BOOK REVIEW: Trafik by Rikki Ducornet

TrafikTrafik by Rikki Ducornet
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: April 13, 2021

A robot (Mic) and a cyborg (Quiver) live and work together in close quarters, doing blue-collar work until the going gets tough and they charge off for a utopia called Trafik. I enjoyed reading this for its rich approach to language, its compelling reflection upon humanity [and isolation therefrom] and its thought-provoking imagining of the unfolding of the future. That said, I don’t think it will be everyone’s cup of tea. I’ll try to paint a picture that will help the reader to determine where they would be likely to come down on this book.

First things first, if you are expecting the usual high-adventure, plot-driven science fiction novel, that’s not where this work shines. There are a few contributing factors. First, the high density of creative language is not conducive to fast-paced consumption in which visuals form effortlessly in the mind’s eye. Second, a central question is what being human means, and what happens when one isn’t amongst others. One has Mic, a robot, who is intelligent but not inherently emotional. And, so, the aforementioned question largely pertains to Quiver, who is a cybernetically-enhanced human being. I have no idea when this was written, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the pandemic lock-down / quarantining influenced the work that it turned out to be. Because a lot of the story is spent with these two different entities being plugged into the virtual world, getting a vicarious experience of being in the world. [Also, the book is only about 100 pages, and so the idea that it could have been produced in that timeline is not as unbelievable as if it were, say, five times as long.] At any rate, while this isolation and questioning of one’s humanity makes for a philosophically fascinating inquiry, it’s not really amenable to the adventure and interpersonal tension usually depicted in genre fiction, characteristics which inherently require a great deal of emotional experience and interaction.)

I’m kind of uncomfortable saying this because it’s likely to be misunderstood, but I read this more like I would read Joyce’s “Ulysses” than like I would read, say, “Ender’s Game.” That is to say, I read it more as a prose poem — immersing myself in the language and the momentary experience of the characters — rather than following the thread of events and looking out front as a rider on a rollercoaster might. I’m not comparing any works here, just my approach to reading them.

There’s a fundamental question when producing art of any kind, and that is how much one roots in the past (in established human experience) and how much one can venture into the unknown. Stick too much in past experience and your work is uninteresting. Launch yourself too much beyond the familiar, and people can’t recognize what one is trying to do – let alone enjoy it. Ducornet is clearly experimenting with how much she can charge forward. At points, I’m thinking of the arrival at Trafik, the story even reads a bit like stream of consciousness psychedelic tripping.

If you’re looking for a work that requires soaking in and reflecting upon words and futures, then you’d probably find this to be an enjoyable read, a work that verges on prose poetry. However, if you are looking for plot-driven sci-fi, you might find it ponderous. [Also, if you’re the kind of sci-fi reader who finds violations of fundamental physics unpardonable, this book might not be for you. (That said, there is some shifting between real and virtual worlds for which I might have missed cues.)]


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BOOK REVIEW: Money Shot, Vol. 2 by Tim Seeley & Sarah Beattie

Money Shot Vol. 2Money Shot Vol. 2 by Tim Seeley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: May 11, 2021

The second volume of Money Shot involves two distinct stories: one minor and one major. For those who’ve not read the opening volume [or my review, thereof,] the premise is “Star Gate” meets “Zach and Miri Make a Porno.” More specifically, a group of scientists have developed a portal allowing them to travel to other worlds. However, it’s very expensive to operate and they are experiencing difficulties funding the project through conventional grant-making agencies, and so they make the implausible (but entertaining) decision to finance their research via the market for kink-jaded porn, making and streaming porn in the “sex with aliens” genre.

The first story is a short but amusing look at lead scientist, Christine Ocampos’s, brief bout with an alien venereal disease that she picked up on an expedition / porn filming in the domain of Satan (depicted as physical place.) What I really liked about this story is that it had a message that was conveyed gently by way of story, without slapping one upside the head with said lesson. [I mention this because I felt differently about the second story because it did the exact opposite.] To elaborate about what I liked about the first story, we see Ocampos blowing events out of proportion in her own mind until a molehill reaches of Himalayan heights. Meanwhile, an intertwined story arc shows one how one person’s catastrophe can be another’s minor irritation and vice versa. We see this all through showing (both pictorially and verbally,) not telling.

The second story is much grander in scale, space opera grandiosity – in fact. In the story, we see Earth being offered a trial membership in some kind of intergalactic federation. The meeting is flubbed by a doofus of a US President, clearly meant to evoke Trump, but who is named Kirk and who gets tasered by the alien emissary. Later, we find that the scientists are still struggling with inadequate energy levels to run “Money Shot” [the portal’s nickname, a play on porno lingo] and lack of funds to pay for the massive amounts of energy required. They discover a planet that has a particularly attractive and hedonistic population that would be perfect for selling porn views. However, after some reluctance on Ocampos’s part is circumvented, the team is getting ready to go when Kirk’s men seize the portal, and President Kirk agrees to allow them to go on their expedition, provided he is taken along. [He wants to screw an alien because an alien zapped him, even though the planet they are going to is not a member of the aforementioned federation – whose representative zapped him.]

So, earlier I contrasted what I liked about the small story with what I didn’t like about this bigger one. To be more specific, there’s a lot of drag put on the story by overplaying a gag and drifting into sermonistic territory. Where the smaller story has a message that it subtly conveys via the story, the bigger story has a message that it fish-slaps the reader upside the head with repeatedly such that it becomes a hindrance to the story. That message is essentially: we hate Trump and we would really love to see physical harm come to him – repeatedly. But it’s not even the tasering, mule-kicking, or Wolverine-esque running through of Kirk that really drag the story, but the expositions and exaggerations that are the kind of thing you might be familiar with if you have that FaceBook friend who only posts political commentary, memes and comments which reflect varying degrees of truth but that makes clear that that person believes that everything about the political opposition is pure evil and that they should be crushed by any means necessary.

I suspect there are three major responses to this book. Starting with the most obvious, Trump voters and many other conservatives (those righty FaceBook ideologues) will hate it, but they are likely a miniscule market demographic for this series. On the other end of the spectrum, the lefty FaceBook ideologues will absolutely love it, perhaps passing by the many sex scenes and nudity to use the parts where Kirk takes a beating as their own masturbation porn. Finally, for the non-ideologues, it’s a fine story that you’ll wish was a bit less preachy and divisive, and which let the story shine through more. [But I may be suffering from political divisiveness fatigue.]

As I said, it’s a solid story. If you don’t have a problem with cartoon sex and nudity, you’d probably enjoy it. That said, if you’re not highly political, you might find it takes the politics a bit too far. [But if you hate Trump so much that you’d like to run over him with your car, then back over him, then run over him again, then you should already be [pre-]ordering.]


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BOOK REVIEW: Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff Vandermeer

Hummingbird SalamanderHummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: April 6, 2021

 

Vandermeer’s new novel keeps the reader in the grip of curiosity from the opening scene in which the protagonist (‘Jane’) is handed an envelope containing a storage unit key through the various traumas of tumbling down a rabbit-hole in search of answers. That said, the book is not without its narrative clunkers. The book’s great strength (maintaining a sense of mystery) is simultaneously the source of its greatest weakness (inexplicable motivation: i.e. it’s hard to imagine that a person – even the flawed and complex protagonist Vandermeer creates – would be willing to suffer death on so many levels: professional , personal / familial, and — on a couple of occasions – near literally as this woman does, given her dearth of understanding of what is going on at various points leading up to the ending. Given the stakes, one would expect a powerful motive. [One could argue that ‘Jane’ gains a worthwhile motive post-hoc, but that can’t explain her tenacious behavior throughout the book, putting everything in her life at risk when she has only a vague sense of the other characters and their motivations.])

The storage unit key gives the protagonist, ‘Jane,’ access to a cardboard box containing a taxidermized hummingbird and a cryptic note suggesting she should find an unidentified salamander. The signature is in the name of a deceased wealthy heiress who is known for being an environmental activist who most people believe strayed over a line into a life of domestic terrorism. As ‘Jane’ tries to investigate in her (not-so-) spare time as a security expert for an IT company, she runs into many mysterious people, dead-ends, and a few gunfights. Along the way, she loses her job, becomes estranged from her husband and daughter, is shot, and is nearly murdered in a several ways.

Vandermeer builds an intriguing character with ‘Jane’ (the quotes implying that’s not her real name, but – like most all the names in the story – is altered or made-up.) Physically, she is a bulky woman, as in she was a wrestler and a bodybuilder in her youth, and so she is not just large of frame but is physically imposing and can take a beating and walk it off. With respect to her personality, she is somewhere between a dysfunctional wife and mother / workaholic and a high-functioning sociopath. At work, she is respected, though not beloved. She does not play well with others, including her loved ones and co-workers, and can be downright mean to most other people with whom she is forced to interact. However, the full extent of her dysfunction is revealed over time, both in response to the increased stress and as her backstory is shared. In the beginning, we tend to see ‘Jane’ as a professional woman who is skilled, if a bit cold, but while she neglects her family and can be a bit gruff with those with whom she works, she has her redeeming qualities.

The setting looks a lot like our world if we continue to be maladaptive and myopic over a few (or several) more years. Pandemics are referenced; they’ve seen more than one in rapid succession. There is also climate disruption related deterioration. (The two titular creatures are caught up in said ecological degradation.)

The book kept me reading, its story remaining gripping despite what I saw as a number of flaws. Besides the high-level motivation problem that I mentioned in the introductory paragraph, there are a few instances in which the main character does or says something that seems out of character. Despite her personality quirks and coldness, we empathize with ‘Jane’ because she seems like she’s interested in doing the right thing and her personality dysfunctions don’t equate to villainy. However, there was a point at which she mentions an action (to remain unnamed to avoid a spoiler) that takes her past being cold to strangers to being potentially homicidal toward them. It seems likely this was done to set up a cinematic event later in the story that may not be deus ex machina but is built on this thread of unlikely / uncharacteristic behavior – even given her paranoid state at the time.

There is also some exposition that is seems uncharacteristic, unnecessary, and / or distracting. At one point, ‘Jane’ is having an internal monologue about her arsenal of firearms and she comments that she ‘never fetishized guns.’ At this point I was lifted out of the story, trying to figure out the motive for this bizarre additional commentary. Was Vandermeer trying to take a dig at gun owners? A certain sub-class of gun-owners? Is he tribe-signaling that while he puts a lot of guns and gunfights into his story, that he opposes guns in reality — while finding them very useful and / or cool for story purposes? [i.e. Much like the “Lethal Weapon” movie people put gun-control posters in the background of their movie in which a mentally-ill detective with the trigger-discipline of one of those kids who ate the marshmallow before the researcher left the room is the character the viewer is supposed to find sexy and admirable as he shoots a small village worth of people over the course of the movie.] Incidentally, I’m not saying the author shouldn’t express political views via his writing. I think he does so successfully elsewhere in the book by showing us a sequence of events that lets the reader take in the lesson organically. All the blunt force exposition does is make the reader wonder what the author is trying to say, while we should be following the events of the story. [And this is not a story one can afford to let one’s attention drift away from, lest one risk wondering who such-and-such character is or how such-and-such event happened. Often things are mentioned brusquely once that other crucial events will hinge upon. The story is not robust to distraction that way.]

All in all, I enjoy this story and got caught up in it. Though it is not without distractions, clunky narrative activity, and implausible motivation, it does keep the reader intrigued by what’s happening. Going into the final part, I though the book might end on an unsatisfying note, but I think the author ties up things pretty thoroughly in the conclusion. Like the main character, this book has many fine and redeeming qualities, despite its rough edges.

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BOOK REVIEW: House of M by Brian Bendis

House of MHouse of M by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book pics up in the wake of a tragedy triggered by Wanda Maximoff’s (a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch) descent into madness. Normally, a losing one’s mind would be a cause for sympathy and assistance among heroic individuals, but there are those among her former teammates and friends who think the Scarlet Witch needs to be killed. The reason for this extreme view is that Maximoff’s tremendously powerful reality-warping abilities make her insanity not merely a risk to herself and to her loved ones, but to the nature of reality itself.

The book opens with Charles Xavier trying to help Wanda keep her delusions in check – largely unsuccessfully. We then see a meeting between survivors of the Avengers and key X-Men to discuss the Scarlet Witch’s future (or lack thereof.) When they go to track Wanda down, in a flash of blinding light, the world is changed. The next day, almost no one remembers the way the world was – except for Wolverine and a young girl named Layla, a girl who confirms Wolverine’s telling of events, a story that would be outlandish and unbelievable if not for the girl’s independent corroboration.

The new world is Magneto’s dream world. The mutants have won a war and are in control. Most of homo sapiens humanity is accepting of this, even if many are having trouble coping, though Luke Cage and a few others have created an underground resistance movement. In the new reality superheroes are doing pretty well. Even the homo sapiens heroes such as Spiderman are not bad off because they are generally believed to be mutants.

While Wolverine can merely remember the world as it was, Layla has an additional ability; she can project or unlock these memories in the minds of others. It’s using this ability that the Wolverine / Cage team put the band back together, taking Layla around to free the minds of Kitty Pryde, Peter Parker, Carol Danvers, Tony Stark, Stephen Strange, She-Hulk, etc.

As the superheroes take the fight to Magneto’s stronghold, Doctor Strange sneaks in to see Wanda Maximoff as she blissfully plays out her imaginary life with her imaginary children, until the battle around her turns tragic and, fed up, she changes the world again.

This book collects issues #1-8 of “House of M,” and includes a great deal of bonus content including: character profiles and back ground information (conveyed by way of a fake newspaper) for the alternative reality that Maximoff created – the mutant-dominant world, as well as an interview with the author and sketchbook pages from the illustrator (Oliver Coipel.)

I enjoyed this story. I think because the ensemble cast is so huge – i.e. it has to squeeze in so many Marvel characters – it’s not as emotionally intense as it could be. Bendis goes to the trouble of showing us how hard-hit Peter Parker / Spiderman is hit by the discovery that his new blissful world is not real, knowing that actions must be taken to return the world to its previous status quo. However, the pacing required makes it hard to feel this strongly. What I think this story did very well is keep everything clear, which is not easy task when one is dealing with shifting realities. I thought Bendis and Coipel did an excellent job of being clear about when things changed, how things changed for the crucial characters, and did both without getting bogged down. This is definitely a story that is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 3 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 1, 2021

 

This series collects short fiction of Neil Gaiman and presents it via the medium of the graphic novel. While there are four works listed, because two of these works contain multiple stories, there are actually eight stories contained in this volume. The selection is diverse both in terms of genre and artistic style. With respect to genre, the stories cut across fairy tale, fantasy, horror, supernatural, and tales of the weird. The artistic styles range from art nouveau to comic strip style. While this is the third volume, the included stories all stand on their own, and so there is no necessity to have read previous volumes. Because Gaiman draws heavily on fairy tale source material, parents might assume these are kid-friendly stories, but you should check them out first yourself as “Snow, Glass, Apples” and “The Daughter of Owls” both present somewhat sexually explicit content (the former both graphically and with respect to story events and the latter only with respect to story,) and while the horror stories are pretty calm as horror stories go, they are still works of horror.

“Snow, Glass, Apples” is a dark take on the princess-centric fairy tale. It imagines a vampiric young nymph who appears as challenger to the Queen. This is probably the most visually impressive work, being illustrated in a style that mixes art nouveau with Harry Clark’s stain glass artworks. It is definitely not the run-of-the mill graphic novel, graphically speaking. The art is exceptionally detailed and stunning.

“The Problem with Susan and Other Stories”: As the title suggests, this is one of the two multi-story entries in the collection. The titular main story features a retired Professor who is plagued by Narnia-like dreams, and who receives a visit from a reporter for a college paper. The art for this one is much more reminiscent of the typical graphic novel of today. There are three other stories included. “Locks,” the comic strip-esque illustrated story, is a take on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as it’s being told to – and imagined by – a little girl. “October in the Chair” imagines a kind of story competition taking place around a campfire by anthropomorphized “months.” It’s a bit more artistically rendered than the other stories in this [sub-] collection (although that may have to do with the dark tone that is used to reinforce that the stories are being told in the middle of the night in the middle of a woods.) The final story is a brief, but artistically dense, story that imagines a day in which everything goes wrong at once.

The sixth story, “Only the End of the World Again,” revolves around a man / werewolf who wakes up to find that he has clearly turned in the preceding night. The tale is set in a small and remote village, where everyone seems to know everything about everyone, and it doesn’t shock the man when select people let slip that they know his secret. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that the man / werewolf is caught up in something bigger than his own tragedy.

The last entry is a two-parter. The first is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman short stories; entitled, “The Price,” it offers an answer to the question of why some indoor / outdoor cats constantly come home battered and bleeding. The second story, “The Daughter of Owls,” revolves around “the baby left on the church steps” plot mechanism. Because the girl is enveloped in owl accoutrements, she is shunned by the village and forced into exile at a dilapidated former abbey. Both of these stories have a more brush-painted style that the usual graphic novel.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. While not all of the stories were new to me, the way they were illustrated shone a new light on the familiar tales. All of the stories are masterfully crafted and illustrated. While Gaiman draws heavily on well-known fairy tales, there is nothing banal about these stories. I’d highly recommend this book, even if you’ve read some of the stories already.

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BOOK REVIEW: Money Shot, Vol. 1 by Tim Seeley and Sarah Beattie

Money Shot, Vol. 1Money Shot, Vol. 1 by Tim Seeley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel weds a serious look at a serious problem with a raunchy romp into extraterrestrial porn. [Warning: If the latter part of that statement didn’t clue you in, this book is sexually graphic both pictorially and in terms of dialogue. While I don’t think there is anything in it that your average adult can’t handle, I wouldn’t recommend it for the puritanically-inclined or as a gift for one’s eight-year-old nephew – i.e. “because it’s a comic book.”]

At the center of the story is Dr. Christine Ocampos, the inventor of a Star Gate-like faster than light travel portal, a brilliant technology that is far too expensive to operate to get grant funding, money she needs to finance a multi-disciplinary team of researchers. The title, “Money Shot,” is used in two senses in the book. First, the portal was marketed as “Star Shot,” but because it is so expensive to run, it earned its “money shot” nickname, implying it was a good way to shoot a mass of cash into the dark void of space. The second sense of the word is as it’s used in the porn industry, the highly-visible climactic moment of a sex scene.

Ocampos, tired of spending her life writing enormous grant proposals that ultimately get rejected on the grounds of cost, stumbles upon an idea for an alternative approach while “decompressing” with pornography. The harried lab director realizes that people seem to be disproportionately interested in outlandish fetish porn, presumably because they are bored with the usual “meat-and-potato” varieties of sexual activity. Ocampos concludes that there can’t be anything wilder and more outlandish to catch the attention of the porn-viewing world than sex with extraterrestrials. She pitches her plan to the other four members of her research team, and –fortunately for her – they are all photogenic / attractive and surprisingly sexually liberated. [Meaning it’s not particularly difficult to convince them all to participate.]

I won’t go into the story in great detail, except in as much as to say there is one and it’s entertaining. The story uses a common science fiction idea of being drawn into the center of a dysfunctional alien society’s troubles. The five scientists / porn stars find themselves on an environmentally-depleted planet run by an authoritarian warlord who uses the ‘bread and circuses’ approach to keeping the population in check, thus resulting in gladiatorial battles and a groundswell of revolutionary sentiment.

While the book takes a light tone, it does convey a couple serious messages in the process. The most obvious of these messages is that science is expensive and, perhaps, the mainstream funding approach (applying to large government-run grant agencies) curtails some good science. A secondary message is that less sexual repression and shame could be a good thing for the world, overall.

The art is well-drawn and clear. The scenes are depicted in a clean and easy to follow fashion. Color palette changes are used to make it easy to follow between flashback and the present moment. While I made a comment about the team all being attractive, I suspect there was a conscious effort to include a range of body types – within some bounds at least. While Ocampos is the perfectly-proportioned Disney princess-type — on the whole, the team displays a mix of size and shape.

While this is unquestionably a bizarre premise for a comic book, I found it to be readable and compelling. If you like sci-fi comics, and aren’t put off by graphic sexuality, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd

V for VendettaV for Vendetta by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel is set in a fascist, dystopian Britain that grew up in the wake of an apocalypse that left England relatively untouched but ripe for the rise of a fascist political party, Norsefire. The book was written in the eighties at the height of the Cold War, and imagines this fascist Britain in the late 1990’s. The nature of this dystopia is part Orwell’s “1984” and part Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” meaning it’s an authoritarian surveillance state, but religion (and the morality thereof) is definitely an active participant in the abuse of power.

While the protagonist is a shadowy figure who goes only by the nom de guerre “V” and whose backstory is gradually revealed over the course of the book, another central character – one who presents a more human face – is Evie Hammond, a young woman who is turning tricks on the street to get by. The book opens with Evie being cornered by a couple of “Fingermen” (Brownshirt-like secret policemen who intend to rape and murder her) when she is rescued by a Guy Fawkes-mask wearing mystery man, V. V takes Evie back to his hidden lair, and while their paths diverge and converge over the rest of the story, Evie remains a crucial character to the bitter end.

In the early part of the story, we see that high-ranking fascist party members are being murdered in ways and with clues that are clearly meant to make a statement. In the first half of the book, a police detective, Finch, is trying to solve the murders – which first requires figuring out a motive. About the time he comes to understand the basis of a revenge motive, it becomes clear that V intends much more than just getting personal revenge for the wrongs done to him at a concentration camp.

At the beginning of Part II, Evie is separated from V after a falling out over an action she participated in against a pedophilic Bishop that ended in a murder that she found distasteful. However, she has a change of heart about the use of lethal force when the man she is staying with receives a visit from the Fingermen. She makes an amateurish attempt to invoke street justice that is interrupted by a man she assumes to be with the authorities. In reality, it is V conducting a clever ruse designed to put her through what he went through so that she can experience the freedom of mind that he acquired when his fear died.

In Part III, V’s grand plan unfolds, sinking London into chaos in the hopes that something glorious (or at least better) will arise in its place. Alan Moore was a proponent of anarchism, and the suggestion is that by tearing down the existing political order, a period of peaceful anarchic or quasi-anarchic coexistence might come to be. I should point out that Moore doesn’t tell the story as an ideologue. He creates sympathetic characters among the fascists and ensures that a light is shone on V’s dark side. He also leaves the outcome open. The reader doesn’t really see what grows out of the ashes.

In addition to being political fiction, “V for Vendetta” can be read as a kind of superhero story. It’s not known precisely to what degree V is superpowered, if any. He does seem to possess some degree of superhuman ability, but it might just be that he’s crazy enough to succeed in activities such as taking on multiple armed opponents at once. It seems that the experimentation that was done on him, which killed most of his fellow subjects, may have made him stronger and / or more physically capable, or – alternative – maybe being preternaturally robust in the first place allowed him to survive what others couldn’t. Still, it is clear that he is not invulnerable.

I enjoyed this story tremendously. It’s thought-provoking, both at the political level and at the level of individual psychology. We are led to consider what brings people to accept authoritarianism, and to also wonder whether people could accept an anarchic approach to social existence. But there is also the question of what is freedom for an individual, and in what way one can have freedom within when there is no freedom to be had without? If you’re intrigued by these themes, I’d highly recommend reading this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Alien Stories by E.C. Osondu

Alien StoriesAlien Stories by E.C. Osondu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 11, 2021

 

This collection of short stories by Nigerian author, E.C. Osondu, examines the alien life. While many of the pieces use extraterrestrial aliens as a plot device, it’s easy to see that terrestrial alienation is the topic under consideration. Most of the pieces are of the soft science fiction variety, focusing on the psychological and relational elements more than the scientific detail. That said, a few of the pieces read as purely realist fiction. Some of the pieces focus on what it’s like to be an alien (of some variety,) but many of the stories focus upon how others perceive the “alien.” I should point out that the tone of the collection tends to be lighthearted, and so while it might seem that a collection based on the theme of alienation would be a bit melancholy, that is not so much the case.

This volume is part of the American Reader Series (#36) put out by BOA Editions. The collection includes eighteen stories. The first story, “Alien Enactors,” imagines individuals trying to convey information about their native culture in a recreational setting (called “the Ranch”) that is very market driven. The enactors are obsessed with ratings and with pleasing customers and the story is a commentary on what it is like for an émigré to enter the globalized world.

“Memory Store” was one of my favorites of the collection, because it sets up a fascinating thought experiment. The premise is that there is a store where one can go and sell one’s memories, and once one has sold a memory, it is lost to one forever. [Like selling blood or other bodily fluids, it mainly attracts those in relatively desperate states.] As a sci-fi plot mechanism, it makes for an interesting idea, but when one thinks of it as being about the trade-off of loss of past as one integrates into a new cultural environment, it becomes a powerful analogy.

“How to Raise an Alien Baby” is presented as a discussion of rules aliens would need to follow to adopt a baby from Earth. The story provokes one to think about how strange it can be for a child to enter a completely new cultural environment.

In “Visitors,” an alien couple have moved into a small village, and the lead characters are a couple who are having said alien couple over. The arrival of this alien couple invites incessant questioning about why they would pick such a place. For those who’ve lived only one place, it seems to be a common thought to wonder why anyone in their right mind would choose to live there – of all places. We also see a divergence of views toward aliens. The wife is more open-minded while the husband remains suspicious.

“Feast,” which is set on Alien Feast Day, features a child’s eye contemplation of aliens, and the endless questions such a view inspires. As with the husband in “Visitors,” the children try to grasp what aliens are really like, why the are so different, and – in the process – they stumble, misestimating the differences between the aliens and themselves.

In the story, “Mark,” a grandmother imparts wisdom via a story about the “Red Planet.” The journey described in this extraterrestrial tale is an analogy intended to prepare others a different kind of travel.

“Spaceship” is another of my favorites from the collection. In the story, aliens leave a broken-down spaceship at a village, just as someone might leave a car along the highway until it can be fixed. What is brilliant about the story is its description of how the locals begin to impart meaning upon the ship’s presence. All things, good and bad, that happen in the village are linked to the whims of the broken-down spacecraft. It serves as a commentary on superstition and religiosity.

In “Sacrifice,” each year an alien spacecraft visits, requiring one village youth to be surrendered to the aliens. There’s a sort of “Hunger Games” selection processes that isn’t discussed in detail, but which arrives at a presumably random “tribute” each year. However, when an only child is selected, the mother gets up in arms about it.

“Light” is about personal transformation and how it may seem to be a magical and spontaneous occurrence to others. In the story, a light from the sky lands up on the lead character, and, with it, she experiences a profound personality change.

In “Traveler” a local and an alien (“foreigner”) converse in transit.

“Debriefing” is one of the stories that isn’t of the science fiction genre. It imagines the advice that an African would receive upon arriving in the United States. It’s sort of a “do’s and don’ts” of living in America for the alien resident. It’s amusing in some places and disconcerting in others.

“Focus Group” presents a series of comments from individuals as if they were taking part in a focus group where they were asked “What are aliens like?”

The story “Child’s Play” revolves around two children who like to play a game that allows them to disappear into an alternative dimension.

Life changes for a bickering couple when the man finds a mysterious boon in the backyard in “Who Is in the Garden?”

“On the Lost Tribes of the Black World” is a story that is presented as if it were a scholarly description of the “Konga” tribe, a people forged around the singular act of drumming.

In “Love Affair” a lesbian émigré to America from Africa, Finda, tries to navigate the minefield of human relations. On the one hand, she learns from her grandmother that being gay isn’t something Finda would be likely to be able to pull off in their homeland, but still Finda isn’t finding her sexual orientation to be any picnic in America – despite the fact that she can be open about it. This is one of the most engaging stories in the collection.

With “The Home Companion” the collection shifts back into sci-fi territory, imagining a technology that can serve to combat loneliness by providing one with an intelligence with which to converse.

“Our Earthly Possessions” discusses just what a traveler has as he or she moves to a new land. The subject of memory, addressed in the second story, is revisited in this story from a different angle.

I found this to be a fantastic collection of stories. If you have any interest in what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, these stories will offer you insight into that condition. If you are experienced in that regard, the stories will resonate with you. It’s a smart collection of stories and will plant seeds of thought and help them germinate. If you read short fiction, I’d highly recommend this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King by Ira Madison III, et. al.

Marvel's Black Panther: Sins of the KingMarvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King by Ira Madison III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: January 28, 2021

The edition that I’m reviewing includes episodes one through thirteen, covering an entire story arc that revolves around a present-day conflict with its origins in the policies of Wakanda’s previous king, T’Chaka – hence, the subtitle. I mention this because the single “issue” / episode-only books seem to be what are currently posted on Amazon and GoodReads (though the blurbs they display are consistent with the story under review.) While I try to avoid being too spoiler-y, it’s hard to talk about a thirteen-issue collection without spoiling something about the first issue. [If you are only getting 15pp, that’s just Ep.1.]

The story opens in media res with a fight against Graviton that takes place in Rudyarda, one of Wakanda’s neighboring countries. This battle includes not only Black Panther and other Wakandan warriors, but also a partial Avenger’s roster including Vision, War Machine (Col. Rhodes,) Ant-man, and The Wasp. This Avenger’s team will be “re-assembled” in the climactic battle – against another foe entirely. However, the heart of the story revolves around T’Challa / Black Panther (and also Shuri and Okoye (of the Dora Milaje)) operating more or less independently. The Graviton opening is mostly about getting off to an exciting start, but the most compelling parts of the story occur later when the characters are more isolated and vulnerable.

After the Graviton battle, there’s a bit of intrigue in New York that lets the reader know there’s more going on than meets the eye. However, the big shocker of the book comes upon T’Challa’s return to Wakanda when he finds his deceased father (T’Chaka) is inexplicably back from the grave. The strength of this story comes in the middle issues (Ep. 6 – 9) when the Black Panther is isolated from his resources and must rely on his mind and his capacity to endure adversity. While the Black Panther is away from Wakanda, the nation comes under a kind of Trojan horse attack, requiring others to hold the fort while T’Challa extracts himself and brings reinforcements.

There is a false climax in Ep. 11, in which it seems that the forces of good have won – only for the battle to be taken to an unexpected domain. I would say the conclusion of the Ep. 11 battle was the least satisfying part of the story; the pacing and explanation gave it a deus ex machina feel. However, the fact that the ultimate battle was more satisfactorily concluded made the Ep. 11 victory less problematic.

I found this story to be compelling and cleverly plotted. It keeps the reader engaged and – for the most part – satisfied. If you get a chance to read it, I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Aster of Pan by Merwan

Aster of PanAster of Pan by Merwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: Individual issues are available now, but this edition comes out on February 16, 2021.

 

This is one of the most compelling graphic novels I’ve read in some time. It’s a bit challenging to describe in simple terms because when I say its about a game of dodgeball played in a post-apocalyptic setting for the fate of a people, “dodgeball” makes it sound more frivolous than it is, and “post-apocalyptic” makes it seem bleaker and more ominous than it is. Yet, strictly speaking, it’s a sound description. The “nation” of Pan has largely reverted to a state of tribal living, surviving on rice and goods scavenged from the abandoned urban areas. While Pan seems quite tribal with respect to religious and social beliefs and behaviors, it mixes elements of communism and a simple barter economy with those superstitions and in-group preferences.

When a militaristic nation called “Fortuna” comes to call, the people of Pan are given an ultimatum: pay a part of their crop yield to Fortuna or face the consequences. It’s essentially a protection racket – i.e. pay us and we’ll offer you protection, BTW we’ll mostly be protecting you from us. But then they are introduced to a third option: challenge Fortuna to a game of “celestial mechanics,” a game that is strikingly similar to dodgeball, but which allows for some pretty wild variations on the basic premise. While the ball game seems preferable to the other two options, there is a problem: nobody in Pan knows how to play the game, or has any experience with it — while Fortuna is passionate about the sport and has elevated the game to its national pastime. Fortunately, the Chief’s son, Juba, has been away in Fortuna playing as a second-stringer, he will become the team captain. [It also sets up tension with the Father / Chief who resents Juba’s having left.]

The setting is in the latter part of this century in what is now France. We learn that this is in the distant wake of a multi-part catastrophe that has killed off most of the population, and reshaped the map. There is a highly radioactive area that is presumably either the result of a major nuclear power plant meltdown or, possibly, a nuclear war. The fact that Pan has flooded ruins tells the reader that it is also post-climate change crisis. The fact that one can grow paddy rice near present-day Paris is also a big clue about the role of climate change. However, we don’t learn precise details of what happened, or how the events were (or were not) interrelated. There may be more tragedies that are or aren’t connected to those mentioned, but the present day seems far enough down the road that Pan doesn’t have much of a sound memory of the collapse. [It strains credulity a bit that a brand-new religion and such an intense reversion to primitive living would occur, selectively in Pan, over less than 50 years – i.e. Ceres and Fortuna both have seen technological advancement, while Pan – except for scavenged materials – has reverted to early agrarian living. But it serves to make them a greater underdog.]

The titular character, Aster, is a rambunctious young woman who is “un-Pan,” which is to say that she is not a member of the “tribe” and neither gets food rations nor is allowed to participate in Panian politics. When the dodgeball game comes up, they make an exception of their laws to allow Aster to participate because: a.) they need to maintain a balance between the sexes (no more than four of a given sex on the seven-person team,) and; b.) because she is one of the most naturally athletic people who live in Pan. Over the course of the story, we eventually learn a great deal about Aster’s backstory, but she starts as a mysterious outsider. While she has at least on close friend and is treated well by the Chief, we also see that she is subjected to repeated discrimination. The artist draws Aster in huge, over-the-top movements that create a perception of rough-and-tumble dynamism. Despite the post-apocalyptic dystopian situation, the book is drawn in a manner more like “Peter Pan” than “Mad Max.” It’s green and kind of magical — despite the detritus of a collapsed civilization (overgrown high-rise buildings and repurposed container ships.) [And, yes, I assume the reference to “Pan” is a callback to the Neverland of the Barrie books.]

The tournament is a best two-out-of-three affair that rotates locations between the three nations we know of. The first game is played in Ceres, a third-party nation that is also agrarian, but much more advanced than Pan with respect to technology and governance. [Ceres secretly becomes a Pan ally because they are already under the thumb of Fortuna’s militaristic dystopia and hope to show the cracks in that hegemonic superpower by helping the underdog win. Ceres’s court is the simplest version of a celestial mechanics court. It’s essentially just a sunken basketball court — sans the hoops and with lines drawn suitably to the futuristic sport’s rules. The other two rounds are played out on Fortuna and Pan, respectively, becoming progressively more militant affairs. [It’s not clear how Fortuna is able to set the version of rules they play by regardless of where they play – except on Ceres. But it’s clearly meant to allow them to make the game ever more challenging.]

I found this book to be immensely intriguing. The story was engaging, and presented a solid standalone story arc. Both the art and the text create an emotional richness that provides story tension that might easily be lost given the fanciful premise. The book subtly teaches the value of teamwork and the need to put one’s petty impulses and ego behind one. The book’s art creates a wonderland, as well as endearing characters. [“Wonderland” may seem a strange descriptor for a post-apocalyptic world, but it’s only demoralizing if one thinks about what must have happened in the past to cause it. Otherwise, it seems like a green and quiet – if somewhat anarchistic — place to live.]

I’d highly recommend this book for readers of graphic novels.

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