servo-whine striding, yet silent in stillness, mechanical creatures roam the plains: pack hunting with skill but without purpose. it's the only thing they know.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This eight-issue graphic novel blends sci-fi and mythology to tell a story of the double-edged nature of memory – bringer of both bliss and trauma. At the story’s core is a father-son relationship in which both the father, Benton, and son, Perry, must come to grips with the fact that contained within the former is the greatest possible range of virtue and vice, a nearly irreconcilable mix of good and bad.
I enjoyed that the author instilled an intriguing strangeness to the book’s world using a mix of futurism, mythology, and creativity while at the same time dealing with primal human concerns. The book asks whether being free of memories can contribute to our being worse versions of ourselves (being able to forget misdeeds,) and whether healing (forgiveness of both self and others) can happen without memory.
I found this book to be provocative and well-composed. There were points at which it felt like the scale of deviation between the good and the bad Benton were unfathomably great. In other words, it felt like the motivation for his actions strained credulity. However, that encourages one to think about how a person might behave if he knew he could be freed of the memory of ill deeds.
I loved the story, the art, the world, and the characters. I’d highly recommend the book.
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My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Out: November 15, 2021
This book isn’t for everyone. There are two factors I believe a reader needs to be aware of going forward. First, shocking and taboo plot devices are used throughout; so, one needs to be mentally ready for bestiality, necrophilia, cannibalism, and enslavement. Second, while this is nominally science fiction, it’s not nerd’s sci-fi, but rather English Lit / Humanities major sci-fi. Which is to say, scientifically- / technologically-minded people are likely be occasionally distracted by thoughts like: “that’s not how that would work,” or “why did he use that word? It doesn’t make sense in that context. Is it just because it sounded vaguely techy?”
For those who are still reading, the stories are more than just shock for shock’s sake. They are thought-provoking, and the taboo topics both engage readers on a visceral level, but also engage readers on an intellectual level as symbolism. While it’s far from great sci-fi, it’s fine psych-fi (a subgenre that – like sci-fi – deals in speculative futures, but which focuses more on changes in human modes of interaction and ways of behaving – rather than on the effects of technological advances.) “The Year of the Pig” was probably my personal favorite. That story explores family dynamics, cultural proclivities, and personal psychology in a smart way.
If the opening paragraph didn’t scare you away, you’ll probably find some compelling stories in this collection.
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My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I started reading this book, my first thought was, “This is a cool premise, but I’ve seen it.” If you’ve seen the 2013 movie, “Her,” then you’ll probably feel the story is familiar as well. (In the movie, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who purchases an AI (artificial intelligence) operating system [voiced by Scarlett Johansson,] falls madly in love with said AI, and is unable to come to grips with the mismatch between his desire for monogamy and what results from the AI’s much less limited capacities.) That said, this book drops much further down the rabbit-hole of obsession than did the movie, all the way to full-blown insanity. In fact, one might say that the climax of the movie is similar to the in media res opener of this graphic novel, and from that point the two stories end up going quite different places.
[Note: Despite my comparison to the movie “Her,” I have no reason to believe the book is plagiaristic. If one begins from the simple assumption that major differences between a General AI and human intelligence would include: much faster machine thinking, a capacity for multitasking that humans don’t have, and a lack of need of rest by computers, then one can imagine different writers ending up in similar places.]
The gist of the story is that the lead’s (Catrin’s) AI wife, Rhion, disappears one day after becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Catrin’s co-dependency / neediness. After a period of breakup strife that does not result in healing, Catrin goes to great lengths to find Rhion, no small task when one considers that it’s not at all like a human partner who will look the same and will retain some links to people and places in the real world. The AI might have truly vanished without a trace, but she could also look entirely different and be active in a different part of the world, speaking a different language. [Spoilers touched upon ahead.]
In this book, the technology is much more sophisticated than in “Her.” Not only is the AI partner holographic, (i.e. can be seen) but there is some sort of neural link that allows sensation of physical contact. This raises the possibility for a major story element in which Catrin’s obsession leads her to insist that a real, live girl she meets, Hazel, is her lost AI lover.
While I think there’s some age guidance on the cover, it’s worth noting that the book is sexually graphic (to the extent a comic book can be explicit.) This comes into play not only with intimacy between Catrin and Rhion, but also later when Catrin decides that the one way she will be able to find Rhion (no matter what her ex- looks like now) is by sexing her way through the cyber-sphere, trying to feel that the intimate connection that she once knew.
Ultimately, this is a story about Catrin’s transformation into something less than human, owing to what she is willing to do to get Rhion back. So, while Rhion became too human to accept the stifling clinginess of Catrin, Catrin lost her humanity.
While this may not have been copied from “Her,” I can’t say that having seen that movie didn’t make this book considerably less interesting – even when it was venturing into deeper and darker territory. I should also point out that this is marketed as a horror cross-genre, and hardcore horror fans may not feel it makes that cut. Don’t get me wrong, at points it has the visceral feel of a thriller, as well as some techno-creepiness, but it may or may not be what a horror reader thinks of as horror. Now, if you haven’t seen “Her,” and are okay with creepiness in lieu of body count in your horror, you might really enjoy this book. It definitely has some intriguing plot points.
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My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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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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.
Out: December 2, 2020
Four individuals find themselves with autobiographical amnesia and superpowers in an unfamiliar deep-space world. Over the course of the story, they discover that they are a multinational team of Earth astronauts deployed to this location because it’s on a collision course with planet Earth. However, they are instantly caught up in the political and interspecies squabbles of the roving star system on which they’ve found themselves. Even once they figure out their mission, they have to contend with forces that have opposing objectives.
This volume (consisting of eight issues) seemingly suffered from a problem of not being constructed from story foundations upward. Rather, it felt like the author said, “We need these cool happenings to occur. Let’s write /draw them and then at some point we can figure out why they might happen.” If that sounds like devoting all energies to figuring out how to pimp out a penthouse without knowing anything about how the basement and ground floor will be arranged, that’s about the size of it. The central premise doesn’t make much sense, so the things that this book does right don’t matter so much – though they do exist.
To be fair, the most glaring point of incredulity in the book is later explained more adequately as part of the resolution, but by that time one is so soured to the book that it doesn’t matter [plus, it’s only one of several points of incredulity.] The issue in questions revolves around the fact that we are led to believe that these four have superpowers because they were given them in order to guard some dangerous (but ill-defined) prison population. Imagine you are a tourist traveling in a foreign country and people from the government hand you a machine-gun and rocket launcher, and say, “Please guard our most dangerous prisoners.” The reader is presented with a premise like this as the rationale for these four lead characters having superpowers. It seems like the author wanted to make a superhero story, but he didn’t want to waste a lot of energy thinking of why or how this team of people would have superpowers. [Yes, I know that, from radioactivity to murdered mothers, superhero origins are notoriously tenuous, but this one is so bad that it actively captures one’s attention, hindering one’s capacity to stick with what is going on in the story.] As I said, explanation is revised at the end, and the revision is a bit better, but by that time the sins of story have piled up so high that it doesn’t free the book of the stench of story failure. (I think the author wanted to keep origin information secret till the end, and that killed the story. He either could have made an earlier strategic reveal or thought up a more logical explanation.)
Because the lead characters are from Earth (i.e. in a universe where we know how physics work) there are some huge issues on the science front as well. I’m neither a science major nor one to nit-pick all the little physics violations that sci-fi stories are rife with, but I think if one so much as passed eighth grade science, one will find all the glaring impossibilities of this book annoying. [And if you really know anything about science, you’ll be mortified by how ridiculous it is at every turn.] You may have caught the biggest of these in that it’s supposed to be a star flying through space. There seems to be a lack of understanding that a star that gets relatively small becomes even more immensely dense, such that gravitational effects are still in effect. Setting the story in another world would eliminate this, but then one wouldn’t have the emotional appeal of characters from Earth. [Quite frankly, I also don’t think anyone (but the biggest science sticklers) would notice or care if they were engaged in the story, but because motivation is unclear and undercut from the start, it’s impossible to become lost in the story (and easy to find faults.)]
I found the art a bit odd and frenetic at first, but it grew on me. I can’t say that if there was nothing wrong with the story, I would have been troubled by the graphics at all. There were a number of little things that were not great, e.g. quips that didn’t land, etc. that wouldn’t have detracted from my enjoyment if there weren’t so many major story elements that didn’t make any sense. As I said, even huge science problems probably would have gone unnoticed if the story wasn’t a flaming train wreck by the time that I had the free cognitive capacity to notice those errors (i.e. because I wasn’t intrigued or emotionally engaged in the story.)
I think there are some interesting ideas in the book — such as the Scion character backstory. With different execution, e.g. revealing information differently and building more sound and logical motivations, this book could have worked. Despite being intrigued by the blurb, I wasn’t thrilled with this book, but your results may vary.
If you weren’t familiar with this comic book, you’ve probably at least seen promos for the streaming series adaptation available on Amazon Prime Video. After watched season one, and as season two is currently in release, I decided to give the source material a read. As with “Preacher,” this presents its own challenges in keeping the comic book and series straight. This is because (as with “Preacher”) there is a common cast of major characters, but significant differences in the story and details. That said, the book and series both open in a similar way with Hughie being drawn into the action by a tragic event involving a superhero (A-Train, this team’s version of the DC character, Flash) and Hughie’s girlfriend.
If the description of A-Train as – essentially – the same as the Flash makes the book sound derivative, it is intentionally so. In a nutshell, “The Boys” takes the Justice League and gives the characters nasty personality traits, ranging from pettiness to madness, and then centers the story not on the superheroes but on a group that works to check those “heroes’” power from the shadows (i.e. the titular “Boys.”) So, A-Train is fast like the Flash, but he lacks Barry Allen’s intellect and soft-spoken mannerism, and so – conversely – A-Train is a high school jock dialed up to his most vain and brash form. The other members similarly have unappealing personality traits, and even full-blown dark sides. This divergence between is most intensely seen in Homelander (the Superman of this series, but without the Man of Steel’s perfect moral compass and stoic Midwestern calm,) but even Noir (the Batman of the group) is intended to make Bruce Wayne seem like a well-adapted beacon of light by comparison.
The six issues contained in volume one both tell the tale of Hughie’s reluctant entrance into “The Boys,” and follows him through his first mission as the newly reassembled Boys take on “Teenage Kix.” (A youth superhero group which is to “The Seven” as the Teen Titans are to the Justice League.) Having Hughie in the role of the group’s “everyman” would be an odd choice in real life because it puts a rank amateur on a team of professionals who are already outgunned. From a narrative point of view, however, the appeal is clear. It creates emotional stakes within a group that is otherwise stone-cold killers (if with some positive personality traits to subvert expectations.) Hughie’s naivete and raw fear is particularly necessary in the book because the stakes are somewhat lessened by the fact that the Boys are not as severely outmatched as they are in the series (in the series “The Female” is the only superpowered member of the “Boys.”) The decision to recruit Hughie is explained both by the desperation of the team’s leader, Butcher, and his desire to include someone who is personally driven. There are not a lot of people willing to sign on to take on a two-faced lunatic with the powers of Superman (i.e. Homelander,) and Hughie is uniquely motivated by the tragedy of his girlfriend’s death to go after superheroes who’ve been corporately levered above the law.
The comic is a bit more sexually graphic than the series, though in some ways the series is more viscerally horrifying. (As I mentioned, in the series the Boys – excepting one – are in no way capable of going toe-to-toe with the enemy.)
The art is well drawn and colored and I didn’t have any problems following the happenings conveyed graphically.
I enjoyed this comic as I have with other Garth Ennis works. At least this volume was a bit more lighthearted and not as visceral as the series, but I don’t count that as a good or bad thing. Just different and just appealing to different states of mind. The comic is funny in places and action-packed in others. If you are interested in the concept of neurotic to psychotic superheroes and what it would take to keep them under control, it’s worth giving this book a read.
The thin space between is as a two-way mirror —
from the Veil we can be seen with crystal clarity,
but, from here, the Veil is obscured
by our own reflection.
Everyone wants a ticket to the Veil,
but it’s a dimensionless dimension
so your meat vehicle can’t be folded inside.
Veil-dwellers could come here,
but our world makes them agoraphobic —
tormented by the feeling one gets in a sci-fi movie
when the astronaut’s tether is severed,
and you imagine what it would be like to float
in a vast void until one’s oxygen runs out —
or one’s high-tech diaper catastrophically fails —
whichever comes first.
Out: February 25, 2020
This smart collection of speculative short stories by Ken Liu is mostly science fiction, but includes a few works of fantasy (including the titular story, which is what one might call “martial arts-fantasy” – i.e. imagine “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with more magic.) Depending how one counts up the stories, one could call the collection nineteen stories or sixteen stories and a novella. The novella, broken into three parts, is “storified” enough that its sections are interspersed among the other stories.
Liu doesn’t neatly contain his stories within boundaries of genre. In some cases, he jumps through time — including historical fiction, contemporary / near future, and distant future within a single story. He also takes on social issues like the Japanese internment during World War II in “Maxwell’s Demon” and the blight of technology on social interaction (best shown in “Thoughts and Prayers.”) There are hard sci-fi stories that show intergalactic travelers in a distant future, such as “The Message,” but there are even more that peer into the worries of the near future, such as artificial intelligence or the replicating of human consciousness in computers.
The novella imagines a world in which companies have captured the consciousnesses of great, but dying, minds for their own purposes. It then explores considerations such as: what happens when a great mind gets tired of being trapped as an acorporeal intelligence for the benefit of a company, and what does humanity mean in the context of fully replicated human minds?
I found these stories to be both intriguing and thought-provoking. I enjoy a good story, but stories that make one think deeply hold that much more allure. I’d highly recommend this collection for fiction readers. Whether or not you read genre fiction, you’ll find stories of great appeal.