BOOK REVIEW: Trapped on Zarkass by Yann

Trapped on ZarkassTrapped on Zarkass by Yann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: October 11, 2022

This odd-couple quest story contextually resembles the movie Avatar, which is to say it involves an Earth-colonized exotic planet that has an intelligent – if primitive – indigenous lifeform. That said, neither the story nor the visuals are reminiscent of Avatar.

The story is about a pair of women who are tasked with tracking down a crashed enemy spacecraft in the remote jungles of the planet Zarkass, and returning with samples and intel about it. Because of treaties, the pair must operate undercover, assisted by a group of locals who are kept from the truth of the mission. One of the “agents” is a sweet, sensitive young woman who is pretending to do research as an expert on butterflies, and the other is a gruff, red-neck-ish drug dealer who’s released from prison to be the first woman’s guide and protector. The downed aircraft is a triangular spaceship that outmatches the Earthling craft, and the colonizers want metal samples to discover why their missiles glance off.

I enjoyed the story and found the world-building to be brilliantly imaginative [it’s outlandish, scientifically speaking, but creative.] As per the odd-couple norm, these two very different women slowly and begrudgingly develop respect and concern for each other by surviving numerous trials by fire together. Furthermore, in the end, it seems like they’ve developed a similar begrudging connection with the indigenous species that they did for each other. Even the main characters look down on the indigenous population throughout the book, but there seems to be a change. If you’re put off by nudity and near nudity of a gratuitous nature, the book does have it in spades.

If you like sci-fi adventures set on exotic worlds, you might want to give this one a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: Primordial by Jeff Lemire

PrimordialPrimordial by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 24, 2022

This graphic novel blends alt history and sci-fi. It takes place in a world that differs from ours in a number of [mostly superficial] ways that might all be ripples from one major change, that change being that when the US and the USSR sent their test animals into space something very different happened, something that put an end to the space programs of both nations. The story features characters based on the real-world personages of Laika (the dog the Soviet Union shot into space) and Able and Baker (the monkeys that America sent.)

There are two storylines occurring simultaneously, first in the 1960’s and then in the near future. One of these is the tale of the aforementioned “test pilots,” and the other is that of two scientists who are trying to get the animals back, or at least to communicate with them. One of the scientists is an American professor from MIT doing contract work for NASA and the other is a Soviet biologist.

It’s a simple story, but I found it engaging and to be built on an intriguing premise. I’d recommend it for readers of graphic fiction, particularly those who enjoy counterfactuals.


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BOOK REVIEW: DMZ, VOL. 1: ON THE GROUND by Brian Wood

DMZ, Vol. 1: On the GroundDMZ, Vol. 1: On the Ground by Brian Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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DMZ is a work of dystopian fiction that ditches the tired plot devices like Zombies and Nuclear Holocaust in favor of the fresh and simple idea of the American political divide run amok. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) in question is a sealed off New York City that exists in an armed and anarchic state.

The story features a journalism intern, Matty Roth, who helicopter crashes with a news crew in the NYC DMZ. At first, Roth is in over his head and just looking to escape to safety, but over the course of this volume he undergoes trial by fire and comes out the other side following his journalistic impulse to share the stories of the DMZ, stories which are much richer and more complex than people have been led to believe.

I had mixed feelings about the story as it feels like the protagonist is robbed of agency by always being saved. However, the story does show the character grow considerably and to face challenges voluntarily, and the assistance he receives does demonstrate community and humanity in a place that is supposed to be devoid of both.

Ultimately, I found the concept compelling and was deeply pulled into the world of this story. If you’re up for dystopian fiction, you might give it a try.


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BOOK REVIEW: Venom vs. Carnage by Peter Milligan

Venom vs. CarnageVenom vs. Carnage by Peter Milligan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This story revolves around the strange social dynamics of symbiote reproduction, which echoes the filial infanticide seen in many earth-bound species, whereby a family member tries to eliminate the competition while it can still be readily killed and eaten. There’s a shifting landscape of alliances as a new symbiote is birthed into existence.

Besides the titular characters, Venom and Carnage, the story’s other major characters are Toxin (the new symbiote on the block,) as well as Black Cat and Spiderman. It’s a simple, but action-packed, story.

I read the e-version of the book and the art was strange and rubbery. I think it’s meant to be hyper-realistic, but it tripped the uncanny valley for me. That said, it’s fairly easy to follow what’s happening. (And to the degree that it’s not, it’s not a problem with the artistic style, but rather with the chaotic stringiness of symbiote combative interactions.)

I enjoyed the story. It’s a quick read, and is thrilling entertainment fare. If you know nothing about the symbiotes of the Spider-verse, it’s not the best place to jump in because it assumes you know a bit about what’s what and who’s who.


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BOOK REVIEW: Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan

Unmanned (Y: The Last Man, #1)Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel has a fascinating premise, a dystopia in the aftermath of the extinction of all males – except for one man (of whom we know.) The “Y” in the title is a reference to the Y chromosome that no doubt factors into the cause of the eradication of males, and some genetic mutation presumably explains why there’s this one male survivor. The state of the world is as seen in any apocalyptic dystopia in which a huge proportion of the populace dies off, leaving governance and essential services broken down, being replaced by anarchy. However, there’s also the unique feature that the clock is ticking on the last generation of humanity (and some other species,) unless something can be done about it.

The protagonist is a love-struck man-child who wants nothing more than to get to the other side of the world (to Australia from America) because it’s his fiancé’s last known location. However, given that the key to continuation of the species may lie within his chromosomes, what remains of the government insists he be studied. Other segments of the population have their own ideas about what they’d like to do if they get their hands on him. All of this makes international travel infeasible.

I’m a bit torn on this book. On the positive side, not only does it have a compelling premise, but it presents a thoughtful examination of some of the problems that might arise — such as political bodies being tremendously thinned and that the remaining women politicians wouldn’t necessarily be proportionately distributed between political parties. On the negative side, the volume doesn’t have a substantial climax and conclusion, and thus isn’t a satisfying standalone read. This isn’t uncommon among comic books written with vast serialization in mind. My problem with such writing is that if the first volume doesn’t provide a satisfying self-contained arc, I don’t trust that the story will ever conclude satisfyingly – especially if it’s something that turns out to be popular.

If you’re committed to reading the whole series, you’ll find this volume to provide a gripping and humorous start. However, I can’t say I’d recommend it as a standalone read, and I can’t speak to the overall story.


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BOOK REVIEW: Night Mary by Rick Remender

Night MaryNight Mary by Rick Remender
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In this graphic novel, the protagonist is a young woman, Mary, who is a talented lucid dreamer – i.e. being conscious in one’s dreams. While lucid dreaming is a real thing, the sci-fi “magic” of the story world is that, using an experimental medication in conjunction with skilled dreamers allows the lucid dreamer to observe and take part in the dreams of another person. Said experimental medication was developed by Mary’s father, who’s a bit of a shady “evil scientist” type, and he employs Mary as his lucid dreamer (even though she is still a high school student.)

The story is intense and provocative. Character development is good and we learn that Mary is dealing with her own mental health issues, presumably PTSD-like traumatization related to an automobile accident she was in with her mother, but she may have already been anxiety prone. Mary’s father is a complex character throughout. He’s cold and distant as a father and obsessive as a scientist, but not altogether dastardly. I enjoyed falling into the story and found it to be narratively taut. That said, it wasn’t with out some problems of pacing and villain monologuing around the climax.

The artwork by Kieron Dwyer succeeded in creating a visceral horror / surreal feel. Also, the use of different color palettes for the real world versus various dream worlds helps to clarify where one is, which is useful in a story that shifts between the real (waking) world and dream scenes.

If you enjoy stories set in dreams and the sci-fi of the unconscious mind, you may want to look into this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

The Sirens of TitanThe Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This classic Vonnegut novel stresses the existentialist notion that whatever meaning is to be had in life is up to the individual to find. (And they’re likely to find that it’s to love whoever is around to love.) Vonnegut rejects the entrenched view that a human is master of his/her domain and that we exist as part of a deep and well-reasoned plan. Vonnegut’s protagonist, Malachi Constant (a.k.a. Unk,) spends much of the story, literally, being controlled by unknown forces via the combination of a brain-shocking device and memory erasure.

The book is as humorous as it is philosophical, though it’s dark humor, e.g. the humor of an invading army that suicides itself without realizing that’s what it’s doing. [i.e. a bit like Monty Python’s Black Knight sketch, but on a planetary scale.]

The backstory of the Tralfamadorians in this book offers a great metaphor for the book’s theme. (Note: the Tralfamadorians morph a bit between the various books that they appear in, or at least different information is revealed as is relevant to the story at hand. In “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the emphasis is on the fact that this alien race sees all time simultaneously.) While the Tralfamadorians here still see all of time simultaneously, what is emphasized is that they’re a species of robots that came about when the original (biological) Tralfamadorians kept off-loading less meaningful work to robots. But biological Tralfamadorians would always come to believe that whatever work remained didn’t feel sufficiently meaningful. When they finally asked an AI to calculate the absolute most meaningful work there is, they were told that there is no meaningful work, and so they have the robots end their existence.

Vonnegut’s wild creativity can have the flipside of being challenging to follow. Fortunately, understanding of this novel doesn’t rest on understanding the workings of the “chrono-synclastic infundibulum,” but rather on much simpler and more humorous concepts. Like “Cat’s Cradle,” I found this novel easier to follow than Vonnegut’s time-jumping masterwork “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

This is a hilarious and thought-provoking book. I’d highly recommend it for all readers.


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BOOK REVIEW: Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll's House - 30th Anniversary EditionThe Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House – 30th Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“The Doll’s House” story arc is the second volume in the original run of “Sandman,” and consists of issues #9 – 16. After a prologue that tells an African tribal myth about a love between a mortal woman and a god, the other seven issues tell the story of Rose Walker, a young woman whose mere existence will become a threat to the Dreaming (the world of dreams and the dominion of Morpheus, god of dreams.) The prologue story introduces concepts helpful for the main story, but does not otherwise share characters or plot details with the larger arc.

The volume presents a clean and satisfying story. Gaiman is among the most superb developers of stories within stories such that his serial work always leaves the reader satisfied. The troubles that play out in this volume result from Morpheus’s (a.k.a. Dream’s) earlier incarceration [volume 1,] but one learns what one needs to follow it during the telling of this story. Besides the issue of Rose Walker, there were escapes and shenanigans in the Dreaming owing to the lack of proper supervision. Morpheus has to fix these problems without a clear picture of what has happened.

Gaiman creates a story that is at once engrossing and humorous. The story reaches its heights in both regards in the issue called “Collectors,” [a.k.a. “The Doll’s House, Part Five”] which involves Rose Walker’s stay in a hotel that is holding a convention that is nominally for the breakfast cereal industry, but is – in fact – for serial killers and collectors of human beings (or artifacts, thereof.) The world of Sandman is gripping and brilliantly creative, and I highly recommend this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Out of Body by Peter Milligan

Out of BodyOut of Body by Peter Milligan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: March 8, 2022

As the title suggests, this story is built around the concept of the out-of-body experience (OBE,) as well as the near-death experience (NDE) — another controversial concept discussed in similar circles. We find a prominent psychotherapist, Dan Collins, in a coma after he took a beating in an alleyway. Having been blindsided by his attacker, the story revolves around Collins trying to solve his own near murder as his “astrally projected” self plays detective. It turns out that there are many possible suspects, ranging from those who might wish him ill for personal reasons to those who might have professional motives. However, as Dan is assisted by a young but talented psychic from the Ozarks named Abi, other possibilities arise, ones that are far more bizarre than the scientifically-minded Collins can wrap his head around.

While I’m not a believer in OBE’s and NDE’s as anything other than natural perceptual phenomena resulting from conditions in the brain, I do think they make for an intriguing speculative fiction plot. Some fascinating psychology is on display as Collins (who’s always fancied himself an expert in human nature) discovers that his beliefs about how he was perceived are radically different than what he glimpses in the minds of individuals with whom he has had relationships.

I found the story to be sound and intriguing, and I enjoyed reading this book. The art was well done, much of it being psychedelic, but all of it being clear and comprehensible. If an OBE detective story sounds compelling, you may want to give this one a read.


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