Category Archives: Reading

Copernicus, Superman and the end of everything: books (#SFWApro)

A MORE PERFECT HEAVEN: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel is less interesting for recounting Copernicus’ theories (I’m reasonably familiar with how they developed and how the world reacted) than for covering the rest of his life — his role as a Catholic church administrator, having to deal with the “Lutheran” heresy and such mundane matters as setting the price of bread loaves the monasteries sold to the people. Sobel also does a good job, as usual, capturing the details of Copernicus’ quest to understand the heavens but I skipped the two chapters which were actually a play she wrote about the astronomer (her main reason for writing the book was to give the play some context)

SUPERMAN: Return to Glory: by Gene Luen Yang, Peter J. Tomasi, Howard Porter and Mikel Janin is an improvement over the previous volume Before Truth, despite the fact the concept of Superman in a metahuman fight club isn’t at all my idea of Superman. Nevertheless, Yang makes it work and I really liked that part of the book … but wouldn’t you know, then we’re in a big crossover event involving Vandal Savage, and some aspect of the Rebirth crossover. Neither of them worked as well for me — they pretty much sapped the life out of this — and it didn’t help that huge chunks of the story are taking place in other books (even though the TPB does provide a synopsis). Frustrating.

Speaking of crossover events, CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS from back in 1986 was the granddaddy of them all (Secret Wars preceded it but I don’t count it as the same sort of event). The 12-issue core story by Marv Wolfman and George Perez (cover by Perez, all rights remain with current holder) has the multiverse-watching Monitor recruit a mix of heroes and villains to stop his counterpart in the anti-matter universe, the Anti-Monitor, from devouring everything so his realm is all that remains. The battle that results is so big that the assembled supervillains trying to take over the world is just two chapters of this.

Everything we’re now used to in Big Events is there — deaths, transformations (this erased the DC multiverse for a couple of decades), changes (Wally West becomes Flash after Barry Allen dies), but it was unprecedented. Later events would throw deaths and transformations in because that’s what they were supposed to do; Crisis does it just to be awesome, and succeeds. Supergirl’s death in COIE #7 still packs a punch (there are also several deaths such as Aquagirl that are just collateral damage rather than heroic endings). That said, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone just starting in comics, as it’ll probably be an endless stream of characters you’ve never heard of. And yes, that DC eventually undid so much of this — the single Earth, the single timeline, a new continuity — drains a lot of the power. While I hated erasing the multiverse, I think I’d have preferred sticking with that to endless rebooting it with more big events and little ones too. Well after COIE had supposedly changed everything, writers would get the g0-ahead to just reboot one particular character (Hawkman, Doom Patrol) which turned the new continuity into the old continuity and made everything messy. Still, standing on its own, COIE is one heck of an achievement.

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Doc Savage, Pat Savage and overseas travel: The Awful Dynasty and The Men Vanished (#SFWApro)

Bobb Cotter’s Doc Savage reference book points out, accurately, that between the start of WW II and Pearl Harbor Doc stayed almost entirely on the home front. As we wrap up 1940, though, we get two books that are an exception. THE AWFUL DYNASTY goes from England (as in The Flying Goblin, no war is noticeable) to New York to Egypt (which would be occupied by Italy shortly afterwards); THE MEN VANISHED is a trek up the Amazon.

The Awful Dynasty opens with a mysterious Egyptian cylinder being shipped across the Atlantic. Johnny, the archeologist, takes an interest and gets taken out. Several other people drop dead with what appears to be an Egyptian scarab sitting on them. Is it a King Tut-style curse?

Once again, we have two crooks with opposing agenda. The evil albino John Black (in thrillers, albinism always equals evil) believes the Egyptian scroll inside the cylinder is worthless, but plans to con a group of millionaires into financing an expedition, money he’ll then rip off (a la The Pirate’s Ghost). Though midway through he suddenly converts into a serious treasure hunter without explanation. The other villain, a crooked Egyptologist, knows the scroll is legit, and intends to get the treasure at the end.

It’s an adequate plot, but the execution is uninspired. It’s also one of those stories in which Pat Savage is there but doesn’t get to do much. And the ending, while I’ve seen it in other fiction from that era, doesn’t age well: the beautiful Egyptian princess filling the guest-star role in the story falls for Monk, so the guys “save” him from marrying her by convincing her he’s already married with children. It wasn’t funny when I first read it, or now.

A minor point: this is one of several stories which establish Doc has a vetting committee (Monk and Ham in this case) to decide if people asking for his help really need it. Dent was never consistent about this, as witness the following book shows people going straight up to Doc to ask for help. Possibly Doc wavered back and forth on the merits.

The Men Vanished is a much better book, with a larger and livelier role for Pat. The backstory of the plot is that explorer Daniel Stage has vanished in the Amazon. So have the men who went to rescue him. Finding vanished explorers is meat and drink for Doc, but in this case it’s a scam: Stage lures various adventurers to find him, then captures them and forces them to transfer their wealth to him, gradually enough nobody catches on. And while he’s living in a lost civilization descended from the Incas it’s perfectly unremarkable — no more amazing than any tribe that’s been isolated from Western civilization.

Of course Stage isn’t dumb enough to try and trick Doc, so when he fears Doc might get involved, he sends men to NYC to take Savage out. Trying to figure out what’s going on takes up much of the book. Embroiled in the action is Phil O’Reilly, a good-looking adventurer wannabe and (by the description) metrosexual who worries he’s not really manly enough. While he’s wealthy rather than one of Dent’s penniless drifter characters, he seems cut from the same mold.

The book has several good set pieces such as Doc dying early on and a climactic fight against an enraged jaguar. On the downside, we have a Native American millionaire, which is different from the usual stereotypes, but they still creep in (Dent compares his skill at flying a plane to a crazed Native horseman circling a wagon train). There’s also Stage’s odd decision to disguise himself with a Two Face-style mask, half normal, half looking like a grotesque native. Dent never explains what the advantage of drawing attention to himself is.

Both covers by Emery Clark, all rights remain with current holder.

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Imaginary Worlds: a secondary-world history (#SFWApro)

IMAGINARY WORLDS: The Art of Fantasy by Lin Carter (wonderful cover by Gervasio Gallardo, all rights remain with current holder), a history of secondary world fantasy for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, didn’t blow me away as much as when I read it as a teen. But I expected that.

Back then, the literary world Carter mapped was terra incognita to me. All these amazing authors — James Branch Cabell, Clark Ashton Smith, A. Merritt, E. R. Eddison — that I’d read maybe one or two books by, and now I saw how much more stuff was out there. Ohhhh, I wanted it. I wanted it all. Now, of course, I’ve read most of them, liked many of them (as I’ve mentioned before, Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros is much overrated). The thrill of seeing what lay ahead is gone.

That aside, this is a decent but flawed history of the topic. Carter argues that secondary-world fantasy (Middle Earth, Narnia, Hyborian Age) is the core of fantasy fiction so it deserves a spotlight. While dubiously asserting that pretty much any ancient book with magic in it should count as fantasy (if people believed in them, they ain’t fantasy; I’m quite sure Milton thought Paradise Lost was dramatizing real events), he does a good job following the idea of “create your own world and make it magical” concept from William Morris through George McDonald, Dunsany, Merritt, Cabell and then into the pulps and after. And he lists the different ways of creating a separate world: another planet, another dimension, ancient history, distant future or just say “here it is” without explanation.

And I find a lot of his analysis — why it’s okay sword-and-sorcery has a limited range of styles and where Tolkien went wrong — pretty persuasive. However I could do without the endless carping about how fantasy is really, really cool even though people laugh at it, though that was pretty common in writing about the genre at the time (back in the pre-Game of Thrones, pre-LOTR films, we fans could get a little defensive). And some of Carter’s analysis is daft, such as describing Raymond Chandler as a guy with no prose style (it makes me suspect Carter has never read Chandler).

Curiously Carter doesn’t seem to believe fantasy set in what appears to be the real world is even remotely possible, which given the breadth of his own reading surprises me. True, he was writing well before the birth of urban fantasy, but by 1973 when he wrote this there’d certainly been fantasies that qualified (T.H. White, whom Carter greatly admires, did at least two, most notably the charming Mistress Masham’s Repose).  For that matter, A. Merritt’s fantasies are all contemporary, set in some isolated land tucked away from the rest of the world (he was writing early enough in the century that unknown lands were still a possibility).

The two big flaws are that Carter forgets his own ground rules, and that he talks too much about himself. Given his ground rules about what counts as a secondary world, he shouldn’t be including Islandia which is contemporary and has no magic. As he rules out fantasies set in other people’s worlds, Evangeline Walton’s books in the world of Celtic myth shouldn’t be there either.

The second flaw is much more frustrating. As with his Year’s Best Fantasy series, Carter has no compunction about turning the spotlight on himself. Which is fair enough at times — I’m not a fan of his Thongor books, but at the time it was one of the more successful Conan knockoffs — but I think readers would be better served by more detail on, say, Andre Norton’s Witch World series than discussing the Carter/DeCamp continuation of Howard’s Conan books.

Overall, I think reading the introduction to the various books in the Adult Fantasy series would be more productive than reading Imaginary Worlds. But I do think Carter’s thoughts about writing fantasy are worth discussing in a later post. So I will.

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Synchronized clocks and dream quests: this week’s books (#SFWApro)

I read a good deal more, but I’m saving it for in-depth posts

EINSTEIN’S CLOCKS, POINCARE´S MAPS: Empires of Time by Peter Galison attempts to place Einstein in a scientific and technical world where the relationship between a clock in a railway station and a pocket watch on a train was anything but abstract. As Galison details, questions of how to coordinate clocks consumed a lot of people in the late 19th century, the problem being not only mechanical but also political as someone had to decide what “standard” time the clocks would default to (one American proposal for US clocks would have dumped local time and set all time zones to one central clock). Galison also looks at why the French physicist/mathematician/engineer Poincaré came close to Einstein’s relativity breakthrough and stopped short, concluding that Poincaré was too tied to the practical to be comfortable with stripping away everything to relativity. Interesting but dry, and I’m not sure Poincaré adds anything to the narrative.

THE SIXTH GUN: Ghost Dance by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt has Becky, Drake and their crew fleeing the Widow Hume with their accursed world-shaping weapons. But Becky tapping the Sixth Gun’s powers in previous stories is killing her spirit so to save it some convenient Native American shamans send her on a vision quest for answers. While I’m a fan of the series, this was a disappointing volume: comics have done this sort of pretentious, surreal spirit journey to death and the creators didn’t bring anything new to the table. The Native American magic also feels stereotypical, though maybe if I’d caught the previous volume it would have worked better.

Oh, the clock from the Metropolitan Museum of Art has nothing to do with the books but it’s so beautiful, and it fit the topic of the first book, so … Photo is by me.

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Discrimination as metaphor in specfic (#SFWApro)

In a 2012 blog post I read last year, Aliette de Bodard takes issue with the idea of showing nonhumans (mutants, ETs, vampires, fae, mages) as a discriminated minority, much like blacks, gays, Jews, Latinos. Her specific criticisms:

•Real minorities are not, in fact, nonhuman, nor are they dangerous as vampires (for example) are.

•Creating a minority that’s an alien race perpetuates stereotypes about real minorities not being really human.

•Authors in focusing on discrimination against their fictional creatures don’t show any real-world discrimination against blacks, gays, etc.

•By showing the fictional creatures wanting to become a part of mainstream society, the subtext is that mainstreaming should be everyone’s goal, that alternative lifestyles are inferior — the old 1950s idea of a melting pot where immigrants and minorities would win their rights by proving they could conform to white American standards.

This is an argument I’ve heard before, though more in the sense of justifying legal discrimination against mutants, Inhumans, whatever: unlike real minorities, mutant powers make them a genuine threat to society. Isn’t registering them reasonable? de Bodard would seem to be arguing that by implication, registering or imprisoning mutants says laws against minorities are legitimate (I may be misinterpreting her logic here). I don’t think I’d agree with that. Discrimination doesn’t have to be an allegory or metaphor, it can be a thing in itself; while I think discrimination against paranormals is a tedious cliché, I don’t think it’s implausible at all.

And as Steven Attewell has shown in some of his Marvel History posts, discrimination against mutants isn’t automatically racial: in the Silver Age it often reflected paranoia about Commie subversives lurking among us (made specific in the second Sentinels story — cover by Neal Adams, all rights remain with current holder), the same sort of paranoia I wrote about in Screen Enemies of the American Way.

Which is a long-winded way of saying I don’t think discrimination against Fictional Race/Beings/Culture is necessarily as objectionable as de Bodard finds it. And I’ve known people, both black and gay, who did identify and connect with the X-Men’s plight. Even though I have my own reservations about X-Men as Metaphor, I can hardly disagree with people who are minorities and do feel the metaphor works (unlike me, they have a dog in the hunt).

But I also can’t disagree with de Bodard’s point about not portraying real discriminated minorities alongside the fictional ones. Or as one gay acquaintance put it back in the 1990s, it’s nice that X-Men can make a statement about gay rights, but it would be nicer if they had some actual gay members. I can think of a number of other stories where that criticism could be made, for example the Alien Nation TV series (IIRC).

I have nothing to say about the “melting pot” aspect of her post. If I think of anything, I’ll post again. I do have some ideas about discrimination as it relates to mages, but that’ll definitely be a post in itself.

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City of Blades and worldbuilding (#SFWApro)

Reading reviews of Robert Jackson Bennett’s CITY OF BLADES (cover by Sam Weber, all rights to current holder) it struck me that what most of the reviewers were impressed with (I’m talking review columns, not individuals on Goodreads) was not at all what I liked about it.

First, the story: grizzled Saypuri General Mulaghesh, a supporting character in City of Stairs, gets dragged from her retirement to investigate the disappearance of a Saypuri official in the city of Voortyashtan.  Voortyashtan was the heart of the Divine Empire, which once ruled the world, until the Saypuri brought it down with anti-magic weaponry. Now they’re trying to rebuild the port city, despite the unrest of various local factions (it seems the Iraq War was a big influence on the politics here). And as Mulaghesh learned in the previous book, not all the miracles have gone …

I thoroughly enjoyed it, except for some awkward modern terminology (not totally inappropriate for the setting, but it jarred just the same). I like Mulaghesh as a middle-aged lead (much more interesting than the oldsters in Black Wolves), the magic set up is intriguing, and the story is solid. But most of the reviews I read didn’t think Bennett was that much as a storyteller, they liked him (to the extent they did) as a world-builder.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen a book recommended because of cool world-building, and it didn’t make sense to me then, either. I’ve seen many books where I love the setting and the premise, but for me world-building is only important to the extent it generates a great story and good characters. The depth that Tolkien gave to Middle Earth is impressive, but I’ve never had the slightest urge to read through those appendixes in LOTR. Elaborate magic systems, as I’ve mentioned before, usually bore me. As I mentioned in the Black Wolves review, endless exposition about culture, society and whatever usually leaves me cold if it’s not in the service of the story (or the characters). I had the same reaction to An Accident of Stars — the world is interesting, but nothing much is happening.

Yet obviously for lots of people the world-building is fascinating. And I can sort of understand it: I have the same reaction to super-hero comics. The endless details of how the Scarlet Witch’s powers or Superman’s abilities work are something I can immerse myself in happily. Ditto the details of real history. But fantasy worlds? I need to know as much as will advance the story or dramatize the characters’ reactions, but not much more than that (as I mentioned in the Black Wolves link, something I’m having to think about working on Southern Discomfort).

Does that indicate my writing is fundamentally out of sorts with what publishers and readers want? Maybe. Or maybe not: most of the Blades reviews on Goodreads liked Bennett’s story a lot more than the formal reviews. Whatever that signifies.

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Is Our Writers Learning? Only the Dead Know Burbank (#SFWApro)

ONLY THE DEAD KNOW BURBANK by Bradford Tatum (cover design by Gregg Kulick, all rights to current holder) has an interesting concept and some beautiful writing, but not much else. I gave up midway.

THE STORY: Maddy is a young girl in Germany, growing up before WW I. After various adventures, she’s turned into an undead (a scene poetic enough that I don’t mind the vagueness of what exactly happened), then winds up working in early German cinema. Her undead nature gives her a unique understanding of horror which ultimately leads her to Hollywood where she becomes the genius who secretly gives birth to Universal’s classic horror films.

WHAT I LEARNED

Style and description are nice, but not without substance. Lord Dunsany has style, but he also has great stories to tell. Tatum, not so much. In fairness to Tatum, that’s because this is 90 percent a historical non-fantasy novel, and I don’t care for those. The endless details of Maddy’s mundane life, or of Weimar-era decadence, just don’t fascinate me in themselves. The movie-making scenes are the most interesting, but not interesting enough to entertain me.

Don’t let writing drown out feeling. The thing that started me skimming is that Maddy’s voice is very detached. She describes her setting and physical sensation in detail, but rarely with passion, even when she gets raped. I know she’s dead and remembering all this from decades later, but it still makes it hard to care. The only time we see flashes of passion are, again, when she’s working on the movies (Tatum is a screenwriter/actor).

Enough with gratuitous rape. There’s a rape scene in the first third that serves no purpose other than to show how horrible Maddy’s life is. As many people have pointed out, using rape to convey utter horror or a living hell has been way overdone. And it’s usually gratuitous, as in this case: Maddy died, she’s being possessed/mind-controlled but she has to be raped as well? And while the rape is graphic, we never really see the emotional after effects (partly because Tatum, as noted, buried strong emotion under Maddie’s listless voice).

Don’t offer deep thoughts if you don’t have them. What convinced me to stop reading was when Maddy tells someone that the core of Dracula is incest. Dracula wants a lover, but he has to “sire” the women he loves to turn them into vampires. So they’re his daughters and his lovers. So incest. Sorry, that’s just silly. And I don’t believe anyone used “sire” in vampire stories that long ago (there are other words that seem too modern, like “desensitized” in reference to horror having too much gore and violence).

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