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: Batman: Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight The Deluxe EditionBatman: Gotham by Gaslight The Deluxe Edition by Brian Augustyn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume collects five issues that [mostly] set Batman in a Victorian Era world. The issues do not present a serialized story arc, but rather four independent stories connected through world building.

The first two stories are the heart of the book, and the other two are of varying degrees of relevance and are used to round the volume out to book length. It should be pointed out that those first two issues make up about two-thirds of the book’s page count. The first, “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight,” imagines Jack the Ripper, having retired from London, moves to Gotham City, and Batman must end the serial killer’s reign of terror. The second, “Batman: Master of the Future,” depicts Gotham as it’s about to host a World’s Fair type event and is approached by a mysterious villain who warns them to cancel the event or face dire consequences. I thought the art and world-building were done nicely to create an interesting and unique conception of Batman. That said, neither story wowed me, and I particularly found the resolution of the Ripper story to be anti-climactic. [Though it was not so much a story problem as an insufficiently villainous Ripper — i.e. one who was a little too Scooby-Doo villain-like for my taste.] Usually, I would enjoy the dark, Ripper, line more, but – in this case – I think the Master of the Future edged it out. [The problem with that story had more to do with obscure motivations.]

The third issue is set in the Gotham by Gaslight domain, but is a much broader story, featuring a big team-up and a multiverse. It’s entitled, “Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer, Gotham by Gaslight, #1,” and – as that mammoth title suggests — the ensemble team is drawn to Victorian Gotham searching out a missing Ray Palmer. I liked this story even less than either of the first two. There was just too much going on in too tiny a space.

The final two issues are “Convergence: Shazam!, #1 and, #2.” Of these, #1 has nothing to do with the Gotham by Gaslight world, but it’s necessary to grasp #2 which does include both Batman and Victorian Gotham. Batman’s role in the second part is not inconsequential and we even see a little bit of his Victorian rogue’s gallery, but still the fit of this Shazam! comic in the collection is a bit questionable.

Being a fan of the Batman comics and not so much a fan of either DC team-ups or Shazam!, I liked the idea idea of the first two issues. That said, I wish more effort had been spent to make the climax and resolution satisfying, matching the level of the intriguing worldbuilding. Had those stories gripped me more, I don’t think I would have been dismayed by the other stories, chalking them up as bonus material.

I read the Deluxe Edition. It has some sketch art ancillary material, but not much else besides a story introduction by the author.

If you like stories in the Victorian Era, and are a super hero fan, you may find this intriguing — though you might also find it a bit disappointing, depending upon your tastes.


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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: Inkblot, Vol. 1 by Emma Kubert & Rusty Gladd

Inkblot, Vol. 1Inkblot, Vol. 1 by Emma Kubert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: April 7, 2021

 

A sorceress, Seeker, spills an inkpot into some magic and accidently conjures a cat-ish being that can portal through space, time, and the boundaries of alternate dimensions. Said creature, Inkblot, has adventures by way of said spatial, temporal, and interdimensional travels, finding itself in the midst of battles with dragons, mutineers, a Sphinx, and sundry monsters. It’s a little like Forrest Gump, but with a cat stumbling through historic moments in a magic & dragons fantasy realm.

This volume makes for a cute reading experience, which – I suspect – is what the authors were going for. As anything more than lighthearted entertainment, it suffers problems of story. The most notable problem is that Inkblot is the only character whose story cuts across all six issues, and as a protagonist the cat lacks motivation, emotional experience, or agency. Inkblot is adorably drawn with huge eyes and little else by way of discernable features beyond its cat-like body, but its emotional range is Mark Wahlberg-esque. Arguably, the true protagonist is the cat’s creator, Seeker, but she is not a major player through much of the arc. Which speaks to a second issue, and that’s that issues two and three feel a bit random and disconnected. Both are fine issue level adventures, but they don’t seem to advance the overall story.

If you’re looking for a cute and very lighthearted read, you may want to check this one out. It’s drawn in a vibrant and whimsical fashion and is written to take one’s mind off pandemic woes.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dark One, Vol. 1 by Brandon Sanderson

Dark One Vol. 1Dark One Vol. 1 by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 5, 2021

 

This Fantasy graphic novel tells the story of a young man, Paul, who is in therapy for mental health issues, in our world (or an indistinguishable facsimile of it,) that is. However, it seems that the most pressing of Paul’s symptoms, hallucinations, result from bleed over from an alternate reality, a world called Mirandus. Mirandus is a quintessential Fantasy genre world with kings and castles, magic and monsters, and feudalism and fierce warriors. While the artists and writer take efforts to present a unique rendering of a Fantasy realm, in a way it’s a clear-cut and emblematic example, with – literally – forces of light arrayed against forces of darkness.

Mirandus is governed by something called “The Narrative.” I couldn’t decide whether that was too on-the-nose for a storybook world, or whether it was a clever way of hinting at the true nature of this alternate reality. (There are a number of other elements that make blatant the storybook qualities of Mirandus.) Whether it’s too on-the-nose or not depends on how one sees what is going on in the story. I mentioned the straightforward interpretation of the story – i.e. Paul thinks he’s mentally ill but then he’s drawn into another realm, one in which his symptoms are shown to have been a ghostly other-realm visitor, as well as repressed memories and general confusion. That’s the interpretation of the story that seems to be meant to achieve traction with readers, at least there are a lot of little pieces of supporting evidence for it. There are other ways of interpreting this scripted storybook world.

An alternative that one might consider is that Paul has had a full-blown psychotic breakdown and the events in Mirandus are a much more intense kind of hallucination as Paul works through the throes of flipping out. This interpretation doesn’t work as smoothly [but, it shouldn’t.] It leaves many questions unanswered while those of the main interpretation are reconciled by the narrative as we see it. Paul’s mind would definitely be working overtime to do things like build a backstory for the sister he’s been hallucinating. However, the explicitly storybook quality of Mirandus makes it feel more likely that it would be made up by a Fantasy reader than that it’s a real world that is the quintessence of a gritty fairy tale. [It’s worth noting that the [unlikely] psychotic break interpretation would be necessarily messier as the narration becomes unreliable and all clarity is lost.]

The story has a lot to say about fate and destiny, and the degree to which those concepts reflect reality.

I found the art to be easy to follow and nice looking. As I said, it walks a line between the novel and the familiar quite well. The “hallucinations” are very clearly differentiated from the real-world action. The sibling dynamic between Paul and his ethereal sister is nicely portrayed – even though he has no childhood memories of her through most of the story.

There is a sub-plot involving the main character’s mother, a lawyer who is defending a serial killer, a man who is not what he seems. However, this subplot is meant to set up continued action through the subsequent volumes. While the subplot generates some intense moments and intrigue, it does not pay off in this volume as a story (i.e. having a climax and resolution.) That said, I liked that the main plot does pay off. We know from the “Volume 1” subtitle that this will be a serialized story, and so it’s certainly necessary to have some continuing intrigue. However, too often, serialization means that one is given a tiny speedbump or a big cliffhanger in lieu of a proper resolution. This book did resolve the main storyline. [Thus, avoiding running afoul of my firm policy about never continuing a series – multi-volume book or multi-season tv – that doesn’t resolve in the volume (or season) under review – if they don’t do it in a given volume / season, how likely are they to do so in the end? Not very, I feel.]

I enjoyed this story. If the set-up intrigues you, it’s definitely worth giving a read.

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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: 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: Disaster Inc. #1 by Joe Harris

Disaster Inc. #1Disaster Inc. #1 by Joe Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: February 24, 2021

 

This story revolves around the practice of dark tourism, visiting edgy sights – disaster zones, crime-ridden areas, war zones, etc. In this story, “Disaster Inc.” is taking half a dozen tourists into the radioactive hot zone of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown. The owner / entrepreneur of Disaster Inc. is Paolo, a shady character who is always working side hustles of questionable legality. Paolo’s assistant, Abby, is arguably the protagonist of the story, and is depicted as more sensible but also as someone whose financial difficulties have gotten her roped into Paolo’s nefarious and shoddy enterprise. On the ground in Japan, Paolo has hired a yakuza, Toshiro, as a driver / translator / facilitator, and heavy. These three are to lead the tourists, who consist of a pair of eco-warriors and a psychedelic-loving Scandinavian playboy and his fem-entourage.

From an opening scene, we know that something is not right in the exclusion zone, and when Paolo leads the group off course it becomes apparent that he has an ulterior motive. [It’s kind of a bizarre idea to use an illegal activity as a cover for another illegal activity, but the dark tourism angle does make for a provocative set up.] In real life, an excessive dose of nuclear radiation causes: nausea, weakness, low blood count, and hair loss, but – of course – in comic books the effects of radiation are completely different and hard to anticipate. In this case, the radiation animates the immortal souls of a samurai army, giving them the capacity to do battle in the world once more, which they take to doing in a manner more ninja-like than samurai-esque, but that keeps up the eeriness.

This book has an intriguing premise. Samurai raised to resume defense of lands that have been ecologically defiled. The art is vibrant, clear, and can be creepy where it needs to be. I felt that character development was the book’s biggest weakness. I think we were supposed to find Abby to be a sympathetic character for which we could root. While we get some of her backstory and scenes of her nagging others to be safe and responsible, I didn’t really feel any connection. I did find Paolo to be suitably unappealing to root for him to be chopped up or to fall in a vat of nuclear waste. The other characters generally felt like good enough fodder, which I suppose is great for a horror story – not knowing who’ll get it and who might scrape through.

This was an interesting concept. If you’re interested in fiction built around dark tourism, it’s worth giving it a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong

What the Hell Did I Just Read (John Dies at the End, #3)What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the third installment in a trilogy that began with “John Dies at the End.” The series takes place in an undisclosed and rundown Midwestern town that is prone to various catastrophic supernatural shenanigans. It’s a humor-horror cross-genre work that is heavier on the former than the latter by virtue of the fact that the tone is consistently lightened by the duo of doofuses’ jokes and unreliable narration – often in the face of apparently calamitous events.

In the first book, the narrator, David, and the titular character, John, consume a drug (street-named “Soy Sauce”) that gives them the ability to see supernatural phenomena to which the general citizenry are blind. This book continues with that idea, but — given their experience with supernatural happenings, limited as it may be – they’ve become paranormal investigators of sorts (usually unpaid and sometimes without anyone asking for their services.) Also, Amy becomes not only a more firmly established love interest to David, but also a full-fledged member of the team – albeit the one that plays straight-[wo]man to the buffoonery of the other two.

The central event in this story is a child abduction that turns into a chain of abductions, but soon it becomes in doubt whether the children ever existed in the first place – or whether they are mass delusions implanted by a monstrous source. The book unfolds as the story of the trio trying to find the “children,” to find out what their true nature is, and then to figure out what to do about them. The villain’s henchman is capable of shape-shifting and takes several forms throughout the book – including that of David, thus casting suspicion upon him.

The author takes an interesting approach to perspective. The perspective shifts between David, John, and Amy, but only the David parts are written in first person (John and Amy are allotted sections from their perspective, but they are written in third-person limited perspective.) There are section headings to clarify whose perspective is being used and so it’s not hard to follow (even context would provide a great clue.) The shifting perspectives serves three purposes. First, one can see points in time during which David is not present, allowing the team to divide and conquer and for humorous confusion to be exploited. Second, it allows one to see the difference between the various accounts of the same event, which is helpful in building confidence about what actually happened — given the unreliable narration. Third, it allows for unreliable narration to be used for comedic effect. John, in particular, is famous for being especially unreliable among the unreliable narrators, though most of his embellishment is along sexual lines. [Amy is the most reliable in that she isn’t prone to flights of fancy. However, she has no ability to see through the shapeshifters and implanted hallucinations, and so she might – in fact — be the least reliable.]

There is not a strong and satisfying conclusion to the story. In part, this is because it’s not entirely clear what really transpired. We know at the end that there is another version of events out there, an account written by a scholar of the paranormal who is a secondary character in the latter half of the book. However, it also seems that the author tries to end one the lesson that sometimes the best thing to do is to wait and see, and not create problems by one’s need to be active. That is a fine lesson, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying conclusion to the story. There is also a muddled motivation of the “missing children.” I don’t think this lack of a definitive ending is about setting up a fourth entry in the series because the author states only vague intentions to (possibly) continue the series at some undefined point in the future. I also don’t think it’s a matter of having painted himself into a corner, but it maybe that he’s trying to say something about what really happened that I didn’t actually get. That’s a risk with so much going on in a multi-perspective, unreliably-narrated book.

There is a humorous attempt to engage with the challenge of mental illness, with John and Amy encouraging David to get help toward the end of the book. [This is also addressed in the epilogue.]

This is certainly a fun read. It’s humorous throughout. The story isn’t the strongest (or perhaps isn’t the clearest.) If you’ve read the other books, or at least the first one, and enjoyed it, I’d recommend you give this one a look.

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