Category Archives: Reading

The first time ever I saw that trope

Some of you may be familiar with the infamous concept  of the “Adam and Eve” story. This is an SF story which ends with a man and women as the last survivors of a nuclear war, or the first colonists on an alien planet. And their first names are … Adam and Eve. So was this set in our future — or Earth’s past?

I don’t know when the first version of this appeared, but it goes back at least to the 1960s or early 1950s. There’s a Marvel short SF story that uses the trope (probably the first place I encountered it), and an S5 Twilight Zone episode, “Probe 7, Over and Out.” And truthfully, I don’t think it’s that horrible an idea. Not deep, but cute enough for a flash fiction story — much less satisfying as the punchline of the TZ episode. The reason it’s infamous is because lots and lots of people write and submit the story (or they used to, back in the 20th century), convinced it’s a fresh idea that’s sure to sell. No Adam and Eve Stories is a staple of “what not to submit” guidelines.

And I get that. It’s cute the first time you encounter it, but never again. But the point I’m working around to is that when someone reads it for the first time, it doesn’t matter that it’s trite or cliched — for them it’s fresh and clever. Maybe not that clever in this case, but it’s not just this case, it’s any case. The first time we read a detective story, a ghost story, a superhero story, watch a rom com it doesn’t matter that the tropes are hackneyed, assuming they’re done with a reasonable level of competence. As the late critic Pauline Kael said back in the 1990s, if you’re a teenager who doesn’t watch a lot of movies, Titanic really may have been the greatest movie you’d ever seen.

It’s very easy to overlook this as a critic. The mere fact you’re watching way more movies than the average person has an effect on your perceptions (I can speak from personal experience after all the watching I’ve done for my various film books). The cliches become more annoying; conversely, stuff that breaks genre convention may seem a lot fresher and better to you than it would to ordinary viewers. Writing Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan I included comments on several films that if it was the first haunted house film you’d ever seen (or cops-and-robots or Christmas fantasy comedy), it might be entertaining, conceding most people wouldn’t have my jaundiced viewpoint (I watched a shit-ton of Poltergeist knockoffs for that book!).

I suspect binge-watching can have the same effect: the Roger Moore Bond films came off much weaker when I watched them relatively quickly after watching all the Connery movies.

I sometimes see this creeping into writing too, particularly comics. The Emerald Dawn series retelling Green Lantern’s origin in the 1990s was a good example: the writer seemed to assume we knew all about the Green Lantern Corps and the Guardians, we’d seen them in lots of stories and yeah, who cares any more, amiright? Zero attempt to infuse the story with the sense of wonder the early Green Lantern issues gave me. Conversely, the late Len Wein has said that in every Superman story he’d use the standard tropes such as “This looks like a job … for Superman!” because each story was probably someone’s first and the trope will be fresh.

It’s something to keep in mind as we write, perhaps. Are we writing for newbies? For people who read a lot of genre stuff but still enjoy the old tropes? Someone who wants something new within limited values of “new”? Or someone whose seen it all, written it all and desperately wants tropes questioned and metafictional commentary made? I suspect I’m writing to categories two and three in that list, mostly three. Not that any of them are unworthy to write too, but the same stories may not work for all four groups.

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What is the point of Sherlock Holmes?

One of the panels I attended at Mysticon back in February was on Sherlock, Elementary and Holmes in general. At one point someone raised the question, just what use is Sherlock Holmes in the modern world? Given the scope of police forensic science and surveillance videos, what does he bring to the table?

I forget who responded but their reaction stuck with me: if modern police work can solve the crime, Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t be on the case. You bring him in when police can’t crack the case, when the connections or the evidence are something ordinary methods won’t find — you need a genius.

This is not, actually, a new topic. Way back in 1963, detective Ellery Queen came to the same conclusion in The Player on the Other Side: there’s simply no place for a talented amateur detective in the world of modern policing. Over the course of the story, Queen naturally figures out he’s wrong. The killer is a lunatic whose non-linear thinking proves impossible for the cops to anticipate; it takes Ellery’s creative, out-of-the-box analysis to get the answers.

I think that’s generally good advice if you’re creating an exceptional, awesome protagonist. A cozy mystery can work with an ordinary crime because most cozy detectives are just regular folks, like Sarah Winston in my friend Sherry Harris’s Yard Sale series. There the challenge is to make it plausible the protagonist will crack the case (and has a good reason for investigating) when the cops don’t. For Holmes or Queen (or Nero Wolfe or Gideon Fell, etc.) the challenge is a puzzle that the cops can’t crack. This can be because the puzzle is fiendishly complicated; because the police are incompetent (usually not the best approach); or because the police have seized on a wrong theory or wrong suspect (much more plausible — it happens in real life after all).

I think this might be a useful insight beyond detective stories. Like the old rule about the hero needing a worthy antagonist, we have to give them an adventure they deserve. If an ordinary warrior can save the day, you don’t need Conan. If the Special Crimes Unit can take down the supervillain, you don’t need Superman (Superman does stop a lot of ordinary crimes and help out in minor matters, but it isn’t the focus of the story). One of the perennial challenges of comics is trying to provide heroes with challenges without simply turning every story into an apocalypse.

It doesn’t have to be exceptional power or intellect that makes the difference. Sometimes it’s just their spirit. “Down these mean streets a man must go who is neither mean nor afraid,” as Raymond Chandler put it. And there are lots of stories where the protagonist isn’t supposed to be exceptional, just an average (wo)man on the street/cop/reporter.

But if the hero is exceptional, the challenge should be too.

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Card sharps and polar explorers: books read

REAL MAGIC by Stuart Jaffe and Cameron Francis (Jaffe’s a writer, Francis is a conjurer) is one I’d have loved to recommend to my friend Neil. Protagonist Duncan Rose has been trained as a stage magician but he uses his skills as a grifter instead, cheating suckers at card games. When an idiot friend enlists him to cheat some very dangerous people, Duncan winds up stumbling through his great-grandfather’s magic door into 1934. Duncan soon befriends a contemporary stage magician  (the book is quite interesting about the difference between 1930s card tricks and the present) and his pretty sister, copes with culture shock, and ends up under the thumb of a vicious mobster who thinks the siblings have the secret of the magic door, which he wants for himself. Although the ending was way too downbeat, I still liked the book overall.

I MAY BE SOME TIME: Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford looks at the cultural trends that would lead someone like Naval officer Robert Scott to become a polar explorer, and for England to then gush over him (as Spufford points out, his bio has been grist for movies, kids’ books, and criticism from the left and right both). Spufford sees the fascination with the poles as drawing on a number of English obsessions: sublime beauty, imperialism (the Antarctic was seen as Britain’s to explore), racial (uneasy awareness the Inuit could maintain everyday life in a world where white men could barely survive) and a conviction that exploration was as important spiritually as any practical gains; the latter, led in turn, to the belief that dying heroically in the snow might be more commendable than, say, going native and relying on Inuit survival techniques. Spufford is also aware that Scott was an incompetent explorer, though that’s not the focus of his book. Interesting, though Spufford’s attempt at literary style is a slog to get through.

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This morning, the apocalypse!

As captured on book covers, anyway.

Some say the world will end in fire—

Some say in ice.

Nobody, however, said the world would end crushed by a giant monster until this Kirby cover.

I haven’t read We Who Survived. Alas, Babylon was part of ninth-grade (I think) English, the curriculum’s minor concession to SF (it’s a reasonably realistic look at post-WW III survival, and I quite enjoyed it). I can’t say I have any enthusiasm for those 1950s/early 1960s Marvel monster stories, but they do have cool covers.

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Wonder Woman: Goodbye Gerry Conway

Gerry Conway’s contribution to the Bronze Age Wonder Woman was bigger than I remembered. First he wrote around ten issues for her World War Two retcon phase. After he returned to the book with #259, he stuck with it until #285. That’s a welcome break from the constant turnover. Equally important, he soft-rebooted Diana (whether it was Conway or editorial’s call, I know not) back to the classic set-up of Diana Prince and Steve Trevor working for Army intelligence. After the space-shuttle period and then the return to the UN failed, this soft reboot took, lasting after Conway — until the George Perez hard reboot of the mid-1980s wiped everything away, in fact.

After Diana takes Steve back to the United States, she hacks the military computers to create a false identity for herself as Diana Prince. In addition to working for Steve, she makes a friend, and eventual roommate of Lt. Etta Candy. Etta had been WW’s constant sidekick in the Golden Age, a plump sorority girl with a taste for adventure. The Wonder Woman TV show and therefore the WW II-era comics had rebooted Etta into one of Diana and Steve’s colleagues; Conway now did that for the present-day series. While Etta would stay military after the Perez reboot, Wonder Woman: Earth One went back to sorority sister; Legend of Wonder Woman had her start in a sorority, then enlist with Diana.

Conway’s take on Steve reminds me of the brief Steve Howard period in which Steve struggled to prove he could stand on his own. Here, though, it worked. Steve is initially embarrassed by Diana constantly rescuing him, but by the end of the run, he’s come to accept that’s his problem to deal with, not hers. Their relationship really feels good.

General Darnell, last seen in the late 1960s, is less successful. In the Golden Age he’d shown some interest in Lt. Prince; the reboot version is quite aggressively interested, pushing for dates, not wanting to take no. Given that she’s under his command this comes off as harassment (it’s also a major violation of military rules). Conway’s Diana, though, just roles her eyes (Roy Thomas would make Darnell much creepier a few issues down the road).

So that’s the cast, how about the stories? Conway’s first story after the reboot pits Wonder Woman against her old foe Angle Man. The next arc is a good one pitting WW against Kobra, one of DC’s few free-floating villains (i.e, not attached to any particular hero) of the Bronze Age. This also gave us a new version of the Cheetah, one of Diana’s top Golden Age foes. This one was the niece of the original, brainwashed by Kobra into an ecoterrorist as part of his scheme to destabilize the world economy. The story also added a recurring support cast member, Mother Juju, an old voodoo priestess living in DC.

Juju is stock (almost a literal magic Negro) but she plays a large role in the next arc, involving Jack Kirby’s character Etrigan the Demon; his creepy enemy Klarion the Witch Boy; and a disability stereotype, a paraplegic who’ll do anything to regain the use of his legs. It’s a middling story, but Conway’s Etrigan shows flashes of the more vicious version who’d become standard a few years later. After Etrigan saves Diana and Etta, for instance, Steve offers to shake his hand; he sneers and mocks Steve’s show of politeness.

The final arc pits Diana against a depressingly generic Chinese warlord, the Red Dragon. The story handles Steve/Diana well, but the Red Dragon is a mediocre knockoff of Marvel’s Mandarin (proving I was wrong to think Mandy was comics’ last Sinister Oriental). On the whole, Conway’s stories in this period aren’t as good as his WW II ones, but they’re certainly enjoyable.

This period also added Huntress (the original version, the Earth-Two Batman’s daughter) as a backup feature. I’m not reviewing it here but that’s no reflection on it.

After a couple of guest writers, Roy Thomas took over scripting through 300. Which will be a good point for my next post on this reread. Until then…

#SFWApro. Art by Ross Andru, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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A monster girl, a monster show: Books read

Noelle Stevenson’s NIMONA is a graphic novel I started reading online, then stumbled across the whole thing in paperback. Ballister Blackheart once aspired to be a hero working for the enigmatic Institute defending his er, medieval-punk country (it’s an odd mix of advanced tech and knightly armor). Then everything changed and he’s now an archvillain working against Goldenloin, who got the hero gig Ballister aspired too. Enter Nimona, a pixie-ish shapeshifter eager to work as Ballister’s sidekick with her shapeshifting powers. But is she who or what she says she is? What is the Institute up to? I don’t think the Institute’s plan really made a lot of sense, but that’s not the center of the book, so this worked for me anyway. I look forward to more from Stevenson.

THE MONSTER SHOW: A Cultural History of Horror by David J. Skal (who provided the commentary on the Dracula DVD I watched a while back) starts off well in the Victorian age but slides into pretension as it approaches the present. Skal’s strength is writing about the genesis of Dracula and Frankenstein, their Victorian reception and their lurching transition first to stage, then screen. After that comes the pretension, such as finding some sort of parallel between mad scientists transforming humans into monsters and plastic surgery recreating people’s faces (he spends several pages discussing Michael Jackson to no good effect) or lots of discussion on AIDS as the root of 1980s horror (he’s writing in 1993). Okay, so what about cancer? Polio, which was a terrifying thing before Salk and Sabine developed their vaccines? Why not more on slasher films which were, after all, a primary form of horror in the 1980s (when Skal does deal with them, it’s to see them as anti-child and ignore the misogynist overtones)? A real disappointment

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Is Our Writers Learning? Year One by Nora Roberts

I love Nora Roberts’ work as JD Robb, a dark cops-and-serial killers series set in the future of 2050 (a lot further away when she started). So at the library I picked up her first book in the Chronicles of the One post-apocalyptic fantasy series.

THE STORY: A couple of families spend Christmas hunting at a lodge in the Highlands. One of them spilled blood in a local stone circle years ago; now he does it again. Result: he becomes the carrier for a pandemic, the Doom, which wipes out much of the world in the days, months and years following. As the survivors struggle to keep surviving, they discover the Doom also triggers supernatural powers or amplifies them in practitioners. Some of whom are good, some evil. And soon a child will be born who will be the Chosen One, who can save the world from the dark powers. If she lives long enough.

WHAT I LEARNED:

Realistic exploration of the fantastic is a good thing: In contrast to the Left Behind series, Roberts has put some thought into the way people cope with the apocalypse. The breakdown of society. The loss of technology. Things that are suddenly no longer possible when too many people are dead to keep things running. There’s an interesting discussion pointing out that even if someone successfully mastered a vaccine, time and logistics guarantee the death toll will be in the billions. I think Roberts handles the details better than The Stand, which shot more for Mythic than realistic (for the record I hated The Stand, though not for that reason).

Roberts also does a good job exploring how the end of the world we know affects the characters: Arlys, a reporter, keeps on reporting, even as society collapses. She believes it’s a good thing  — that people need to know what’s happening even if they can’t do anything about it. She’s one of the better reporter characters I’ve seen in a while. Then there’s the mourning of the dead, and the realization that there’s no longer any way to reach people alive but living too far away.

Doing something new with something very old is tricky.Much as I enjoyed the realistic touches, I’ve been reading stories about surviving/rebuilding from the apocalypse since my teens, and they go back way further than that. It’s a YMMV reaction, but I just felt that part of the book has been done and redone.

Multiple points of view can be a problem. As I found out in early drafts of Southern Discomfort, having too many characters reduces the impact of any one character. That’s not necessarily bad (I still have quite a few), but it works against Year One. The good guys are believable characters, but none of them are particularly distinctive. None of them stands out enough to grab me or interest me. Focusing on one or two characters might have worked better.

Recycling cliches is worse. And lord, the fantasy stuff is cliched. The powers are conventional, mostly resembling psi/metahuman abilities (i.e., to work magic just point and will it to happen) — thirty years ago, she could have done them as radiation-induced mutant powers and not change much. The characters who turn evil are all unsubtle; they seem one instant away from laughing maniacally (“He thinks his soft, white, weak power can measure to mine?”). The Chosen One is a very well worn trope, though I don’t hate it the way some people do. Mutie-haters out to kill all the mages are even more cliched and I hate that shtick).

Magic or metahuman powers suddenly manifesting in the real world is an old trope too. Shadowrun. Barbara Hambly’s Magic Time (which also deals with magic manifesting post-apocalypse). Larry Correia’s excellent Grimnoir books. Heck, even Flash‘s metahumans and Agents of SHIELD‘s Inhumans. I don’t think it’s a used-up idea, but it doesn’t work in this setting. With a death toll of seven billion and the breakdown of society, neither the evil mages nor the mage-hunters seem to matter.It gives me some respect for The Stand in that Stephen King makes Randall Flagg a convincing threat even in a similar pandemic.

#SFWApro. Cover design by Ervin Serrano, all rights remain with current holder.

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Doc Savage Died Twice on the Devil’s Black Rock

Two books built around a spectacular gimmick, the second being much the better

THEY DIED TWICE starts with Doc working on a new project for the military, leaving Renny free to investigate a device that the inventor claims dredges up ancestral memories. Renny is so horrified by his ancestor’s (a Caravaggio-like brawling artist) behavior he finds a statute of him in a museum and smashes it. Doc agrees to undergo the same treatment and gets a nasty surprise: when Clark Savage Sr. discovered the Mayan Valley of the Vanished (which debuted in the very first novel, The Man of Bronze) he concealed it from his partner “Secret” Stevens instead of sharing the wealth. Guilt-ridden, Doc agrees to take Stevens to the Valley. This doesn’t make much sense as the series has always been clear Doc gets the gold from the valley only with the Mayans’ consent — it’s unlikely they’d have signed off on Stevens, and Doc wouldn’t accept taking it by force.

Of course this is just a scheme by the bad guys to get the Mayan gold. The machine just puts people into a light hypnotic state where they think the films they’re seeing represent real ancestral memories. The crooks need Doc to guide them to the Valley; this seems like one case where playing along with them was a mistake. In addition to their schemes, Doc has to deal with an elite Mayan sect that wants to cut off all contact with the outside world and figures whacking him and his aides would do the trick. It all works out in the end and Doc says goodbye to the valley and Princess Monja. They don’t reappear, though they crop up in several post-pulp stories, such as Millennium Comics‘ short run. She was the mother of Diana Savage in my own The Savage Year, even though the story doesn’t spell it out.

THE DEVIL’S BLACK ROCK is one of those that opens with a guest character, “Donkey Sam” David, a grizzled prospector who discovers local schemer Wickard Cole has played a prank on the teetotaller, switching the cigars in his pack for a bottle of rotgut. When he flings the bottle away in disgust, something rises out of the ground: “It had no shape, or rather it had a shape that changed so fast it was impossible to tell just what it was. The monster of the black stood on the Earth like by far the most awful thing Donkey Sam Davis had ever seen.”

He and Cole investigate together and discover that when the “devil” left it bored a tunnel miles deep. Cole promptly seals the hole with dynamite and begins gathering a crooked gang, something Sam spies on with interest before trying to contact Doc.  What follows has way too much stuff that just moves pieces around, like a pretty girl helping Sam who turns out to be Cole’s’s wife — no, wait, she’s the twin sister of Wade’s wife! There’s no point to that twist other than to add complications to the plot. And I’m not sure what Cole gained by sealing up the tunnels the black rock creates. However, there are lots of good bits such as guard dogs equipped with poison artificial fangs (see the cover below)

I did like Cole’s practical approach: he realizes going up against Doc Savage is a losing play, so he’s simply going to avoid the Man of Bronze until he completes his scheme, selling the black rock to the Nazis. The rock’s effects are spectacular and the ending explanation is interesting. While Dent doesn’t use the words, it’s a fissionable element that not only explodes when triggered, it causes a chain reaction that triggers fission in the ordinary material around it. This was actually a serious fear when the early experimenters split the atom, though of course it wasn’t the case (check out Richard Rhodes Making of the Atomic Bomb for details).

A sublot has the guys trying to break Monk of his susceptibility to a pretty face. They actually do (at one point he refuses to let Para’s looks sway him) though it didn’t last, of course.

#SFWApro. Covers by Bob Larkin and Emery Clarke, all rights remain with current holders.

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Batgirl, Inhumans and a Sailor: books read

I largely gave up on the Bat-books by the end of the 1990s, so I never read much of the Cassandra Cain Batgirl until picking up BATGIRL: Silent Knight and To the Death by (mostly) Kelly Puckett and Damion Scott. The adoptive child of assassin Cain, Cass has been trained to read body language instead of words, so that she knows how you’re going to move even before you do (she loses some of this ability over the course of the two volumes). Can Babs Gordon and Batman steer her to a heroic path? Is it possible she killed a man under Cain’s direction? How will she cope in a fight with Lady Shiva, the world’s deadliest martial artist? Cass is a striking character and I can see why she has a solid fanbase (ignored by DC in favor of restoring Barbara to Batgirl, though a version of Cass has shown up in DC’s current Rebirth). That said, the second volume isn’t as good as the first, being mostly standalone adventures that come off as endless, indistinguishable fight scenes.

ROYALS: Beyond Inhuman by Al Ewing and Ryan Sook starts out wrapping up some Inhuman/mutant big event (including the destruction of the terrigent mist) then takes the Inhumans old school, back in the days when they were a race apart rather than Mutants Mark II. After defeating Maximus’ latest plan, the Inhumans head into space to the Kree homeworld where they hope to find the secret to reclaiming terrigen. Can’t say this is A-list for me, but it’s certainly enjoyable.

THE RED WOLF CONSPIRACY: Book One of the Chathrand Voyage by Robert VS Redick is a good nautical fantasy in which a teen deckhand aboard a massive, ancient sailing vessel discovers the great voyage of peace they’re on is actually a scheme to plunge a rival empire into internecine war. Worse, there’s a third party plotting to use the scheme to obtain an all-powerful evil McGuffin and plunge the world into darkness. This is good enough I didn’t mind its flaws, though it has several. One is that Redick has a few too many things happening offstage, then recapped later (“While you were unconscious your renegade father came by to check you were okay, then vanished again.”). Another is that while the noblewoman Thasa starts out interesting (finally busting free of a rather repressive convent only to learn she’s stuck in an arranged marriage), she’s a lot more generic after that. Still I look forward to reading the sequel eventually.

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Some pulp covers for your amusement

Just got back from South Carolina yesterday (details later in the week) so no time to post anything thoughtful.

This one by Earl Bergey looks a little odd — the creature’s expression looks almost apologetic about disturbing the humans.

This one by Bergey’s a bit better

Uncredited art but I think it’s effective.

Here’s one by Walter Popp to wrap things up

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