The Condemned and The Raincloud Man recently, so I was primed and ready for a reappearance by Manchester's most sarcastic cop.
  • Doctor Who: The Lost Stories #2.3: Thin Ice. Long-time readers will know of my ambivalence toward Big Finish's Lost Stories line, which often seems intent on dredging up stories that were 1) better off lost or 2) not even really ever intended to be made.  Despite this, I decided to continue reviewing this season, which now covers what would have been "Season 27" had the programme not been canceled after Survival.  Seasons 25 and 26 are two of the best of original Who, and a continuation was too intriguing to miss.
  • Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles #5.08: The Perpetual Bond. This is the first of a trilogy about Oliver Harper, a new companion inserted into the Hartnell era.  I might not be picking up every Companion Chronicle these days, but it sounded interesting enough, especially from the pen of Simon Guerrier, who did such great things with the era in his Sara Kingdom trilogy.
Still several more to go, of course, including the most recent Scarifyers and yet another old-time Bernice Summerfield release!

Steve
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Reading Roundup Wrapup: July 2011

01 August 2011 | 01:10 am

This month was a bit light.  I blame Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley mysteries, which were the only things I read aside from my usual diversions into comics.  So honking big!

Pick of the month: The Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman.  Gaiman was already the only author to land on my Pick of the Month list twice; now he's got a third one!  But this is good stuff, and his position is deserved.

All books read:
1. The Sandman: Book of Dreams edited by Neil Gaiman and Ed Kramer
2. Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold by Alisa Kwitney
3. In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner by Elizabeth George
4. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
5. The Dreaming: Beyond the Shores of Night by Terry LaBan, Peter Hogan, and Alisa Kwitney
6. The Dreaming: Through the Gates of Horn and Ivory by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Hogan, and Jeff Nicholson
7. The Sandman: The Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman
8. A Traitor to Memory by Elizabeth George

All books acquired:
1. The Obverse Quarterly, Book One: Bite Sized Horror selected by Johnny Mains
2. The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
3. In Memoriam: Authoritative Texts, Criticism by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (edited by Erik Gray)
4. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
5. The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Version by Oscar Wilde
6. Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy's Progress by Charles Dickens
7. The Man who would be King and Other Stories by Rudyard Kipling
8. Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960 by William Boyd
9. Infinity, Inc.: The Generations Saga, Volume One by Roy Thomas with Dann Thomas and Gardner Fox
10. The Sensible Folly by Paul Cornell

#3-7 are for school, as you might imagine.  Most of the others I have various rationalizations for.

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 338

Steve

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Reading Roundup: Short Trips and Side Steps edited by Stephen Cole and Jacqueline Rayner

17 July 2011 | 02:29 pm

Doctor Who: Short Trips and Side Steps edited by Stephen Cole and Jacqueline Rayner
London: BBC, 2000. Mass market paperback, 348 pages. Used bookstore purchase, October 2007.

Doctor Who is as perfectly suited to the short story as it is to any other medium, if not moreso-- Doctor Who thrives on the strange juxtaposition, and where does that work better than the short story? I may be talking rubbish, but there's no denying that when a Doctor Who short story anthology is done right, it can show all the myriad possibilities of Doctor Who within a single "work"-- something no novel, comic book, or even episode could do in a single installment.  Short Trips and Side Steps was the first Short Trips book to have a "theme," a loose one of journeys into slightly divergent continuities, which enabled those myriad possibilities in just the right way.

The book is very thoughtfully organized, with several of the stories broken up into multiple installments so that you read them slowly across the course of the book.  Plus there's a series of stories called "Special Occasions" by four different authors that flits in and out.  The whole thing has a nice and unified reading experience, with the right amount of variation to keep one going throughout.  I'm not going to review every story here, but I will try to hit the high and low points here.

The book is flanked by Lance Parkin and Mark Clapham's "A Town Called Eternity," a two-parter starring the fifth Doctor, Peri, and the Master, and part one is fantastic; it feels exactly and utterly like one of those two-part Davison historicals (Black Orchid, The Awakening, The King's Demon).  It's written in this very clipped way that makes it seem like a Terrance Dicks novelization of a so-so television episode, and why normally I'd demand a writer do something more proseworthy, here it's just so perfect. I loved every bit of it, Master's zany plan and all.  Unfortunately, part two is just boring, but I suppose you can't have everything.

All of the Special Occasions stories, featuring the fourth Doctor and the second Romana, are varying degrees of fun, but the first one, "The Not-So-Sinister Sponge" by Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman, is the best.  The Doctor and Romana forget a very important day at the same time they land on the oddest planet.  It's six pages long, and in reading my wife the best bits, I essentially read her the whole thing.  Norman Ashby's "Do You Love Anyone Enough?" is a joke about Rolo ads, but a good one.  Steven Buford's "Better Watch Out, Better Take Care" is the weak link here, a not terribly interesting tale of the Doctor playing at Santa Claus for some reason.  The last one is "Playing with Toys" and is by David Agnew, writer of the television classics The Invasion of Time and City of Death, and I didn't really get it, but I wanted to like it.

There are a couple stories that take place in oddball continuities, but almost all of them suffer from not actually doing anything with them.  Gary Russell's "Countdown to TV Action" takes place between some old comic strips, but aside from the occasional (humorous) "Because I'm Dr Who and I'm a scientist" plays the story entirely straight for some reason.  Justin Richards gives us a tale in the world of the 1960s Peter Cushing films, but "The House on Oldark Moor" is a dead boring mashup of other things Peter Cushing has done-- there's a character named "Tarkin," hur hur.  The worst offenders are Steve Lyons's "Face Value," which follows The Ultimate Adventure stageplay, and Mike Tucker and Robert Perry's "Storm in a Tikka," which bridges the gap between Dimensions in Time and the in-character appearances of the Doctor, Ace, and K-9 on the educational video Search Out Science.  I've never seen/heard The Ultimate Adventure, but a story bridging the gap between two of the worst pieces of Doctor Who ever created should be hilarious... instead it's just a boring adventure that happens to have K-9 in, and "Face Value" is little better.

And some stuff is just fun.  Michie Docherty's "The Android Maker of Calderon IV" is a three-page joke... but a hilarious one.  Graeme Burk's "Turnabout is Fair Play" sees the sixth Doctor and Peri swapping bodies, and Peri attempting to impersonate the Doctor is excellent.  Other stuff wants to be fun, but doesn't succeed, like Christopher M. Wadley's "Gone Too Soon," which wants to be a heartfelt sendoff for the sixth Doctor, but ends up a schmaltzy tale about a character who sounds nothing like anyone ever played by Colin Baker.

The real triumph of the book is Daniel O'Mahony's "Nothing at the End of the Lane," a three-part reimagining of "An Unearthly Child" from the perspective of Barbara-- as a piece of literary sf that's much more rooted in the cultural concerns of the 1960s than actual 1960s Doctor Who ever was.  The idea is good, but the execution is brilliant.  Barbara is one of Doctor Who's best characters, of course, and this is surely the best writing she's ever had.  This is the kind of thing Doctor Who short fiction should be doing, and I loved every bit of it.  Why doesn't Daniel O'Mahony write more things?

Of course, there are some other stories peppered in there, some forgettable, some not, and unfortunately the forgettable ones are weighted to the back of the book a little too strongly, but on the whole, it's a diverse collection of enjoyable tales, showing how fun, how dark, how funny, and how moving Doctor Who can be.  Probably my second-favorite Short Trips volume so far, behind A Christmas Treasury.

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Steve

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Reading Roundup: Two Star Trek (2009) Prequel Comics

16 July 2011 | 02:47 am

IDW has released a number of comics that tied into 2009's reboot of the Star Trek franchise, mostly prequels or midquels.  I suspect that if you were to read Spock: Reflections, Countdown, Nero, and the creatively titled Movie Adaptation in order, you'd have a nice epic.  Or at least an epic.  That said, I've got no interest in the movie adaptation, and I've already read Countdown, which just leaves us with:

Star Trek: Spock: Reflections
Written by: Scott & David Tipton
Layouts by: David Messina
Inks by: Elena Casagrange, Frederica Manfredi, and Arianna Florean
Finishes by: Frederica Manfredi
Colors by: Iliana Traversi
Color assists by: Chiara Cinabro
Lettering by: Chris Mowry, Robbie Robbins, and Neil Uyetake


Issues Originally Published: 2009
Star Date: 49632.7

This is a new film tie-in in the loosest of senses, taking place as it does shortly after Generations. (There is a starbase that looks like the starbase from the film, I suppose.  And Spock kinda looks like Zachary Quinto in one picture.) Mostly it is Spock reflecting on his own history, recalling things like his meeting with Captain Harriman on the Enterprise-B, arguments with Sarek, being awkward with Doctor Chapel, and so on.  The stated aim of the book is to explain why Spock goes to Romulus, which is briefly alluded to in the film, but it doesn't really do that.  A collection of disposable vignettes.
 
Star Trek: Nero
Story: Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Writers: Mike Johnson & Tim Jones
Artist: David Messina
Colorist: Giovanni Niro
Letterer: Neil Uyetake

Issues Originally Published: 2009
New Star Trek Timeline: 2233-58

This story fills in the gap between Nero's arrival in the 23rd century and his attack on Vulcan twenty-five years later.  What was he doing all that time?  Well, he was in Klingon prison a lot, which makes sense, since the film establishes he busted up some Klingon ships and a prison planet before getting to Vulcan.  This comic, however, establishes that he actually escaped from the planet some time before the film, then tootled around a bit, then came back and blew up the Klingons.  Which isn't exactly elegant, but I suppose writers who think having Nero 1) develop telepathic powers and 2) merge with V'Ger are good ideas are also writers who couldn't get an interesting story out of a guy being in prison for twenty-five years.  Plus, decompressed storytelling abounds, with 3-4 panels on most pages, so even less happens than this book's meager 90 pages imply.

Steve

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Reading Roundup: Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

10 July 2011 | 03:10 pm

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978. Hardcover, 277 pages. Ex libris John Harnden, March 2008.

I've read all of Vonda McIntyre's Star Trek and Star Wars fiction, and enjoyed all of it except for Enterprise: The First Adventure and The Crystal Star, so I took this opportunity to side-step into her original sf work.  Dreamsnake reminds me of McIntyre's near-contemporary Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels in that they depict what is essentially a fantasy world (the protagonist of Dreamsnake heals people with her pet snakes) with an sf rationale (the snakes are genetically engineereed).  I found it pretty average, in that it struggled to get me interested in its characters or their plight.  It wasn't awful, but it wasn't very engaging either.  I did really like the character of Melissa, though; the subplot involving her and Snake was where the book was at its best for me.  A lot of interesting ideas, but a dull execution.

Steve

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Reading Roundup: The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century: In Three Volumes

06 July 2011 | 11:04 pm

Despite reading The Mummy! once, I ended up having to read it again in short order because I decided to write about it, and the version that I read was unfortunately abridged.  So an impromptu journey through the full version-- thankfully available on Google Books-- was born:

The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, Vol. I by Jane Webb Loudon
London: Henry Colburn, 1828 (1827). Google eBook, 309 pages. Downloaded from http://books.google.com/books?id=_glES03nny4C.

The Mummy! was definitely slower this time around, though I don't know if that's because it was unabridged or because I'd read it all before.  But it was still enjoyable, and the full version includes more scenes of the lower classes being overeducated, which was one of my favorite jokes in the book.  The best additional scene, though, was when Dr. Entwerfen and Edgar are put on trial in Egypt for violating a pyramid, only it turns out the witnesses are more interested in what they ate for breakfast.
 
The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, Vol. II
London: Henry Colburn, 1828 (1827). Google eBook, 329 pages. Downloaded from http://books.google.com/books?id=e6herV_xEysC.

The middle part of The Mummy! is probably the slowest, with the most scenes of dreary politicking between flat characters.  But they are without fail lifted by the presence of the eponymous mummy, Cheops, who simply shows up in the middle of dull scenes, laughs, says ominous things, and leaves; it's like he's out of a completely different book than the rest of the characters, and The Mummy! is all the better for that.
 
The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, Vol. III
London: Henry Colburn, 1828 (1827). Google eBook, 311 pages. Downloaded from http://books.google.com/books?id=eW2s4BmyJqYC.

The opening of the third volume of The Mummy! is a bit bizarre; the Irish forces are invading Spain, and yet we are meant to see the Spanish as awful people for attacking the Irish camp.  This is, of course, because the Spanish believe in democracy, which is the tyranny of the majority and the very worst of political systems.  I mean, vote on people if you want, but make sure a sovereign is in charge of the whole thing.  The last volume also has my favorite sequence, when we see that even if you replace all the lawyers with robots, they still given long, irrelevant speeches no one wants to hear.

Steve

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Faster than a DC Bullet #30: The Sandman Spin-Offs (Part II)

03 July 2011 | 03:31 pm

With these three releases, we enter the realm of actual Sandman spin-offs, including one of two books of prose fiction connected to the series.  Unfortunately, they're not impressing me much so far:

WitchCraft
Writer: James Robinson
Artists: Teddy Kristiansen, Peter Snejbjerg, Michael Zulli, Steve Yeowell
Colors: Daniel Vozzo
Lettering: Starkings

Issues Originally Published: 1994
Real World Timeline: 133 A.D.; 1342; 1842; 1990s (stories like these are so disconnected from the DC Universe proper that it's not really worth placing them on that timeline)

This isn't the first Sandman spin-off-- it's predated by the launch of Sandman Mystery Theatre and the first Death miniseries-- but it's kinda the first standalone one.  (I say "kinda" because it did garner a sequel, but said sequel was never collected in trade paperback.)  Its subject is a little odd, though; I refused to believe that any Sandman fans were clamoring for a return of the Three Fates or the Three Witches or the Three Goddesses or whatever they were. (I mean, they don't even have clear names.) They would just pop up sporadically and be cryptic; I think they had a role in the finale, but maybe the Three Furies were something separate?  I don't know and I don't really care.

The story opens with a Pict barbarian coming to Londinium and raping a Roman woman.  She's a priestess of the Triple Goddess, though, and lets off a prayer as she dies.  Too late to save herself,  but the Triple Goddess decide that she will get her revenge: when she and her killer are next reincarnated in the London area, her killer will die.  This takes over a millennium, but finally a young maiden is due to marry a guy who turns out to be a rapist.  She's secretly a witch, and so is he, and though the Triple Goddess try their best, it doesn't quite come together, everyone dies, and no revenge is had.  At this point, I wasn't really into the story either way-- didn't hate it, didn't love it.  Did kinda wonder what the point was. (Except that the introduction had told me, but I'll come back to that later.)

So they're left to try again in 1842, where for some reason the priestess has been reincarnated as a man-- and not just any man, but Sir Richard F. Burton (though he's no "sir" yet).  What?  This just seemed bizarre to me.  The killer is actually his mother's lover, and willingly so.  Richard Burton is chastised by her for not allowing her her sexual freedom.  But he chases the lover anyway and, whoops, the lover rapes Burton.  I guess because he's just so evil?  Then Burton meets up with gypsies, who teach him sex magic or something (you know gypsies) and then he finds the lover, but doesn't kill him, and goes on to be imperialist bastard we all know and love.  And who wrote awful, dull travelogues.

The last bit brings us to the 1990s, when the priestess is now an old lady, and the barbarian is her baby-raping, wife-mind-controlling, priest-killing warlock son-in-law.  Because he just wasn't evil enough?  It's starting to get over the top at this point.  Anyway, the grandma wins, and the Triple Goddess sentences him to be reincarnated throughout the past as the victim of every sex crime ever.  Leaving aside the fact that "sex crime" sounds a bit too 20th-century in the mouth of a pagan goddess, it's just what!?  I don't even understand what this is supposed to mean.  Does it make rape into an empowering act for women?  Or is it poetic justice (because raping men is funny maybe)?  Or something?  God, how bizarre.  The book tries to pull back from it by having one of the Goddesses say "I actually started wondering if the matter deserved all the fuss we'd given it," but you know, that ending still exists!

Like Black Orchid (it must be a Vertigo thing), this collection contains a fawning introduction from someone I've never heard of, but I think is supposed to be famous maybe, Penelope Spheeris.  Spheeris describes the book as creating "a comic-book world for those who are evolved enough to know that ultimately there is justice in the world."  There's nothing evolved about this book!  It depicts men as eternal rapists and women as eternal victims, whose best outcome for "justice" is that the men can secretly be the victims of the rapes they commit.  She also claims that it shows the power of women as "immeasurably strong and immeasurably subtle," though I feel like being victimized through the millennia is pretty much neither.  And lastly, she's quick to claim that men will like this book too even if it is all about female power (really?) because the stories "are sexually titillating without being sexist. They are sometimes erotic, but in an artful, beautiful way... and in a way that allows the WitchCraft women to keep their power and their moral strength."  WHAT!? Did we read the same book?  Because in the book I read, every sex act bar two is coerced.  This book is not remotely titillating-- sex is nasty, brutish, and short, a means to an end for one or both parties in every case.  None of the participants are ever drawn attractively.  And let's not even talk about the assumption that "boys and men alike" need sex on display to enjoy a story about women anyway...

I freely admit that Penelope Spheeris's introduction is not James Robinson's fault.  But it does show the same warped, unpleasant set of values that seems to underly this entire book.  Ugh.
 
The Sandman: Book of Dreams edited by Neil Gaiman and Ed Kramer
New York: HarperTorch, 2002 (1996). Mass market paperback, 402 pages. Borrowed from the library (ILL).

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I ultimately did.  It's a collection of prose stories set in and around The Sandman mythos.  I was anticipated something full of dark magic and fantastic moodiness; instead, I just got a jumble of dullness.  Many I just never got into and ended up skimming: Colin L. Greenland's "Masquerade and High Water," both stories about Wanda (Caitlín R. Kiernan's "Escape Artist" and Robert Rodi's "An Extra Smidgen of Eternity"), Karen Haber's "A Bone Dry Place," Delia Sherman's "The Witch's Heart," Steven Brust's "Valóság and Élet," and Susanna Clarke's "Stopp't-Clock Yard." (Interestingly this last one feels like it's set in the same world as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the world of English magic.)

Some, I had more specific negative opinions about.  Lisa Goldstein's "Stronger Than Desire" seemed to just hinge on a revelation that wasn't very revealing.  B. W. Clough's "The Birth Day" was all right, but not up to much in the end.  And for some reason there are two stories about sexually-abused children being protected by their dolls.  The first, Tad Williams's "The Writer's Child" just irritated me with its faux child style (I hate prose that tries to mimic how kids write; it's never real).  And the second, Mark Kreighbaum's "The Gate of Gold" starts off great, but just becomes cruel for a reason I don't understand.

Some, I had more mixed reactions to.  I really wanted to like Barbara Hambly's "Each Damp Thing," a tale set in the Dreaming which unites all my favorite recurring characters: Cain, Abel, Lucian, Merv, and best of all, Matthew the Raven.  Unfortunately, it sees them all battling something the absorbs organic matter, which feels like something out of an sf story, not a dream.  Will Shetterly's "Splatter"  is very well done, and  very enjoyable, up until the end.  It's set during the serial killer story arc in The Sandman, and I think I just disagree with the story philosophically, refusing to believe that anything like what the story depicts could actually exist.  Nancy A. Collins's "The Mender of Broken Dreams" has a great premise, but expresses that story with a plot that's not a plot at all: character wants to know where he comes from, character asks, character is told, character is happy now.

There were some good ones, though.  John M. Ford's "Chain Home, Low" was probably my favorite in the book, telling the tale of several different characters affected by the sleeping sickness that struck the universe when Dream was imprisoned.  It's a moody, poignant tale about failed ambitions, and the prose is great, to boot.  George Alec Effinger's "Seven Nights in Slumberland" is quite good, bringing Little Nemo into the DC Universe and The Sandman mythology; like Gaiman says, it really is a Winsor McCay comic in literary form.  Cleverly done.  And Gene Wolfe's "Ain't You 'Most Done?" is fantastic, the last haunting, moving dream of a dying man who never dreamed while he was alive.  They feel like stories that could have been actual side stories during the series, haunting and fascinating in the ways that the best of those were.  But three good stories does not a good anthology make.
 
Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold
Writer: Alisa Kwitney
Artists: Kent Williams, Michael Zulli, Scott Hampton, Rebecca Guay
Color Artist: Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh
Letterer: Todd Klein

Issues Originally Published: 1997
Real World Timeline: 565 A.D.; 1348; 1665; 2009

As with WitchCraft and the Triple Goddess, I doubt anyone was clamoring for a Destiny spin-off, but he is one of the Endless, and he's the easiest for DC to do as it will with, for he predates Neil Gaiman. Curiously, this book follows the same format as WitchCraft: there's a frame story by one artist, and then three substories, each illustrated by a different artist, ranging through time. Our story opens in the far future year of 2009, when bubonic plague has devastated the Earth and a strange man, one John Ryder, shows up at the house of Ruth Knight, one of five survivors in a rural village.  He brings with him The Book of Destiny, an 1899 publication reconstructing the meaning of the Destiny Scroll, a page torn from the Book of Destiny.  It connects the four comings of bubonic plague to Destiny of the Endless and the mysterious John Ryder himself.

I like this a lot at first.  The art in the frame story (I don't know which of the four artists was responsible, unfortunately) is angular and moody, perfect for this postapocalyptic world, and Kwitney's writing is powerful enough to match.  The relationship between Ruth and John is very well done, too-- it's complicated, as each wants something out of each other.  The first flashback story is great, too, about the wife of the emperor at the fall of Byzantium and her illegitimate child (who turns out to be John Ryder), who becomes the pawn of Destiny, carrying the plague.  But after this, the flashback stories get muddy.  What is John Ryder trying to accomplish in 1348 or 1665?  It's not quite clear.  And thematically, I never figured out what the book was trying to do, either.  It wants to be about destiny and Destiny, but there's a lot about plagues in it, and that never really links together.  I guess those who die of the plague are destined to die?  But so what-- according to the mythos here, everyone has an inescapable destiny, so the plague stuff feels like too much.  And as for that ending... I just didn't get it.

Despite my comment at the beginning, I think there's definitely possibility in a story about Destiny, as in all the Endless.  The inescapability of Fate has been the basis of many a tale.  Destiny looks cool, sounds cool, and even gets in a good joke here, to my surprise.  But this story isn't it; it never coheres into saying or doing anything in particular.

Steve

Next issue: The Sandman spin-offs continue with a journey into The Dreaming-- not to mention an appearance by the JLA!

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Reading Roundup Wrapup: June 2011

01 July 2011 | 07:50 pm

I'm catching up on book reviews!  Which is good, both because I hate being behind, and because I like writing them.  Five more entries to go.  Of course, as I continue to write more, I continue to read more, so it's a bit Sisyphean in the end.

Pick of the month: Short Trips and Side Steps edited by Stephen Cole & Jacqueline Rayner.  This isn't the best Doctor Who anthology I've read (that's A Christmas Treasury), but it's dang close.  With no real theme besides "not quite normal Doctor Who," this book proves that when authors think the right way, Doctor Who is just as perfect for short fiction as it is for every other medium.  More anon, I'm sure.

All books read:
1. Moondogs by Alexander Yates
2. Star Trek: Spock: Reflections by Scott & David Tipton
3. Star Trek: Nero by Mike Johnson & Tim Jones with Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
4. Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman
5. Green Lantern/Superman: Legend of the Green Flame by Neil Gaiman
6. Doctor Who: Short Trips and Side Steps edited by Stephen Cole & Jacqueline Rayner
7. The Battle of Dorking by George Tomkyns Chesney & When William Came by Saki
8. Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days by Neil Gaiman with Matt Wagner
9. Essays and Studies 2008: Literature and Science edited by Sharon Ruston
10. WitchCraft by James Robinson
11. The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games by Michael J. Tresca
12. Dark Reign: Young Avengers by Paul Cornell
13. Deception on His Mind by Elizabeth George

First month I've read Star Trek fiction since January; ditto for Doctor Who.  What has happened to me!?  On the other hand, DC Comics continues to dominate my life.

All books acquired:
1. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
2. The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
3. The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper
4. Herland and Selected Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
5. The Works of Christina Rossetti
6. Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison

This brings my "book debt" (books acquired minus books read) since January down to exactly zero!  The theory is that when not in debt I can buy books for pleasure.  But since I have to buy my books for the fall semester soon, it means that unprescribed book purchasing is as yet denied to me.  Oh, if only I hadn't grabbed that free copy of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, I'd be purchasing Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical right now!

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 336

Down by three from last time.  Huzzah!  Maybe I am getting somewhere after all.

Steve

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Reading Roundup: Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware by M. T. Anderson

30 June 2011 | 06:08 pm

Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware: A Pals in Peril Tale by M. T. Anderson
New York: Beach Lane, 2010 (2009). Trade paperback, 428 pages. Amazon.com purchase, October 2010.

So I'm a big fan of the world's most versatile children's/YA author, M. T. Anderson, and my introduction to him was the most awesome book, Whales on Stilts, which is about a shark/human hybrid who tries to take over the continental United States my mind-controlling an army of whales on stilts who can shoot laser beams out of their eyes.  This is the third book in that series, though its name seems to have changed from M. T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales to Pals in Peril Tales and the book is as long as both previous installments put together.

It is also the best one yet, because it focuses on my favorite character, Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, who thinks the world is like how the 1950s imagined the future. (Basically he is Tom Swift.) In this one, he and his friends are required to venture in Delaware, which has been cut off from the rest of the United States for a long time due to prohibitive interstate tolls.  M. T. Anderson freely admits that he has never been to Delaware, but he did look at a map of it once, and what else do you need to know? (The Governor of Delaware actually wrote Anderson a letter complaining about the depiction of his state, which is included in the paperback edition. I thought it was a fake, but no, Jack Markell really did write M. T. Anderson a letter where he said, "Special thanks for including my mailing address on page 92 for those who wish to address inaccuracies in your representation of Delaware. We look forward to shipping all of these letters straight back to you, buster cheerfully answering each and every letter we receive from your curious and diligent readers.")

The book is actually a hilarious satire on all those travel narratives where white people go around orientalizing things... and it satirizes the people who try really hard not to orientalize things, with a character at one point giving a speech about how there's no such thing as the "authentic Delaware" anymore.  Never did I think I'd read a children's story making jokes about the plight of postmodernity!

Also there are jokes about power drinks, stare-offs, low-budget spy organizations, monasteries, and the cartoon figure you see on crosswalk indicators.  Basically it's one of the funniest, most inventive things I've ever read.  I remain skeptical that children actually read and like this book, but I don't care, because I want M. T. Anderson to keep this series going as long as he can. (Though maybe the book could be a little less long this time.) I mean, Octavian Nothing is great or whatever, but this is gold. (It's one of those books that makes me mad because I wish I'd written it and now I can't.)

Steve

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Reading Roundup: The End of 19th-Century Science Fiction

27 June 2011 | 10:38 pm

With these last few tales, we move out of the nineteenth century and firmly into the twentieth.  Science fiction is a bona fide thing, now-- and my journey is complete:

The Battle of Dorking by George Tomkyns Chesney
& When William Came by Saki
Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997 (1871-1913). Trade paperback, 182 pages. Used bookstore purchase (online), January 2011.

The first novel in this slim volume is the probably-not-actually-a-novel The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, which tells the invasion of England by the Germans from the perspective of a random volunteer.  The English response is pretty pitiful and England is conquered, because Lieutenant Colonel Chesney (an Army engineer) feared that the English really were unprepared for a potential invasion.  The book proved massively popular, spawning an entire genre, which was eventually merged with stories of fantastic inventions by those such as George Griffith in Angel of the Revolution, deconstructed by H. G. Wells in The War of the Worlds, parodied by P. G. Wodehouse in The Swoop!, and killed outright by World War I, which showed that war was perhaps not as jolly as everyone thought.  You see, the problem was that people didn't really take The Battle of Dorking as a warning, or at least not entirely, since there's a certain visceral thrill in seeing your homeland invaded (as evidenced by any number of alien invasion films these days), and that was what interested everyone else.

All this is a very long way of saying that The Battle of Dorking is a very important book... but it's also an incredibly dull one.

What surprised me about this volume was Hector Hugh "Saki" Monro's When William Came: A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, which isn't a very important book, but is a very enjoyable one, which I suppose is why it was picked to pad out this volume.  I wouldn't've read it had it not been included here, and that would have been a shame.

If you squinted, When William Came could be a sequel to The Battle of Dorking. It tells the tale of a Arctic explorer kept away from his home in Britain by an injury, who when he finally returns discovers that the country has lost a war with Germany-- and rather than extract concessions, the Germans have just decided to incorporate Britain into their empire.  He can't stand it, of course, but lots of people tell him he really ought to just make the best of it, including his own wife.  It's a fascinating and very real look at the ways people react to occupation.  You might hate the Germans... but what if you still want to go to the theatre and throw dinner parties?  You might think it's wrong to serve in a German-run police force... but you have kids to feed, and if you don't take that job, a German will.  There are a lot of cutting little compromises-- not to mention big ones-- made throughout, and it convinces me, at least.  Also, Saki writes very good sub-Wildean witty dialogue.
 
The War in the Air by H. G. Wells
London: Penguin, 2005 (1908). Trade paperback, 296 pages. Amazon.com purchase, January 2011.

It's kind of a shame that H. G. Wells wrote this after The War of the Worlds, because The War in the Air is essentially a much less original and much more direct deconstruction of the invasion fiction genre.  Wells has a very specific target in The War in the Air: stories about aerial combat, and he in fact directly mentions George Griffith's The Outlaws of the Air as a book the protagonist, Bert Smallways, enjoyed as a kid.  Later, there's a much more veiled reference where Bert suggests that the disappearance of geniuses could be due to them being abducted by a secret society, which is basically the plot of Griffith's Angel of the Revolution; the person Bert is talking to thinks this is nonsense. 

And that is basically Wells's project here in a nutshell: to substitute new stories for old ones.  There's a lot of references to the fact that people's minds are determined by the stories they read, and Wells took issue with how stories like Griffith's Angel depicted aerial combat in such a fanciful way.  It's impossible, Wells says here, for aerial bombardment to be so controlled, or for only one nation to obtain the technology; Wells tells a tale of an Earth devoured by a massively confusing total war, where anyone can destroy anyone-- but no one can occupy territory, and thus the war will never end.  As usual, Wells gets some things very right and some things very wrong.  The sense he must have had of science fiction as a nascent genre in 1908 is very impressive; he draws together a lot of trends and inverts them in a way that many subsequent authors have failed to notice, I think.

Aside from that, it's also an entertaining book.  The early chapters are funny, as Bert Smallways serves as a distant witness to the technological changes of the England of 191–, and I loved the character of Alfred Butteridge, who has invented heavier-than-air flight, but spends most of his time spelling his name for reporters and talking about his love affair, which the British public would rather not hear about.  The middle kind of drags, but once Bert ends up on Goat Island at Niagara Falls* the book gets sharp again, as we see what it takes to strip civilization away from hapless Bert Smallways.  There's a couple quite chilling and tense scenes near the end, which caps the whole thing off rather well.  In terms of imagination, it's not one of Wells's most striking, but that doesn't stop it from being among his best.

Steve

* This is where the characters of Jules Verne's Master of the World ended up just four years prior, which might be significant as I think Wells is parodying Verne's Robur with Butteridge, but it might just mean that Niagara Falls suddenly got popular with Europeans in the early 20th century.  I don't actually know anything about the history of Niagara.  I actually read Master of the World and The War in the Air simultaneously, and this coincidence of setting made jumping back and forth fairly confusing.  (Also, my father-in-law got married there.)

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Reading Roundup: Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

26 June 2011 | 10:02 am

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2008 (1993-97). Comic trade paperback, 80 pages. New bookstore purchase, June 2011.

I saw the film based on this book many years ago, and recently showed it to my Freshman English class. (We were doing comics, adaptation, and art at various points in the semester, so it was perfect.) So, I decided to give the comic a read.  I liked it, though I think I like the film better-- it's actually quite clever how the film fits what are random moments here into a coherent narrative there (such as Enid selling her stuff). The characters' relationship is well-portrayed, and it's sort-of funny, sort-of sad.  The use of increasingly jarring scene-to-scene transitions as the story goes on is a nice device for making the reader experience Enid's disassociation from the world around her.

Steve

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Reading Roundup: The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games by Michael J. Tresca

26 June 2011 | 01:21 am

The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games by Michael J. Tresca
Jefferson: McFarland, 2011. Trade paperback, 228 pages. Complimentary publisher copy (EarlyReviewer), April 2011.

I don't really get this book.  The title claims that it's about "the evolution of fantasy role-playing games," but there's little history.  The format of the book is scholarly, but there's little in the way of scholarly insight.  Tresca encapsulates his thesis in the preface (inasmuch as the book has a thesis): "It's my hope that... authors and developers alike will learn the difference between editions of Dungeons & Dragons and know the heritage of the various races and classes that are commonplace in all forms of gaming today" (3).  I'm not really convinced that these are worthwhile projects for a 228-page book, especially one whose title implies it will be about something else.  If I want to know about the difference between editions of D&D, I can go to Wikipedia.  Probably also the heritage of various races is there, too, but quite frankly I couldn't care less as to which edition incorporated the Dragonborn.  It's a weirdly specific set of goals for a book with such a potentially interesting title.

The introduction has a lot of weirdness in it, too, such as when Tresca declares, "This book primarily focuses on fantasy gaming through the lens of American culture. Although non-Western cultures were influential in gaming, they are beyond the scope of this book" (12).  Well, which is it that he's excluding?  Non-Western or non-American games?  In explaining his rationale for excluding (what turns out to be) non-American games, Tresca says that Dungeons & Dragons "is suffused with hope and power, with gold around every corner," and that the lack of official campaign worlds was because of "American individualism," whereas the Warhammer role-playing games are full of history, decadence, and nobility because they're made by the British (12).  Um, what?  Glad you can boil those cultures down so easily based on two texts.

Then, discussing why women don't play RPGs, Tresca suggests it's because women don't like sitting at a table as long as men do (16).  Okay.  How does he substantiate this?  By quoting the gaming experiences of his sister-in-law.  Well, there's some in-depth research for you.  We're then subjected to a detailed breakdown of Tresca's gaming life, which includes fascinating sentences such as, "I switched to the Finnish LPMUD BatMUD" (19).  I don't really get why academics are so fascinated by MUDs, given that they're a form of gaming that no one actually does.

After the introduction, the book proceeds through several different types of gaming, one per chapter: The Lord of the Rings, collectible card games and miniature wargames, tabletop RPGs, play-by-post and browser games, interactive fiction, MUDs, computer RPGs, MMORPGs, and LARPs.  He is theoretically viewing each of these through the idea of "the Fellowship," the band of adventurers, which would be a good idea if he would remember this more often or make a more clear argument about what the Fellowship is actually doing.  In each chapter, he talks about several categories, like "personalization," "risk," "roles," and so on, even when they're not really relevant to the topic, like you would suspect many aren't to The Lord of the Rings

Mostly, though, there seems to be an emphasis on dull minutiae, as Tresca gives you breakdowns of every race/class in The Lord of the Rings, and wonders if the fact that "elf" and "Alps" share a root means that the Alps are an elvin home (32). (No, it means that both the Alps and elves are white.)  There's a ton of details about how D&D changed over time, but not much about any other role-playing games.  And the D&D stuff is so detailed that it's hard to get a coherent picture of the changes as a whole and what they mean.  Also, they're constantly interspersed with details about Tresca's own gaming experience.  Quite frankly, I couldn't care less about his saurial barbarian from D&D's 3.5th edition.  There's the occasional interesting anecdote or detail, but it's often buried-- and it's never really looked at analytically.

The computer RPGs chapter is probably the worst offender in this regard, as it is little more than an extended list of computer RPGs that Tresca played, with no sense of evolution at all.  The MUD and MMORPG chapters are also kinda like this.  Also, one of his chapter epigraphs is someone talking about his master's thesis. (He mentions that it was mention in Penny Arcade fifteen times.)

Many of the chapters are short, or oddly imbalanced.  Card games only get the faintest of nods in their chapter, as do play-by-post games, and I'm not really sure what he means by browser game, so scant is his discussion.  The discussion seems scant because they're not really relevant to his idea of "the Fellowship"... but then why have them in the book to begin with?

The one chapter that worked more than it didn't was the one on LARPs.  There's some interesting discussion of how it's difficult to port the RPG experience into live action, and his analysis of the immersive aspects is fairly interesting.  Even his personal anecdote is relevant and interesting!

Really, the book is trying to be a "scholarly" analysis but not really succeeding, and it doesn't live up to its title at all-- it ought to have been called Changes Made in Dungeons & Dragons Over the Years, and Also Some Anecdotes from Michael J. Tresca's Gaming Experiences, with Cartoons by His Brother for Some Reason, Not to Mention Copious Mentions of the Fact that Penny Arcade Once Mentioned His Master's Thesis.  But even better would have been for Tresca to just write a book about what he thinks about Dungeons & Dragons and World of WarCraft, which is obviously what he really wanted to do.  And then I wouldn't have been interested, and everyone would have been happy.

Steve

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Reading Roundup: Three Critical Works about Science (and) Fiction

21 June 2011 | 08:22 am

For my nineteenth-century sf seminar, I was supposed to read three books of relevant literary criticism.  Two of them I only just finished up quite recently, so you get the reviews quite recently too:

From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe by Peter Y. Paik
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. Trade paperback, 207 pages. Amazon.com purchase, January 2011.

Paik's book is interested in science fiction with a political bent, and limits itself to sf produced in the 1980s through the 2000s, and popular ones at that: his key works are four comics (Alan Moore's Miracleman, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta, plus Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) and three films (the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix and V for Vendetta, plus Jang Joon-Hwan's Save the Green Planet).  Though it's interested in ideas of utopia, the book doesn't approach them through traditional literary criticism, but rather how these works engage with revolutionary political theorists, especially Slavoj Žižek, and see how much they succeed in displaying what Paik and Žižek see as the realities of political violence.

Paik's introduction and the first chapter, where he lays out the basis for his analysis and employs it for the first time, is predictably the strongest part of the book-- having him explain what he's up to is more interesting than seeing him do it three more times.  According to Paik, utopia and catastrophe are innately linked, in that it is impossible to have a utopia without catastrophe-- or at least it should be; many fictional utopias elide the conditions necessary to bringing about their foundation, going all the way back to Thomas More's Utopia, where the society only succeeds on the basis that the Utopians seem to lack pride (4), which Paik sees as a cheat that ignores political realities. Paik ultimately suggests that "the main blind spot of utopian thought in the present postpolitical era lay[s]... in a lack of determination in imagining the irresistible pressures unleashed by political upheaval, a loss of nerve in confronting the intractable forces of social equilibrium that make genuine change impossible without a 'catastrophe' befalling the entire society" (7).   Alan Moore, he claims, is unusual in showing all of the violence on the page in great detail; Watchmen shows us that bringing an end to violence is a violent action in and of itself-- and unpreventably so.

Paik's limitation of his ideas to "the present postpolitical era" is unnecessary; as his own example of Utopia shows, his ideas here are more broadly applicable to pre-1980s utopian/apocalyptic fiction.  Much of the book is focused on the idea of what Paik calls "the inhuman redemption of the saved" (41), the notion that true change cannot be achieved without passing through some kind of awful intermediate stage.  Paik mentions the current rash of narratives that posit no human cause of catastrophe, pointing out they all perhaps go too far, showing the change as overwhelmingly violent, which is of course in the favor of our currently-existing system.  It's okay for people to think there's a better system out there if they thing it's too dangerous to try!

The book is really useful as a jumping-off point; like I said, I think a lot of his ideas apply to other works than the ones he discusses; I feel like I've had a fair amount of success myself working with them in the 19th century with works like Jane Loudon's The Mummy!, George Griffith's Angel of the Revolution, and H. G. Wells's The War in the Air.  And even though he focuses on the works that do show the acts of violence he is so fascinated by, doing so naturally raises some interesting avenues in looking at works that elide that violence, and how/why they do it.  For example, he mentions Alan Weisman's ostensibly nonfictional The World Without Us as a work of catastrophic fiction, but doesn't really discuss how the book's convenient disaster lets it imagine a new world without having to blame anyone for it.  (Some of these ideas, though, are taken up by Claire P. Curtis in her Postapocalyptic Fiction and the Social Contract: "We'll Not Go Home Again" which came out around the same time.)

Though he offers fascinating insights into the works under discussion (well, except for The Matrix, but I'm not convinced that fascinating insights into The Matrix exist), Paik's main flaw is that he occasionally gets a little too excited by his political theory, and vast swathes of pages will pass where we hear a lot about Žižek, but nothing about any of his primary texts.  Plus, Paik's discussion of Watchmen moves on to laudable political acts, where Paik ultimately criticizes Ozymandias and endorses Rorschach. But given that Paik himself points out that Moore is always careful to not set up binaries where the subjugated participant is valid simply through being subjugated (188-9, n. 21), I can't help feeling that in holding up Rorschach as an example of a positive political actor, Paik has fallen straight into Moore's trap.
 
Science Fiction Roots and Branches: Contemporary Critical Approaches edited by Rhys Garnett and R. J. Ellis
New York: St. Martin's, 1990. Hardcover, 210 pages. Borrowed from the library (UConn).

Despite the fact that its title implies it will focus on the development and evolution of science fiction, Science Fiction Roots and Branches is actually a very loosely organized collection of articles on a wide variety of topics, the title seemingly only an excuse to break the book into three incredibly broad sections: "Some Roots: Victorian Science Fiction and Fantasy," "Some Branches: Postwar Science Fiction" (way to narrow it down, guys), and "Some Branches: Contemporary Feminist Responses" (because contemporary feminists aren't postwar?).

Of course, it is this first section that was of most interest to me.  Darko Suvin and Stanislaw Lem each have an article here, but they're both kind of off.  Suvin's "Counter-Projects: William Morris and the Science Fiction of the 1880s" is mostly about noticing something neat rather than doing something with it, though he freely admits that himself, while Lem's "H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds" is more a personal response to The War of the Worlds than a scholarly article (as indicated by the vaguest of titles, perhaps), though given that it's Lem, it's a very intelligent and insightful personal response.  Perhaps the strongest article in this batch, though, is co-editor Rhys Garnett's "Dracula and The Beetle: Imperial and Sexual Guilt and Fear in Late Victorian Fantasy," a discussion of the various anxieties at play in Dracula and a book called The Beetle that I had not read, but now really want to.

The most interesting article of the entire book, however, was the venerable Patrick Parrinder's "Scientists in Science Fiction: Enlightenment and After," which argues that science fiction is rarely every fully engaged with either of what he refers to as the "conservative" and "radical" critiques. The conservative view is that sf should further both scientific knowledge and appreciation of science more than it does, whereas the radical approach is that is already advances "scientism" (and hence capitalism) and needs to dial back its unthinking adulation of this ideology (64). Parrinder's argument, however, is that both of these contradictory viewpoints are true, trading on the idea that scientific knowledge is both dangerous and alluring-- or rather, alluring because of its ostensible danger. Even though "real" scientists know that they are unlikely to discover any, the appeal of science is often power.  It's a useful set of ways to look at the fascinating figure of the scientist.

Most of the other essays deal with either ecological or feminist sf, and I had not read the primary texts under discussion. (Nor did the articles really make me want to, but that doesn't mean they were bad.) The two articles about novels I had read, Jerzy Jarzębski's "The World as Code and Labyrinth: Stanislaw Lem's Memoirs Found in a Bathtub" and Robert M. Philmus's "Ursula Le Guin and Time's Disposession," seemed very obvious readings of both texts; I felt like I was being told what Memoirs Found in a Bathtub and The Dispossessed were about.  But I know what they're about, since I read them, and these articles did little to complicate that experience.
 
Essays and Studies 2008: Literature and Science edited by Sharon Ruston
Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2008. Hardcover, 176 pages. Used bookstore purchase (online), February 2011.

Like Science Fiction Roots and Branches, and as the title implies, Literature and Science is only themed in the very broadest of senses, containing essays that look at the intersection of literature and science in a few different ways.  I wish I could claim that there was some kind of common theoretical approach to the ones I enjoyed the most, but I don't think there was; there were simply some essays that were really fascinating and some that were not. 

Elaine Hobby's "'dreams and plain dotage': The Value of The Birth of Mankind (1540-1654)," which analyzed a popular science text about child-bearing for its attitudes about gender and sex, was among the most fascinating, especially as it traced the evolution of the book and pointed out some commonplaces about medieval thought that the book disproved.  I also liked Brian Baker’s "Evolution, Literary History and Science Fiction," which tangled with two scientific models for literary criticism, by Franco Moretti and Joseph Carroll, both of whom respond to what they see as problems in modern criticism. Morretti attempts to apply methodologies such as charts, maps, and graphs to literature, eschewing a set canon in favor of a statistical overview (since modern literary criticism cannot agree on a canon anymore), whereas Carroll is the foremost advocate of evolutionary literary criticism. Baker spends much of the essay explaining why Carroll's reasoning is not only faulty, but a return to earlier (and discarded) methods of literary analysis under guise of doing something "new." Despite my interest in science in literature, the application of science to literature (such as in evolutionary criticism or cognitive psychological readings) is an area that I have tentative objections to, many of which were amplified or added to here. (Also, I saw Carroll give a talk at the 2010 ACA/PCA conference, and it was awful.)

Also good were two essays that were able to link specific literary texts to both specific social concerns and specific ideas in/about science.  The danger of doing science in literature (and one I can fall victim to myself) is to look at texts as saying something about SCIENCE as some kind of monolithic whole, which is rarely the case.  Martin Willis's "Le Fanu's 'Carmilla', Ireland, and Diseased Vision" examines an 1872 vampire story about a country that's probably an allegory for Ireland, grounding itself very specifically in two contemporary theories about the spread of disease.  He nicely links moral laxity and disease both within the text and within contemporary writing.  David Amigoni's "'The luxury of storytelling': Science, Literature and Cultural Contest in Ian McEwan's Narrative Practice" analyzes as it does how McEwan's fiction responds to the “third culture” theory for how society and science interact. I'm not familiar with McEwan’s work myself, but I appreciated how the essay grounded a few very specific moments from McEwan’s fiction in a very specific contemporary debate about the role of science.  Both essays show a methodological rigor I find worthy of emulation.

Of the other four essays, only one really sticks out negatively, and that's because I think it almost makes an interesting point. I found the argument of Alice Jenkins's "George Eliot, Geometry and Gender" a little hard to follow, as despite asserting that opportunities for women to learn about geometry were rare, especially in formal settings (76), she also asserts that some realist novels depicted women studying Euclid "in order to emphasize their virginity.… [G]eometry is a marker of a naïve phase before sexuality initiates the individual into the social realm" (84). How could studying geometry be a marker of innocent femininity if traditionally young women did not do it? But overall, Jenkins indicates that geometry is often perceived as a male knowledge, to the extent that the novels The Castle-Builders and The Mill on the Floss both have male characters assert that women are far too flighty to actually comprehend geometry.  But the bit she quotes seems to actually satirize the male character for being dull and plodding, while the female is quick and insightful.  Overall, I found her potentially interesting argument inconsistent and often unsupported from the texts she was talking about. 

The other three were fine and potentially very good, just not interesting to me.  Despite the fact that the book could probably do with a more focused approach, it provides a nice range of way to look at science and literature, and all questions that that can provoke.

Steve

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Faster than a DC Bullet #29: The Sandman Spin-Offs (Part I)

19 June 2011 | 12:53 am

Having taken my brief sojourn outside of the DCU with Y: The Last Man, I'm back inside it with the first set of what were very many spin-offs of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman.  Well, sort of.  Most of these stories predated Gaiman's work on The Sandman, and though there are some overlaps, they're very different.   Given what the man became famous for, it's striking how integrated these works are in the DCU, even if sometimes obscure parts of it.  They feature appearances by Superman, Lex Luthor, Batman, the Green Lantern, Poison Ivy, Firestorm the Nuclear Man, and more:

Black Orchid
Written by: Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by: Dave McKean
Lettered by: Todd Klein

Issues Originally Published: 1989
DC Universe Timeline: Eleven Years Ago (the Floronic Man is still a villain, so it must take place before Millennium)

I don't know who Mikal Gilmore is, but he wrote the introduction this collected edition of Black Orchid.  Gilmore seems very impressed with all the "unanticipated" things that the book does-- so impressed, in fact, that he tells you what they all are before you get to read them yourself.  Which is why I don't feel bad about discussing them, but it's not like you were going to read the book anyway.  I don't even think Neil Gaiman fans read Black Orchid, even if my front cover does try to grab the dozens of people who watched MirrorMask.  (Seriously, I forgot that film even existed until I saw it mentioned here.)

Gilmore cites Black Orchid as "one of those books that has helped break modern comics history in two and signalled the rise of a new courage and a new spirit of aspiration within the medium," placing it alongside Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore's Miracleman, and Alan Moore's Watchmen.  Frankly, I never thought I'd see The Dark Knight Returns described as having "a new spirit of aspiration," but I think there's a reason we don't remember Black Orchid alongside the potent critique of fantasized superhero and state violence that is Watchmen.  Gilmore says it's one of the only comic books that critiques violence without being forced to resort to violence anyway, like Watchmen is... but that's not true.  Or rather, it's a very defanged critique. 

One of the primary villains is Carl Thorne, a disgraced LexCorp employee who Luthor has dumped off the docks.  But the Black Orchid saves him, saying "too many have died today."  But she doesn't do anything with him, leaving the man free to go on to murder people up as he pleases.  Huzzah for pacifism?  And then, at the end, Lex Luthor dispatches a squad of bad guys to capture the Black Orchid so he can science her up or whatever.  Black Orchid doesn't battle this squad... but she doesn't have to, since most of them are conveniently killed by Thorne, and they conveniently kill him.  Sure, she lets the last three go and they let her go, but it's hardly a damning indictment of comics violence.

I don't think it has to be, though.  In Black Orchid, Gaiman and McKean take an obscure DC character, providing her with a fascinating and strange origin story and killing her off.  The Black Orchid we follow is not the original, but another plant-creature grown from the same source, with fragmentary versions of her memories-- plus there's another one, a little girl version of the same.  We discover the Black Orchid's origin at the same time that she discovers it herself, but here I think is where Gaiman really shines.  The Black Orchid learns her origin story... but that doesn't actually tell her anything.  I mean, we all know where we come from, but none of us know who we are either, right?  So the Black Orchid (I wish I could call her by her name, but she's a plant-lady-- she doesn't have one) makes her way through Metropolis, Gotham City, the Louisiana swamps, and the Amazon rainforest, trying to find someone who will tell her what she needs to know.  But there's no one, and so she (and her miniature clone-self) have to find their own way in the world.

Of course, the own way turns out to be hanging out in the rainforest talking about how great plants are, but I suppose you can't have everything.

The book's plot is disjointed, but it should be, and though Gaiman's villains are a little too thuggish to be interesting (and even his Luthor isn't great), the rest of the characters-- all the Black Orchids, Phillip Sylvain (her sort-of-creator), Poison Ivy, Batman, the Mad Hatter-- feel real.  Thankfully, since the story isn't going to get you to the end.  And then there's Dave McKean's jarring, gorgeous, disconcerting, brutal, realistic art, a perfect match for Gaiman's similarly so writing.  He either manipulates photos or traces them, I don't know, but he's an artist who really makes that work as a technique.

Black Orchid is an interesting and intriguing read, all the more so because it is not an origin story where someone ends up deciding to fight injustice at the end.  Once the story's over, the Black Orchid still doesn't know what to do with herself other than that she misses people-- so she returns to civilization.  I like that it's open-ended, because it works well with what Gaiman's been doing.  The Black Orchid doesn't know what she's up to any more than the rest of us.  Apparently, this miniseries spawned an ongoing (not by Gaiman) about the Black Orchid, but I can't see what it would actually be about that wouldn't be hugely disappointing.
 
Green Lantern/Superman: Legend of the Green Flame
Written by: Neil Gaiman
Artwork by: Michael D. Allred & Terry Austin, Mark Buckingham, John Totleben, Matt Wagner, Eric Shanower & Arthur Adams, Jim Aparo, Kevin Nowlan, Jason Little
Colored by: Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by: Todd Klein

Issue Originally Published: 2000
DC Universe Timeline: Ten Years Ago (smack-dab in the middle of Gaiman's Sandman series, between volumes 2 and 3 of the Absolute Editions)

Action Comics Weekly sounds like the kind of thing I'd've liked, given my enjoyment of Wednesday Comics: an anthology title that came out weekly, with several stories advancing slowly issue to issue.  But it was apparently a nightmare to pull together, and so it didn't even last a year.  Legend of the Green Flame is the finale it never got, as Gaiman's script was dumped for someone else's, finally being illustrated and published some twelve years later.  The story unites all of the characters-- the Blackhawk Squadron, the Green Lantern, Superman, Catwoman, the Phantom Stranger, Deadman, and a demon who totally isn't Etrigan, honest-- from Action Comics Weekly into one big story.

In this tale, Hal Jordan and Clark Kent find an old green lantern, originally found in some rubble in 1949, in a museum exhibit.  When Hal uses it to charge his ring, the two of them end up flung into Hell itself.  It's short, only a little longer than your typical single issue, so not a whole lot actually happens.  What does happen is fun enough, I suppose, though I suspect it would have been funner had it actually been read as the conclusion to all of these characters' stories in Action Comics Weekly.  I think my favorite random appearance was Deadman, who gets some funny material.  I don't get why the Blackhawks find dead members of the Justice Society (including the Sandman, natch) in 1949, though.

As it is, it's nice to see Clark Kent and Hal Jordan hang out together.  I don't know why Hal Jordan is so mopey here, or why the events of this story make him get over it, but Gaiman write a nice Clark/Superman.  There's a fun bit where in the middle of a conversation, Clark flies off and gets a cat out of a tree, and the best scene in the book is probably when, upon their arrival in Hell, Superman is incapacitated by being able to hear the torment of every single being in Hell at once.  Sometimes it sucks being Superman.

The resolution is a bit too easy, given all the buildup it gets, but that's a done-in-one story for you, I suppose.  There are a number of different artists for some reason, but it's not as jarring as you might think, since each of them does a different chapter, and each chapter takes the story some place completely different.  Oh, and the ending joke is fun, though it wasn't until just now that I finally got it.  "The place is all yours," indeed, Neil.
 
Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days
Issues Originally Published: 1989-90, 1995, 1999
DC Universe Timeline: Middle Ages; March 1939; Ten Years Ago

This book collects much (all?) of Gaiman's non-Sandman Vertigo work, presumably so the dedicated Gaiman-ite doesn't have to sully themselves by buying comics by other people.  (Actually, most of the work here had never been collected in trade paperback before, so I'm just being mean.)

Swamp Thing: "Jack in the Green"
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Stephen Bissette & John Totleben
Letterer: John Costanza


This story is about a Swamp Thing from the Middle Ages.  It's the second comic Gaiman ever wrote.  It's okay, I guess.  Nothing really happens.

Swamp Thing: "Brothers"
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Pencils: Richard Piers Rayner, Mike Hoffman
Inks: Kim DeMulder, Richard Piers Rayner
Colorist: Tatjana Wood
Letterer: Tim Harkins


In this story, Brother Power the Geek comes back to the Earth.  He's a character who hadn't appeared for years before this and no one cared about him.  I'm not sure why anyone should after reading this.  I guess that's kinda the point-- he's the hippie who can't let go.  I did enjoy the two side characters, though, one of which who actually was a hippie who couldn't let go.  The evil government agent (who was also an ex-hippie) was a pretty cool character.  The Claw or whatever his name was, not so much.  Oh, and Batman is in it.

Swamp Thing: "Shaggy God Stories"
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Mike Mignola
Colorist: Tatjana Wood
Letterer: Tim Harkins


what is this I don't even

John Constantine, Hellblazer: "Hold Me"
Written by: Neil Gaiman
Drawn by: Dave McKean
Lettered by: Todd Klein
Colored by: Dave McKean and Danny Vozzo


I've never read a John Constantine story before.  This was pretty good.  The resolution makes little sense on a plot level, but is nice emotionally.  Poor Constantine, keeps the world at bay, and even when he lets it in... it doesn't actually like him.  The art is amazing.  McKean and Gaiman showed they made a good team in Black Orchid, but this is even better from an artistic standpoint.

Sandman Midnight Theatre
Written by: Neil Gaiman
Plotted by: Matt Wagner
From a story by: Wagner and Gaiman
Painted by: Teddy Kristiansen
Lettered by: Todd Klein


I've read this story before, on its own, and it takes up half the book!  Why not throw in the Poison Ivy story that Gaiman mentions instead; I want to read that, since he did such an intriguing Ivy in Black OrchidSandman Midnight Theatre belongs in a collection, sure... but in a Sandman Mystery Theatre one instead, where it's an important part of an ongoing narrative.  It was nice to read it again, though, and Gaiman's introduction to the story provides some nice insight into the way it was written.  (Gaiman and Wagner worked out a plot in a hotel room, Wagner wrote detailed breakdowns, Kristiansen drew the art following these, Gaiman wrote the dialogue to match the pictures.)  Other than that, I have nothing to say that I didn't say last time.

The collection as a whole is a bit of a jumble, really.  Nice to have it all collected, but none of it really stands out or impresses on its own, except for maybe "Hold Me."

Steve

Next issue: I begin the proper spin-offs of The Sandman with a story of those three witches or fates or whatever, a tale of Destiny of the Endless, and a book that isn't even a comic at all

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Reading Roundup: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

12 June 2011 | 10:58 am

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
New York: Vintage, 1989 (1962). Trade paperback, 315 pages. New bookstore purchase, August 2007.

Pale Fire is a poem by John Shade, with an added foreword, commentary, and index by Charles Kinbote.  Shade's poem is autobiographical, much of it concerning the death of his daughter, but Kinbote wants it to be about the coup against the king of his home country of Zenobia, and so his commentary constantly reflects that.  I love a good bit of meta, and this is a very good one.  Kinbote is hilarious: pathetic and creepy.  Like, one suspects, all literary critics.  There's a lot of layers you can peel away if you like (and a lot of bizarre theories about the book), but it's interesting and fun even if you don't.

Steve

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Faster than a DC Bullet #28: Y: The Last Man (Part II)

08 June 2011 | 01:42 am

Onwards and forewords. A scant three volumes more brings me to the end of Y: The Last Man:

Y: The Last Man: The Deluxe Edition, Book Four
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Pencillers: Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka
Inker: José Marzán, Jr.
Colorist: Zylonol
Letterer: Clem Robins

Issues Originally Published: 2005-06

The overall plot of Y: The Last Man advances very little in Book Four of the series.  The first story, "Paper Dolls," sees Yorick and company finally make it to Australia, the object of their quest-- but as you might guess from the fact that it is only the beginning of Book Four, the object of their quest has changed.  Yorick's girlfriend has left the country.

But that's okay, since I am enjoying the series on the whole.  Most especially I must give a thumbs up for that old hobby-horse of mine, humor.  There's no story of postapocalyptic catastrophe that can't be livened up with a few jokes, and Brian K. Vaughan understands that perfectly.  "Paper Dolls" mostly concerns Yorick and 355's efforts to stop a reporter from making off with a photo of Yorick, revealing his existence to the world, and as you might imagine given that the Yorick is photographed in the nude (the first male genitalia in a series that has shown a fair amount of breasts by this point-- what a great moment to save it for!), there are more than enough laugh moments amidst the usual scenes of people untrained in combat somehow getting the drop on the United States's best secret agent. (I think TV Tropes calls this the Worf Effect.)  It's good fun.

However, most of the stories in Book Four are side stories to the main plot.  "The Hour of Our Death" fills in what Yorick's sister is up to in the States as she encounters Other Beth, "Buttons" gives us the secret history of Agent 355, "1,000 Typewriters" reveals the convoluted history of Ampersand, "The Tin Man" tells us the hidden past of Doctor Mann (seriously, why are none of these people ever just straight with one another?), and "Gehenna" even depicts the story of recurring villain Alter.  It's a bit much, especially when I wish the backstory had come out more organically.  None of the other characters really know the information we learn from these tales; it's only presented to the reader at useful junctures.

The other tale to actually advance the plot is "Kimono Dragons," which shows us the gang's adventures in Japan.  There's a lot of finding-the-monkey nonsense as usual, and a lot of fighting and escaping.  To be honest, the main plot, which features a deranged popstar, is not exactly riveting or now.  Far more interesting is the side story about Doctor Mann (whoo!) going to see her mother, where we begin to discover there's an even bigger game being played than we'd expected.

The art is good as always, but "fill-in artist" Goran Sudžuka actually pencils nearly half the pages here, making you wonder by Pia Guerra gets her name so much bigger on the cover.
 
Y: The Last Man: Motherland
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Pencillers: Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka
Inkers: José Marzán, Jr., Goran Sudžuka
Colorist: Zylonol
Letterer: Clem Robins

Issues Originally Published: 2006-07

For sheer shock value, the main story of the penultimate book of Y: The Last Man is one of the best of the series.  I ain't giving nothing away here, except to say that I think I literally gasped on pages 48 and 51, and the following pages kept up the revelations.  There's a lot of answers and explanations, and sometimes it gets convoluted, but it's mostly satisfying.  There is an answer of sorts for the plague, but as many reviewers before have pointed out, it's mostly nonsense.  It doesn't both me, though, as I never really cared why the plague happened-- as in Mary Shelley's original The Last Man, the answer is unimportant.  The plague is just there to reveal things about the characters and the world they/we live in, and it does that spectacularly.

Case in point are the two side stories in this volume, which really worked for me (though one wonders if Vaughan was spinning his wheels a little bit to stretch the whole thing out to sixty issues by putting these just before the climax).  "The Obituarist" and "Tragicomic" both show the women, after four years on their own, beginning to build their own post-male world, and they're both good examples of what this series does so well, in trying to suss out what makes women women, and thus men men, and where it all comes from anyway and what we ought to do about it.
 
Y: The Last Man: Whys and Wherefores
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Penciller: Pia Guerra
Inker: José Marzán, Jr.
Colorist: Zylonol
Letterer: Clem Robins

Issues Originally Published: 2007-08

Bam! This is it: the end of Y: The Last Man.  In my previous reviews, I've tried to allude to general events without being specific, giving the sort of information I wouldn't mind getting ahead of time. (Actually, I rarely mind spoilers at all, so long as I get to choose them, and I very often do.) There's nothing really worth talking about in Whys and Wherefores, though, that doesn't involve given everything away, so SPOILER ALERT.  Well, other than that it's nice to finally have a whole book of Pia Guerra art again.

Things That Happen And Opinions That I Have About Them:

1. Alter is back.  Again?  Even with the backstory filled in for her in the previous volume, she still comes across as unmotivated and uninteresting.  She's gonna kill Yorick... because?  And something.  Also, I hate villains who gratuitously shoot their own subordinates.  It makes them stupid.  And Alter is really stupid.
2. Yorick finally finds Beth. (There is a lot of aimless wandering around Paris first, though.) Huzzah!  This was a very nice moment, even though you knew it had to happen.
3. Beth was going to break up with Yorick the day the plague struck.  I knew it!  All the same, it was a hugely devastating moment. Poor guy.  Poor her, too.
4. Yorick and Agent 355 are in love.  I don't buy it.  This volume works really hard to sell you on it, but never really succeeds.  They act like good friends-- really good friends-- but never really lovers, I don't think.  Yorick has this whole speech about how love changes you, and he's a better person for being with 355, who wouldn't have been a jerk to some kid at the lunch table or something?  It doesn't convince.  How did 355 make him into a better person in a way that any pair of friends who spent five years together wouldn't?  I buy sexual tension-- he is literally 355's only option, after all-- but not romantic love.
5. Agent 355 dies. (I told you there were SPOILERS.) Damn damn damn damn. This was devastating.  It really works though, even if you don't buy Yorick and 355 as in love, because of the massive amount of time you've spent with the character.
6. Yorick realizes that Alter just wants to die.  Okay... She's still stupid.

The rest of these points come from the last issue, which jumps sixty years into the future, then fills in the past through flashbacks.  There are lots of clones now, of Yorick and others, and the human race is shuffling forward much as it always has.
7. Other Beth's daughter (Other Other Beth?) is President of France.  For some reason.
8. The Russian boy is tsar of all the Russians.  Awesome!  His adoptive mother was probably my favorite recurring character, anyway.
9. Yorick hangs out with a bunch of monkeys in a straitjacket. (He's in it, not the monkeys.) This feels a little too... weird movie-ish, and not real enough.  I mean, is this really what you would do with someone?
10. Hero and Beth got together.  This is actually a very nice ending for both of them, but especially our troubled Hero.
11. Doctor Mann dies some day.  Well, of course she does.
12. When Yorick is an old man, Ampersand finally kicks it.  My goodness, now this was sad.  This was the moment I felt my eyes watering up.  Poor little thing.
13. Yorick escapes one last time.  Now the straitjacket thing is kinda dumb, but it's really just to set up this moment, which was awesome.

My only real problem with the ending as a whole is that the unmanned society had stuck around.  So much of the series has dwelt on how the women put society back together without men, that to end with the return of men is just a dull status quo revival.  Couldn't Vaughan have found some way to keep men out of the picture for good without killing off the human race?  Of course he could have; he's the writer.

The only overall flaw of Y: The Last Man is that the individual stories could be repetitive sometimes, and there was some aspects of the big story that were dumb (the Culper Ring and Alter).  On the whole, Y: The Last Man was sf of the best sort, combining an intriguing scenario with good characters.

Steve

Next issue: back to The Sandman with an exploration of some of the spin-offs and side-steps of Neil Gaiman's seminal series

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