Open Thread: RIP Aaron Allston

Aaron Allston passed away yesterday at age 53.  Most of you will probably be familiar with his work on Star Wars related books.  I remember him most fondly from his early Champions work.

Aaron Allston
Aaron Allston

He was the editor at Hero Games who gave me my first paying work as a writer, and created the Strike Force supplement that really showed how to put together a long-running Champions campaign.

We roomed together at Minicon once, and corresponded about Champions for a number of years until his full-time writing career took off.

He will be sorely missed.

If you have an Aaron Allston story, or liked one of his books, feel free to comment.

Comic Book Tribute: 2000 AD

Yesterday was the 37th anniversary of 2000 AD, a weekly British science fiction comic paper.

2000 AD

Back in the 1970s, the British comics market was doing quite well.  There were many weekly papers, divided into children’s, boys’ and girls’ categories.  Some then divided down into genres, such as comedy, war or sports.  A science fiction movie fad convinced an editor at IPC that an SF-themed weekly comic for boys would sell well.

Given the vagaries of the British comics industry, which had titles failing all the time to be incorporated into more popular weeklies, the new book was named 2000 AD as there was little chance of it reaching that far future date.  Previous experience had taught the team of Pat Mills and John Wagner that teens responded well to anti-authoritarian attitudes and authoritarian characters, even though their parents and the moral guardians deplored the former.

In keeping with the science fiction/future theme, the issues were called “progs” and the ostensible editor of the magazine, Tharg, was an alien from Betelgeuse who employed robots to write and draw the stories.   The first prog led off with a revamped version of the classic Dan Dare series, plus M.A.C.H.-1 (a super-powered secret agent with a computer in his head that regulated his powers and sometimes took control),  Flesh (time traveling cowboys herding dinosaurs), Invasion 1999 (Communazi invaders called Volgans take over Britain) and Harlem Heroes (an all-black team playing the futuristic sport of jetball.)

That last one was unusual for having black leads at a time when most comics shied away from them; it was later explained as not being a deliberately progressive choice so much as really being fans of the Harlem Globetrotters.

But what really set 2000 AD apart was a strip that didn’t start until the second issue due to needing more pre-production tweaking, Judge Dredd.  This futuristic Dirty Harry with an element of black comedy quickly became the flagship character of the book, appearing in nearly every issue.

The comics tended to be quite violent, and this has continued for the most part to the present day.  As it was a boys’ paper female characters were rare and marginalized in the early days.  Once female readers, bored by the rather soppy girls’ comics of the time, started coming in, this caused a running feud in the letters page with many male fans complaining that girls were invading their special space.

Things have gotten better on the sexism front since, although traces of laddishness still crop up in the current stories.  Due to the different censorship laws in Britain, female toplessness does happen from time to time–parents be advised.

Many now-famous British writers and artists got their first big break from 2000 AD, including Brian Bolland and Alan Moore.  There’s plenty of great art and snappy writing to be found in the various stories, along with some clinkers.

Despite some rough times, especially in the late 1990s, 2000 AD has managed to survive the collapse of the British comics industry and continues to publish weekly.  May they have many zarjaz years to come!

Book Review: The Case of the Tiffany Killer

Book Review: The Case of the Tiffany Killer by A. R. Rampa

Disclosure:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Case of the Tiffany Killer

Peggy Hart is the best-dressed and most curious teenage girl in Pinewood, a lovely small town that’s probably in Ohio.  She’s put her curiosity to good use as a girl detective.  But lately,  her cases have been getting more and more sordid, and now there’s a killer that abducts teenage girls and returns bits of them in decorative gift boxes.

Can Peggy and her best friend Pickles find the culprit before one of them becomes the target?   And does this case tie into what became of Peggy’s brother Philly, missing this past year?

This is a National Novel Writing Month book, written over the course of a single November (but presumably polished afterwards.)  It’s a spoof of teen detective books, especially Nancy Drew.  I’d say it’s more like the recent Nancy Drew film, depicting the main character as slightly out of place in a modern milieu.

The first couple of chapters are anachronic, which is kind of confusing, but the book soon settles down to a more linear storytelling style.   There remains a bit of an issue with the narration switching point of view between paragraphs without warning.  There’s also a few spellchecker typos, two on one page being unusual enough words to catch my attention.

Good stuff:  The characters really feel like they’re using coping methods, and not always healthy ones, to control what feels like out of control circumstances.  Peggy’s rigid standards for clothing herself, for example.  There’s also some good descriptions that give color to the scenes.

Not so good:  The spoof elements and the morbid plotline really don’t work well together.   Treating it as more of a straight up mystery story might have been a better choice.   You might be able to guess the killer by genre savviness, but there isn’t really a fair play mystery here.  One plot thread remains dangling at the end; sequel hook, except that this is more of an “end of series” story.

This book was written in consultation with eighth graders, so is presumably a young adult book, but the gruesome subject matter (trigger warning for torture) may make it a poor choice for the lower age end of YA.

This might do well with fans of Nancy Drew pastiches.

Open Thread: My Doctor Visit

Dr. Who


Many years ago, while in England, I got to see an exhibit with a special guest star.  You can really tell I’m a tourist, can’t you?

Tell me your favorite celebrity (or facsimile thereof) story!

Book Review: In the Wet

Book Review: In the Wet by Nevil Shute

This is rather an odd book by the author of On the Beach and A Town Like Alice.  It starts as the story of Roger Hargreaves, an aging Anglican priest in Northern Australia in the 1950s.  In the course of his parish duties,  Father Hargreaves meets a colorful local character, an old drunk named Frankie.   Frankie may have some sort of precognitive abilities, or maybe he just got a lucky guess.  Still, there’s more to Frankie than meets the eye.

In the Wet

During the rainy season, (as the locals call it, “in the wet”,) Hargreaves receives word that Frankie is dying.  Along with a local medical woman, he hurries to the remote cabin Frankie is staying in.   They lose their medical supplies in the floods, and the lamp fuel is almost gone.  There’s not much to be done for Frankie but allow him to smoke opium to dull the pain.   To distract Frankie, Hargreaves asks the dying man to tell the priest about himself.

But the story Frankie tells is of Wing Commander David Anderson, an Australian test pilot who is asked to become a member of the Queen’s Flight (kind of like Air Force One for us Yanks.)  As the story continues, it becomes clear that Anderson lives in the 1980s, a time of crisis for the Commonwealth.

After this paragraph, I’ll be going into SPOILER territory, and also some racially charged language.  For those who don’t want to see that, I’ll say that this is an interesting book, but On the Beach was better.  Some very nice sketches of North Australian life in the 1950s at the beginning and end, though, and the aviation scenes are excellent.


1980s Britain is not, in many ways, like the one in our timeline.   For starters, there’s still food rationing.   Rosemary Long, our hero’s love interest, has a good job at Buckingham Palace and can afford her own good sized sailboat, but has never seen an intact pineapple before, let alone had enough meat to worry that it might spoil.  (In real life,  rationing officially ended in 1954, with many items being derationed well before that.

Also, Britain is largely Socialist, with Labour having been in power almost uninterrupted for the last thirty years.  (Evidently, Mr. Shute did not have confidence in Winston Churchill’s ability to hold onto the Prime Minister job.  In real life, he was able to swing the voting to the Conservative party for quite some time.)  This has resulted in the Prime Minister, Iorweth Jones being a barely disguised Communist, (Communism having gone out of favor after “the Russian war”) with a class warfare mentality.  Also, the Secretary of State for Air is so out of touch with the state of aeroplane technology that he is unaware planes have things called “radios” now.

One thing Mr. Shute did get right was that Queen Elizabeth II is still on the throne, with Charles as the Prince of Wales.  Charles is married and has two sons.  Well, he does on page 111.   A daughter pops up as well on page 181.

We don’t get much information about the Russian war; it was a few years ago, Commander Anderson spent most of it in the Philippines, it evidently did not go nuclear, and there’s no mention whatsoever of the Soviet Union.  As mentioned above, the end of the war discredited Communism as a viable government style.

Britain is also undergoing a population crash, due to heavy emigration (in our timeline they mostly had immigration from the former colonies and Commonwealth.)   Things have gotten bad enough that the government nationalized housing after the 1970 crash and hasn’t given it back since.  Rosemary has never seen a new house being built, to her memory.

Meanwhile, Australia’s been doing great, thanks to the new multiple vote system.   Every adult gets one basic vote.  if you get higher education, you get a second vote (Anderson got his for officer school.)  Working outside the country for two years gets you the foreign travel vote (Anderson admits this is pretty much a racket so military veterans get an extra say.)  Getting married, staying married and spawning two children who you raise to at least fourteen gets you a family vote.  (Divorce, widowry or your kids dying or disappearing means starting all over.)

There’s also a business vote for anyone with an earned income over a certain amount (and it’s substantially high) and a religious vote for anyone holding an office in an approved Christian church.  That last one would never fly in America!  Finally, there’s the Queen’s Favour vote which you get in much the same way you would a knighthood.  Thus a truly dedicated person can have up to seven votes; somehow this has led to Australia getting a better class of politicians.

By the end of the book, England is looking to install the same voting system.  Notably, England had had a similar thing called plural voting up until 1948 in real life, when it was reformed for a one person one vote system.  Instead of multiple voting, real life Australia went with “preference voting” instead, where you rank candidates in order of how much you like them.

In other political oddness, the Queen seems much more involved with ruling the Commonwealth than the largely figurehead role she had in the real 1980s.  She even moves the Royals to Australia, and appoints a Governor General for England as it’s clear Parliament can’t handle the job.

Oh, and what will be truly horrific to some of you, rock and roll never caught on, and ballroom dancing with live orchestras is still the thing.

And then there’s the racism weirdness.  Mr. Shute was against racism, especially Southern United States style racism, but it’s expressed oddly here.  Commander Anderson is mixed race, being one-quarter Aborigine, and apparently is light-skinned and fine-featured enough that most people assume he just has a tan.  He goes by the nickname “Nigger,” and insists all his friends call him that.

You can sort of see that, as a way of “reclaiming the word” and apparently Commander Anderson’s worried that people will think he’s trying to “pass” if he doesn’t bring up his ancestry directly.  But it’s still very jarring.  Especially when he uses the phrase “nigger in the woodpile” unironically.  It’s clear that most of the characters consider his deeds more important than his ethnicity, and indeed, he’s the only one to ever bring it up.

The sections set in the 1950s have more obvious casual racism.  There’s a bit of author blindness to sexism; the Queen rules but all the other speaking women in the 1980s are secretaries, telephone girls,  stewardesses and maids.  Rosemary majored in history and paid special attention to the suffragette movement, but otherwise seems content with a 1950s style romantic relationship.

If you’ve read the book and have some comments, by all means let me know.

Book Review: City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

Book Review: City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist

Full disclosure: I was sent this volume as a Firstreads giveaway on the premise that I would write a review of it.   Also, my copy was an uncorrected proof, and small changes may have been made between it and the final product.

City of ScoundrelsLate July of 1919 was certainly a troubled time for the city of Chicago, and thus one ripe for interesting history. The book opens with an account of the Wingfoot disaster to hook the reader, then moves back to the beginning of the year to set the stage for the more politically oriented events. After the main narrative, there’s a summary of later events and finally a “where are they now” section.

The Wingfoot disaster involved an airship crashing into a bank, killing several people both in the Wingfoot and in the bank.  (After that, Chicago instituted flight restrictions.)  During the days that followed, Chicago was struck by a transit strike, a race riot and a sensational child murder that set off a massive manhunt.

The central figure is colorful mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, but space is made for the stories of others, including a ordinary Chicago woman, Emily Frankenstein, who happened to keep a very good diary. There are copious footnotes, a full bibliography, and an index.

The book is written in clear, understandable language and was a quick but not insubstantial read. I would have liked a bit more information on Chicago’s dealing with the “moron” problem after the events covered, but was otherwise satisfied.

Be aware that as a race riot is part of the history, there are quotes from racist people–and some early 20th Century sexism.

I’d especially recommend this book to high school history students looking for an interesting subject not as yet overdone.

Book Review: Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure

Book Review:  Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure by Julia Flynn Siler

Disclaimer: I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would write a review of it.

Lost KingdomThis is not the happy story of how altruistic Americans freed the Hawaiian people from tyranny. (I’m sure there is such a book, somewhere.) It is, however, a well-researched look at the life and times of Lili’u, the last queen of Hawai’i.

Hawai’i’s time as an independent kingdom was relatively short, with no one thinking to unite the islands before the coming of Westerners and the almost inevitable whittling away of sovereignty once the great powers of the Nineteenth Century took interest.

One can see that it wasn’t just greedy white men’s ambition that brought about the theft of power from the native Hawaiians, but a string of bad luck–if the royal family of Hawai’i had flourished, they might have been better able to stand up to economic and social pressures. If Lili’u’s  husband had been more compatible with her, and not died at a crucial moment, she might have gotten better advice. And if a war hadn’t started at just the wrong moment, Hawai’i might not have seemed so important to annex.

And the sugar kings that did so much to weaken and then overthrow the government of Hawai’i?  Their power was broken within a generation when other sources of cane sugar were found.

I’d recommend this book to history buffs, those wanting to know more about Hawaii, and school kids looking for something slightly different to do a book report on.

Book Review: The Jinson Twins, Science Detectives, and the Mystery of Echo Lake

Book Review:  The Jinson Twins, Science Detectives, and the Mystery of Echo Lake by Steven L. Zeichner

Disclosure: I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway in the understanding that I would write a review of it.

The Mystery of Echo Lake

Debbie and Joe Jinson, twins, decide to make some summer money by doing odd jobs.   They are soon contacted by a Mrs. Gray, who needs her overstuffed basement sorted as she may need to move soon.   It turns out that her late husband supposedly had a hidden treasure somewhere, but Mrs. Gray has never been able to figure out the clues.

Debbie is soon dragging her brother on a quest to find the treasure, along with a friendly and wise junkman.    Whether or not the treasure really exists, someone seems to not want them to track it down!

This is the author’s first fiction book, designed to teach kids about scientific principles in the setting of a mystery.

The science part is pretty good, working plausibly into the plot and well explained with helpful diagrams.

The fiction part not so much. This is one book that could really have benefited from being in tight third person rather than first person, especially as it switches to third person in the middle of sentences a few times, most noticeably in the last chapter.

The in media res opening could use more punch–perhaps picking a more suspenseful moment might have helped.

May or may not be a bug; the two descriptions of the treasure’s backstory don’t quite match up, and I was left to wonder if the character was fibbing during one of the sequences, or the author forgot to go back and check for consistency.

Younger readers might be more forgiving, but I was thrown out of the story multiple times by the narration, which is simultaneously wordy and trying to sound properly immature.

I  handed this book off to my young nieces, but I don’t expect they’ll be asking for seconds.

Book Review: After the Vikings

Book Review: After the Vikings by G. David Nordley

This collection of “tales of future Mars” was first published as an adjunct to a conference on possible first contact and the planet Mars.; the stories had individually appeared in Analog and Asimov’s magazines.  When the author realized he’d written them from furthest in time to closest, he decided on a framing sequence involving alien archaeologists excavating Mars in the very far future when Sol has become a white dwarf.

After the Vikings.

  • “Morning on Mars”:  Humans are now unthinkably old, and a new species is on the brink of succeeding them.  There is time, still, for a celebration of life.
  • “The Day of Their Coming”: Humans make first contact with intelligent aliens.  Some of the Martian colonists discover that they may have more in common with the aliens than their fellow humans.
  • “Comet Gypsies”:  A family is nearly done harvesting a comet for terraforming materials, and the oldest child will soon have to leave the only home she’s ever known.  No one in the story is Roma, I suspect the author was unaware of how problematic the word “Gypsy” is.
  • “A Life on Mars”: A medical emergency sparks a trip on a dangerous experimental ship.  But even if a life is saved, can a family be put back together?
  • “Martian Valkyrie”:  A tale of the first expeditions to Mars.  Sexism and nationalistic rivalries may doom everyone.  But the beginning can wrap around to the end, and the collection’s title has more than one meaning.

The stories take place in a relatively hard SF universe; there’s no faster than light travel or communication.  Despite my quibble about the title, I liked “Comet Gypsies” best, for its balance of science and human drama.

As with many small press books, there are a couple of proofreading errors, a dramatic reveal is spoiled in one story because half the word is missing.  There are a couple of non-explicit sex scenes, which may be problematic for young readers or their parents.

This is a nice collection of decent stories, and deserves to be more widely known.

Book Review: Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

Book Review: Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion by Tansy E Hoskins

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Stitched Up

Fashion…isn’t something I notice a lot.  I buy clothes when I have to, and try to wear matching socks, but I don’t know a lot about fashion as a subject.  This book may or may not have helped with that.

Early on, Ms. Hoskins defines fashion as “changing styles of dress and appearance adopted by groups of people” so that she can talk about the entire clothing and accessories industry, as opposed to just haute couture.  She chooses to view the industry through an “anti-capitalist” lens, which yes, does take its roots from Marxism.

The book primarily deals with the modern fashion industry, from the Industrial Revolution on, and doesn’t dwell too much on the early history.  The first few chapters provide an overview of the industry, from the wealthy owners through the fashion press to the exploited factory workers.  It should be noted here that this is a British book, and this influences the examples given.

Then there is a section about the many problematic issues involving fashion, such as environmental damage,  body image and racism.  (The recent film biography of Coco Chanel cut off before World War Two for a reason.)  There’s  a fair bit in here that I already knew, but I had no idea of just how bad it actually was.

The final chapters of the book deal with ways in which people are resisting, and trying to reform fashion, but Ms. Hoskins believes that all the problems with the fashion industry are at their roots caused by capitalism.  Therefore, revolution to smash capitalism is the only true solution.

The last chapter goes into some detail of what post-capitalist fashion might involve.  The author points out the (sadly short-lived) blossoming of the arts and textile design in the post-revolution Soviet Union.  However, the cautionary tale of Cultural Revolution China is also mentioned, where a simple outlawing of “reactionary” fashion led to nationwide conformity because the Mao suit was the only thing everyone could agree was not reactionary, and therefore safe to wear.

Ms. Hoskins is thinking that revolution should instead lead to more of a democratic socialism…or something.  Anyway, smash capitalism, and everything else should work out okay.

The striking illustrations are by Jade Pilgrom.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.

I’d recommend this book to students of fashion, budding Socialists and people who have always wondered what the big deal is with fashion, anyway.

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