Book Review: The Vanishing Airliner

Book Review: The Vanishing Airliner by Van Powell

Rodney Ellis is the son of an aircraft designer whose firm is on the verge of bankruptcy after the Crash of 1929 and the crash of a previous airplane designed by his company.  Mr. Ellis’ one hope is his new airliner, the Oakland Queen.  He hopes to demonstrate it for a group of wealthy investors called the “Billion Dollar Club.”  Seventeen year old Rod and his 15 year old chums, fraternal twins Tim and Pat Kelly, are on the flight to where the investors are when Pat notices that the plane is off course.

Frontispiece
Frontispiece

When the plane lands in an effort to solve this mystery, the boys become separated, and a curious message is found that seems to indicate Mr. Ellis is up to no good.  Rod manages to find a radio buff named Ted who is much more closely involved with the matter than either of them could guess, and exciting adventures ensue!

This is a boys’ adventure book from 1932, full of daredevil piloting, narrow escapes and Mexican bandits.  While aviation had advanced quite a bit, it was still a chancy business involving a lot of guesswork and improvisation; much wordage is given to the operations of the various flying machines.  There’s also reference to the Boy Scouts, with Rod being in favor of creating a Sky Scouts branch of that organization.

Rod is your standard clean-jawed, heroic youth; Tim and Pat have slightly more characterization (Tim is thin and quick-witted, Pat heavier and slower of thought but better at seeing deep implications.)  Ted is more or less a less active version of Rod.

There’s a certain amount of period racism involved in the treatment of the Mexican bandits (they need a white American to actually make plans and operate technology) whose primary activity is smuggling illegal immigrants across the border.  (Back in the 1930s, it was Asian immigrants who came in from Mexico.)  The story sidesteps sexism by simply never mentioning the existence of women.

The Great Depression plays a larger role in the story than I expected, tying into the real villain’s motives.  The plot is twisty, and at least one character does some things early on that don’t make sense considering who he turns out to be.  The ending is rather unsatisfying–the villain reveals everything in a massive rant, then self-destructs, tying things up neatly.

This book is less bad than severely dated–boys might enjoy it if they can get past the old-fashioned style and characters.  It’s apparently never been reprinted, so good luck hunting down a copy!

Book Review: The Black Spider

Book Review: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf

It is a beautiful day in rural Switzerland, sunny and warm–a good day for a christening.  As the guests digest the first part of the feast, one of them notices an anomalous piece of wood built into one of the window frames.  The infant’s grandfather tells the tale of a cruel feudal lord, a bold woman, the devil…and a black spider.

This tale of terror was written in 1842 by Swiss pastor Albert Bitzius, who wrote under the name of Jeremias Gotthelf.   This is a new translation by Susan Bernofsky.

The Black Spider

As is common with stories of the time, The Black Spider takes its own sweet time to get started.  It begins with a long description of a farm family  and their neighbors getting ready for the christening and the subsequent party; if nothing else, it’s a window into the customs of rural Switzerland in the Nineteenth Century.  Eventually a chance remark leads into the main action of the story.

It seems that this valley was once under the control of the Teutonic Knights, and the master of the castle makes unreasonable demands of the peasants.  At last he asks the impossible, and the farmers despair.  A mysterious stranger offers to help them out, and it sounds too good to be true.  This dark-skinned and red-haired stranger is of course the Devil, and he’ll help them out in exchange for one unbaptized child.  They cavil, and it is the bold wife of one who finally agrees, the deal sealed with a kiss on her cheek.

The Devil is as good as his word, helping move a forest from one mountain to another.  But this is a horror story, and a deal with the Devil never ends well.  Soon a child is about to be born, and the black hickey on Christine’s cheek begins to grow and sprout “legs” like a spider, reminding her to give the Devil his due.  Naturally, the villagers decide that they don’t want to give a baby to the Prince of Darkness

Christine is thwarted once and again, and the black spider appears for the first time, bringing disaster to the valley.  Now Christine’s own sister-in-law is fast approaching her travail, and this time the villagers are convinced it might be a good idea to give over.  The ensuing events release the full power of the black spider.

The monster is finally sealed by the self-sacrifice of a pious woman, but the story isn’t over yet.   An impious jerk releases the black spider once more, and the valley is nearly depopulated before it is put back into the wood.  Now only the piety and faith in God of the farm family keeps the creature confined.

The horror of the tale is enhanced by the framing; a sunny day of happiness and feasting, and the grandfather’s matter of fact telling.  (There are a couple of spots where he’s clearly embellishing, however–he describes more than one scene where there were no survivors to give details.)

There are a few things that might not sit well with modern  readers; Christine is essentially punished for having more gumption than was proper for a woman.  There’s a certain amount of classism; servants must be firmly controlled.  And while God’s power is effective against the black spider, it’s really noticeable that no Heavenly intervention comes to help the peasants against their overlord–it only steps in to directly thwart the powers of Hell.

Recommended to horror fans who don’t mind a leisurely pace and strong religious themes.

 

Book Review: The Emperor’s Soul

Book Review: The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

Shai is a Forger, an artist with the mystical ability to change the past of objects; mostly used to create copies of other artworks, but with larger implications that cause fear and loathing in the minds of others.  When she is captured while trying to substitute a Forgery for an important Imperial artifact (due to her patron making his own escape too early), Shai expects that she will be put to death.

The Emperor's Soul

But fate intervenes.  It seems that the Emperor has been attacked by a rival faction.  He survived, but with brain damage that reduced him to a vegetative state.  The arbiters, fearful of losing their place if the rival faction takes over, offers Shai a deal.  If she can use her Forgery skills to restore the Emperor’s mind and memories, they’ll let her go free.  Shai realizes that they in fact would never allow her to live with the knowledge of the Emperor’s true state.  But perhaps agreeing will allow her to buy time to come up with an escape plan–and if she succeeds, the Emperor’s soul will be her masterpiece!

This novella is by Brandon Sanderson, who you may know from the Mistborn series or his work finishing The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan passed away.  This is the closest he can get to a short story, so he says.  It has his trademark interesting magic systems, and some fascinating characters.

The primary relationship in the story is between Shai and Gaotona, an elderly arbiter who is both keeping an eye on Shai to make sure she is doing the job, and also acting as a test bed for her “stamps” that allow her to temporarily change a person’s memories.   Through their conversations, we learn how Shai’s magic works, her motivations and some of her background, as well as the real reason she was in the Imperial palace to begin with.

The conversations also contrast Shai to the government-approved “Rememberers” who use similar magic to mass-produce knockoffs of period pieces from the era the current regime wants to emulate.  Gaotona comes to understand Shai’s  sense of artistic pride and creativity, while she learns to appreciate his integrity and loyalty to the Emperor.  Also, we delve into the personality of the Emperor, his good qualities as well as where he fell short, and the Empire has suffered as a result.

There’s also some blood magic in the plot, which may be a little too intense for more sensitive readers, but aside from that, while this was written for adults, I don’t think it unsuitable for junior high students on up.

The book is well-written, has a mostly-likable main character (though she is a criminal by profession) and bits of an interesting Imperial China-like setting (the story takes place in the same world as Elantris.)  I’d recommend it to fantasy fans, especially those that might be intimidated by longer works and trilogies.

Book Review: One of Our Asteroids is Missing | The Twisted Men

Book Review: One of Our Asteroids is Missing | The Twisted Men by Robert Silverberg (writing as Calvin M. Knox) and A. E. Van Vogt, respectively.

This is another Ace Double, two books in one, upside down from each other.  According to Larry Niven, during the 1960s Ace Books was known for being particularly skinflint towards authors, so would only be sold to if all other SF publishers turned down the book, and the writer just needed some cash in hand, because royalties and overseas sales would never be forthcoming.  When Tom Doherty bought the publishing house, he didn’t talk to any of the writers who’d worked for them, but did do a two-year search for legal complaints.  There were none–because the writers had all learned that it was useless.  (Mr. Doherty reformed Ace Books’ payment policies, and a lot of authors finally got back payments.)

One of Our Asteroids Is Missing

One of Our Asteroids Is Missing features a young asteroid prospector named John Storm (no relation) who is looking for rare metal deposits in the asteroid belt to feed Earth’s early 21st Century computer technology.  He finds a jackpot, but between filing his claim on Mars and getting to Earth to set up the funding to get it mined, the computer network somehow loses his claim.  And all of John Storm’s personal records!  Since almost everything in the future society revolves around your existence in the computer network, being “unpersoned” like this is a terrible blow.

Of course, this complete erasure of John Storm’s identity belies the suggestion that he somehow screwed up the claim registration.   A clumsy typist might have erased one record, but it would take money and dedication to pull this off.  “Why?” then is the question; even a jackpot mining asteroid would hardly be worth this much effort, including a physical assassination attempt.  John must return to the asteroid belt to investigate, and what he finds there could change everything!

To be honest, John’s struggles with the future bureaucracy are more interesting to me than the actual space adventure stuff.  Anyone who’s had to deal with a petty official declaring that it must somehow be your mistake that caused their computer system to act unjustly can certainly identify.

John’s fiancee Liz seems to have no goals outside of marrying John whether or not he succeeds (though she would prefer he succeeds), and her offer of help is rejected because space is “too dangerous for a woman.”  In our 21st Century, that would get a laugh.  She also never learns what actually happened.

There’s an alien involved who looks nothing like the picture on the cover (which is awesomely SF in its own right) and Mr. Silverberg’s fascination with psychic powers shines through.   It’s middling-grade but quite readable.

The Twisted Men

The Twisted Men is actually a collection of three longer stories by A.E. Van Vogt, too long to fit in a regular anthology, but not related enough to turn into a “fix-up” novel.

“The Twisted Men” itself stars Averill Hewitt, a scientist who has discovered that something strange and dangerous is going to happen to the sun in a few years.  Apparently he is terrible at explaining his theory, because one person taking his metaphor and saying that said metaphor is not literally possible is enough to put Mr. Hewitt in the Jor-El category.  Unlike Jor-El, however, Mr. Hewitt is able to build a full-size spaceship to go to the Proxima Centauri system to look for habitable planets.

He insists that it be staffed by personnel whose wives are pregnant, or can become so; it apparently doesn’t enter his mind that pregnant women might also have space-worthy skills.  His own wife refuses to get on board and takes the children with her.  This results in some sub-optimal personnel, including several religious fanatics and a captain who wants to marry his ward who doesn’t actually look eighteen.  Skeeviness aside, this is the only available captain, so the Hope of Man is launched.  Six years later, the ship is detected re-entering the solar system at enormous speed, and not responding to hails.

Naturally, Mr. Hewitt is tapped to try to discover what happened; what he discovers, and the implications, drive the rest of the story.  The story is heavy on the speculative science, but not nearly as forward-thinking on the social end.  There are some evocative passages as Hewitt explores the ship and struggles to understand what is going on.

“”The Star-Saint” is a planetary colonization story.  Leonard Hanley is the leader of a group of colonists who are about to make planetfall only to discover that the previous batch of colonists have vanished, their village completely destroyed.  Fortunately (or perhaps not), Mark Rogan has arrived to help out.  Rogan is a mutant with strange powers and a detached attitude that drives most other men up the wall.  Oddly, women seem to find Rogan extremely attractive.   Hanley is unhappy about the help, but it’s not as though he’s got much choice.

Hanley thinks he’s figured out the problem, only to be told by Rogan that he’s actually made things much worse.  The situation is finally brought to something of a compromise point–but Hanley suspects this colony will soon have several mutant babies, including his own wife’s.  The treatment of women in this story is frankly kind of creepy, but the fact that it’s told from the perspective of the patriarchal and controlling Hanley means that we don’t know what actually happened.

“The Earth Killers” starts with America being attacked by an unknown party, which wipes out the  major cities with atomic bombs.  The only surviving witness is Morlake, a test pilot who was trying out an experimental “rockjet” near Chicago when the bombs fell.  Unfortunately, the military outpost he manages to land at is run by a fool who has him arrested for treason rather than listen to the truth.  Admittedly, the truth is pretty unbelievable–the bombs came from straight up, not in an arc.

It’s months before the remaining Americans can get around to realizing the importance of his testimony–and Morlake is able to uncover the shocking secret behind the war.

This story’s got a nice bite to it, especially since it avoids taking the easy route of making the villains Communists (as was the fashion at the time.)

The creepy treatment of women in the first two stories makes this set hard to recommend–mostly for Van Vogt completists.

Book Review: The Art of the Dragon

Book Review: The Art of the Dragon edited by Patrick Wilshire & J. David Spurlock

One of the most enduring symbols of the fantasy genre is the dragon.  It evokes a primal response and is really fun to draw and paint, so it shows up all the time in fantasy art and sometimes manages to get into science fiction as well.  With so many dragons on the covers of books, it’s no surprise that an entire book can be filled with nothing but dragon paintings.

The Art of the Dragon

This book features works by over a dozen fine artists, most of them currently active in the field.  There are a couple that were recently deceased at the time the book was published, and the volume is dedicated to one of them, Jeffrey Catherine Jones.  Several of the artists are spotlighted, giving details of their careers and their different philosophies of creating dragon pictures.  I personally picked this book up for the Michael Whelan section (including his very influential White Dragon piece), but there is also excellent work by Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell among many others.

It’s coffee-table sized and as an art book, far heavier on pictures than words.  Concerned parents should be aware that the second most common element in these paintings is half-naked women (and a couple of fully naked ones.)  Mr. Vallejo in particular talks about how his depiction of women has changed over the years.

Several of the artists have worked for the companies that published Dungeons and Dragons game material over the year, so gamers may be especially interested in this volume.  Otherwise, this book is recommended for fantasy fans in general and dragon fans in particular.

Comic Strip Review: The Complete Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten: The Junior Commandos

Comic Strip Review: The Complete Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten: The Junior Commandos by Harold Gray

Little Orphan Annie was one of the all-time great comic strips, debuting in 1924.  The story centered on a plucky orphan girl with curly red hair (which was considered unattractive at the time) and her attempts to get by in a cruel world with the aid of her dog Sandy.  Early on, she was taken “on trial” by the unpleasant Mrs. Warbucks, whose husband Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks took an immediate shine to Annie.

Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten

The strip’s formula depended heavily on finding ways to separate Annie from “Daddy” for long periods, or giving him financial troubles so they could go on the road together.  The device of having one of them believe the other was dead was used repeatedly for melodrama.  Mrs. Warbucks eventually relented and made friends with Annie, only to permanently die shortly thereafter.  (There was a second Mrs. Warbucks who was also hostile to Annie, and who Daddy may have murdered offscreen.)

Eventually, the strips added Daddy Warbucks’ exotic servants Punjab (a giant of a fellow with mystic abilities) and the Asp (a East Asian with a mysterious past and no given name.)  Harold Gray had strong conservative views, which often featured in the strips, both as story themes and character dialogue.  He was a big believer in hard work and honesty as ways to get ahead, and sometimes showed huge blind spots about the flaws of capitalism.

This volume covers stories from 1941-1943, and is strongly influenced by the events of World War Two.  While Daddy is testing a new bomber plane (he is after all a munitions manufacturer), he and the group are forced to land somewhere in the midwest.  Annie is injured in an automobile accident, and narrowly escapes the ministrations of quack Dr. Eldeen.  Instead, she is placed under the care of Doctor Zee, a friend of Daddy’s he met in Spain (presumably during the Spanish Civil War), who has become a recluse.

Daddy Warbucks and his associates are reported missing, presumed dead, shortly thereafter, stranding Annie in the large town.  Dr. Zee, one of the few sympathetic characters in the history of the strip with progressive views, is brought out of his shell by Annie, and by reconnecting with a childhood friend who has become known as “Crazy Kate.”  Zee starts a low-cost medical practice that clashes with both Dr. Eldeen (who runs a private clinic for not particularly sick wealthy people and uses heavy drugs to keep them under control) and Dr. Dubb, a mediocre physician who owns the town hospital.

Eventually, it is learned that one of Dr. Eldeen’s patients is a scientist called “Zaney” who has developed an explosive formula vital to national security, which Eldeen wants to sell to the Nazis.  This plot fails, and Eldeen has to go on the run.  Daddy Warbucks and crew reappear alive, but now enlisted in the military of “an allied country” so they can fight the Axis menace.  (Gray didn’t have them enlist in the U.S. Army as then they’d have to obey regulations instead of getting straight down to killing the enemy.)

Determined to do her bit to help win the war, Annie organizes the town kids into “Junior Commandos” who sell War Bonds and collect recyclables for the war effort, performing many helpful functions for soldiers and war workers.  Rather suddenly, the town is near the seacoast so that Annie and a new friend can sink a Nazi submarine.  Shortly thereafter, the town takes in a war refugee nicknamed “Driftwood” who has lost his family to “the invaders.”

Doctor Zee enlists in the military, so Annie and the supporting cast move in with a Mrs. Sleet, a seemingly chilly wealthy woman who Annie helps deal with the loss of her husband and son, and who becomes a sponsor for the Junior Commandos.    Daddy Warbucks and his men are reported killed in the fighting, and Dr. Zee returns minus an arm.  But Annie and a female surgeon, Dr. Clover, help Dr. Zee recover his will to be a healer, and after some mild love triangle shenanigans, Zee marries Katie, his childhood friend.  (There’s also a lot of other action going on in the meantime.)

The Nazis become convinced that Daddy Warbucks (now revealed as surviving) left a copy of Zaney’s formula with Annie, and come up with an elaborate plot to get it from her.  This involves impersonating a reclusive writer, Malcolm Mitt, another of Daddy’s old friends, and inviting Annie to a castle built by an eccentric Spanish immigrant to await her guardian’s return.  The castle is full of secret passageways and tricks, as well as Nazi spies and a submarine harbor.  Annie’s able to recruit the local Junior Commandos and Serbian immigrant “Big George” (formerly a spy on the Germans for twenty years) to help her clean out this nest of rats.

But it’s not until Daddy Warbucks finally shows up for real and Punjab uses his disappearing trick that the situation is fully resolved.  The war’s still on, though, and Annie ends the volume being shipped off to live with another of Daddy’s old friends…

Annie does laundry and philosophy. Yes, all her dresses are red and in the same style. Art by Harold Gray.
Annie does laundry and philosophy. Yes, all her dresses are red and in the same style. Art by Harold Gray.

Annie’s tough and wise beyond her years, and a natural leader, but we do see moments of her still being a child, as when she exclaims in glee over a new doll.   The strip openly mocks the idea of protecting children from the knowledge of war; Driftwood is all too aware that the war does not spare anyone because of age or innocence.  That said, this is not a children’s story as such, but a family one–parents should read these strips along with their kids to aid in understanding the context.

Violence is rife in this story, and Annie, while not directly killing anyone, has to dodge a question on the subject of whether she hasn’t disposed of some enemies permanently.  (It’s also noted that in his backstory, Daddy Warbucks once snapped a man’s neck like a toothpick.)  Don’t let anyone kid you that violence in the media is a modern decline!

One interesting tidbit is the appearance of George, an African-American child, who is afraid he won’t be allowed into the Junior Commandos.  Annie assures him he is welcome, and George swiftly proves his worth, getting a promotion.  He only appears in one Sunday strip (and is mentioned on Monday) but black readers strongly appreciated the interlude.  A Southern newspaper publisher wrote to warn Mr. Gray that he might lose readers in the South for showing “race-mixing.”  Mr. Gray’s response was to the effect that while he fully supported the South working out its own issues, a lot of “colored” people bought newspapers too, especially in the large Northern cities.

The “Nazis in a castle” story isn’t as good; the introduction notes that the artist had recently lost his father, and may have been distracted from his work; also, he was becoming disenchanted with the U.S. government’s handling of the homefront of the war, which would really show up in the next story.

Still, this volume is a good introduction for kids to what life was like on the homefront in World War Two, with proper parental guidance.  Highly recommended to fans of older comic strips.

Book Review: The Pirate Princess

Book Review: The Pirate Princess by Tawn Krakowski

Penelope Puffinstuff is the ninth child of the royal family of Pufftania, so everyone calls her “Princess Penny.”  She’s a sweet, well-behaved girl, but is feeling slightly bored with the life of a princess.  So when it turns out that a centuries-old prophecy requires her to acquire a family treasure by her twelfth birthday (only a few months away!), Penny comes up with a scheme to disguise herself and her supporting crew as pirates.

The Pirate Princess

The first part of the plan goes off swimmingly, but there’s something a bit suspicious about Captain Mountebank.  Penny learns that her family has secrets, enemies and allies; and the peril described in the prophecy is very real indeed.  Penny’s a plucky girl, and she’s got good friends…can they succeed?

This book originally appeared on Big World Network, a website that showcases serial fiction.  It hosts stories ranging from children’s fantasy adventure (like the volume in hand) to steamy fantasy erotica.  Stories that are especially popular get to go to actual printed books; there’s even a sequel to this one.  The cover art by Mario Hernandez accurately depicts Penny’s outfit by the end of the novel.

This is an enjoyable children’s book, with some mildly scary bits (with pirates, you have to expect a certain amount of violence and bloodshed.)   The only thing I didn’t like was that Penny is perhaps a little too good-natured; a slight character flaw or moment of immaturity might have humanized her more.   Parents will appreciate that Penny has a good relationship with her parents and siblings, who are very supportive.  Naturally, the book is more aimed at girls, but boys should be able to enjoy it too.

I’d recommend this book for parents of 8-13 year olds who want pirate stories but aren’t ready for the more gruesome tales.

Book Review: Barry Blake of the Flying Fortress

Book Review: Barry Blake of the Flying Fortress by Gaylord Du Bois

World War Two is raging, and the Army needs pilots desperately.   Enter Barry Blake and his buddy Chick Enders, straight out of high school and patriotic volunteers.   They’re to receive their preliminary flight training at Randolph Field in San Antonio.   They are almost immediately make friends with good-natured fellow cadet Hap Newton, but are at odds with the vain and ill-natured Glenn Cardiff Crayle.  Crayle’s sabotage causes Chick to wash out of pilot training, but bombardier school is an acceptable fallback.

Barry Blake of the Flying Fortress
From the endpapers. Art by J.R. White

Barry is soon taught to fly the B-17 Flying Fortress, and assigned to the Sweet Rosie O’Grady, under Captain O’Grady, who named it after his wife.  Originally bound for India, the crew is diverted to the South Pacific, where they participate in a raid on the Japanese base at Rabaul.  After Captain O’Grady is severely injured, Barry takes over as pilot, being reunited with Hap as his co-pilot and Chick as bombardier.

The friends and their flight crew participate in many exciting adventures, repeatedly showing their bravery and combat prowess, until tapped for a special secret mission.  The mission goes off okay, but on the way back Crayle can’t stop himself from taunting our heroes one last time.  His vanity and cowardice get him and the crew stuck in a raft behind enemy lines–it’s up to Barry to shepherd them and a few civilians to safety in Australia!

This book was part of the Whitman Publishing Company’s “Fighters for Freedom” series of novels for young readers about wartime careers.  (Other books covered the WAAFs, WAVEs and Ferry Command.)   As you might expect, it’s pretty exciting stuff, depicting war as an adventure.  While the unit takes casualties, the blood and guts are downplayed, and our heroes get away with some very irregular activities.  I will mention that at one point when their slaughter of the enemy gets too easy, our heroes lose their stomach for further attacks that day.

Barry’s a fairly typical hero for this sort of book; ruggedly handsome, athletic, and valedictorian of his class.   Chick is the not quite as handsome, slightly shorter and hotter-tempered best buddy type.  The rest of the crew are fairly bland, the “white guys with different regional accents” that was considered a diverse cast back in the 1940s.  The Italian-American guy is treated by the story as the token minority.  Crayle, of course, is coded as small-town rich, the sort of fellow who’s used to being a big shot at home and not happy about being just another pilot here.

Barry meets a couple of attractive young women in the story, a nurse and a missionary’s daughter; both are treated as impressive in their own ways, and there’s a bit of romance that is cut short by the flow of the war.

The sticking point for many of today’s young readers will probably be the period racism.  It’s mostly directed against the Japanese, and mild by the standards of the time, but there are a couple of odd moments elsewhere.

The author wrote quite a bit of kids’ adventure books, but I remember him best for his work on Turok, a comic book about a Native American stranded in a valley of dinosaurs.

This book is a product of its time; parents may want to talk to younger readers about wartime racism and how it affects people’s attitudes.

Open Thread: Minicon 50 Report

Over the Easter weekend, I went to Minicon, the Minnesota Scientifiction Society’s yearly convention.  This was the 50th convention, although not the fiftieth year, as a couple times early on it was held twice yearly.  To mark the milestone, the convention ran four days instead of the usual three, and had a whole bunch of Guests of Honor.

Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.
Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.

Unfortunately, I was only able to take one day off work, so missed the Thursday events altogether.  I arrived Friday morning at the RadiShTree Hotel in Bloomington (it’s been a Radisson, Sheraton and now a Doubletree) and realized this was my thirtieth Minicon!  Wow!  The registration desk was well-organized and I soon had my badge with Michael Whelan art and programs.

The first panel I attended was an interview of Jane Yolen (perhaps best known for children’s fantasy books, but she also wrote The Devil’s Arithmetic, a historical fiction novel about the Holocaust) by a local writing group, the Scribblies.  Ms. Yolen mentioned that she didn’t get her doctorate because her thesis was on the use of fairy tales in childhood education and the gatekeepers didn’t like that.  It’s since become a standard text Touch of Magic and she has six honorary doctorates now.

Then it was time for the only panel I was on, “Anime and Manga for Speculative Fiction Fans.”  Somehow Programming missed my repeated messages offering to moderate the panel and picked one of the panelists at random.  The panel discussion was a bit weaker than I would have liked, but there were still many items mentioned, and you can see a list in my just previous post.

From there I went to an interview of Tom Doherty, the publisher of Tor, which is a big science fiction and fantasy label.  He talked about the challenges facing the book publishing industry, including the loss of small regional book distributors and smaller chain bookstores.  That means it’s harder to reach casual readers who would pick up a book if they happened to see one, but won’t make a special trip to the big box store.

Then it was “Publishing After the Door Slams” which was about the alternatives to major publishers (who after all want to print books that they think will sell.)  Apparently one segment of e-publishing that makes money hand over fist is Big Beautiful Woman erotica–a market that apparently is starved for content.

Next up, the Brandon Sanderson interview (he finished the Wheel of Time series, but is a good author in his own right.)  He talked about taking a job as night clerk at a quiet hotel so he would have plenty of time to write.  After that I went to the Terry Pratchett Memorial; several of the attendees had known him well, including Greg Ketter, owner of Dreamhaven Books and the one who convinced Sir Terry to come to Minicon 40.

The hugest event of the night was the reunion of fan favorite local band Cats Laughing (X-Men fans will remember Kitty Pryde jamming with them once.)  I do poorly in crowded concert venues, so skipped it, but heard bits and pieces as I visited several room parties.  Love tasty food, and some parties had very nice items.

On Saturday, I cruised the art show/science exhibit/hucksters room after breakfast–Some beautiful art by Michael Whelan and also by local artists.

Then I attended an interview of Larry Niven (Ringworld) and heard about his many collaborations and how they worked (the Internet has been a real boon to the process.)  There was more of this at the “Adventures in Collaboration” panel immediately afterward.

I don’t remember too much of the “Social Pressure in Fandom” panel, although harrassment policies were mentioned.  I was too busy mentally preparing for the mass signing event.  “The Evolving Business of Books” had more Tom Doherty–he stressed that e-books were not a threat, but an opportunity, as were audiobooks.  Tor is teaming up with NASA to create books to get kids interested in space-related career fields.

“Deviance in Fiction” discussed the role of bad behavior in creating a story–there was general agreement that sometimes too much is too much and it spoils the book for that reader.  (Lord Foul’s Bane and a particularly hideous act by the protagonist early on was given as an example of a point at which several of the people in the room gave up on the book.)

“I’m a Cover Shopper” was a panel about the role of covers in attracting readers–the trend is towards covers that look good in a two-inch size on Internet sites.  We also discussed whether the writer should have input on the cover image.  (yes, but not control.  One example was given of an author who insisted the picture on the cover match the colors described in the book; this made the cover a mess of brown and gray.)

More parties!

Sunday morning meant one more sweep; I’d won a couple of things from the art room and could now use the rest of my budget to buy books.  I enjoyed a panel on “Linked Short Stories and Serial Novels” where we discussed Dickens, “fix-ups” (two or more short stories rewritten into a longer work) and other fun topics.

After officially checking out of my hotel room (and thus having to carry my luggage everywhere) I checked out the latter half of “Collaborative Creative Projects” which was about art installations primarily.  The slideshow stalled on a particularly disturbing image that distracted me for the rest of the panel.

My last panel was “Middle Grade Optimism vs YA Dystopia”, talking about the difference between writing for the “middle grade” and “young adult” markets.  It was emphasized that these were largely artificial distinctions.  However, a general rule of thumb is that middle grade books are given to the child by a parent, teacher or librarian; while young adult is when they begin seeking out books on their own (and start disdaining “this is inappropriate for your age group” comments.)

Closing ceremonies were fun as usual; next year’s convention will have Seanan McGuire of Newsflesh and Incryptids fame.

 

Tell me about your most recent convention experience, or a gathering you hope to attend in the near future!

Anime for Speculative Fiction Fans (2015)

Once again this year I participated in the “Anime and Manga for Speculative Fiction Fans” panel at Minicon.  As promised at the panel, here’s a list of the items mentioned–I make no representations regarding the quality of the ones I have not seen.

.hack:  A series of interlocking video games, anime, manga and light novels about a virtual reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) called “The World.”  The anime involves a player who abruptly discovers that they can’t log out, and their memories of their real life have vanished.  Some parts of the universe have never appeared in a legal English edition, so the explanations contained in these are missing.

Akira:  Members of a biker gang in post-apocalypse Tokyo get involved with psychic children, enmeshed in a government conspiracy.  Both a really good manga and a decent movie (one of the first anime movies to come to the US labeled as such.)

Assassination Classroom

Assassination Classroom:  A junior high class must kill their teacher before graduation or he will destroy the world.  Manga and now an anime series–see my previous review.

Attack on Titan:  The Earth has been overrun by gigantic humanoids that eat people.  The last remnants of humanity huddle behind enormous walls, but now those walls have been breached.  It is up to a small army of specially-trained warriors to defend the humans from being devoured.  An adequate manga that became a very popular anime.  Violent and gory.

Berserk:  The nigh-unstoppable warrior known as Guts battles demons invading a medievalish world.  The twist is that his former best friend Griffith is the leader of the demons–but the public at large sees him as a savior.  A long-running but very slow manga, and two anime series (the first cuts off at the worst possible moment.)  Warning:  extremely violent, including sexual violence, lots of gore.

Bleach:  Ichigo Kurosaki can see ghosts, which is mostly an annoyance until he meets a mysterious girl who gives him the ability to become a Soul Reaper, a kind of psychopomp.   After some adventures fighting the evil spirits known as Hollows, Ichigo gets caught up in Soul Reaper politics.  Long-running manga and anime, which has been in its final arc for the last two years.

A Certain Magical Index/Scientific Railgun:  Interlocking series of light novels and anime taking place in a world where mystics and mutants both exist and attend school together.  The series differ primarily in their viewpoint characters.  “Index” stars Touma, an unlucky lad with an anti-magic punch, while “Railgun” stars Misaki, an electricity-wielder.

Corpse Party: Originally a survival horror video game, this has also been manga, anime and a live-action movie.  When a new school is built on the site of the former Heavenly Host Elementary (torn down after a massacre), some of the students decide to perform a mystic ritual of friendship which goes horribly wrong–they wind up in the old school with the ghosts of the murder victims.

Cowboy Bebop: In the not-so distant future, the solar system has been colonized, but a skyrocketing crime rate allows there to be a subculture of bounty hunters.   We follow the quirky crew of the Bebop as they try to stay afloat in the business.  Anime series and a really cool movie.

Crest/Banner of the Stars:  A light novel series that became an anime and manga.  Jinto’s home planet has been taken over by the Abh, a humanoid alien race which has the largest local empire.  His father sold out his homeworld in exchange for a position of power, and Jinto has been sent off for education in the empire’s ways.  He meets and befriends the Abh princess Lafiel on the way, but they get sidetracked by a war with the remaining human alliances.

Deadman Wonderland: In the near future, Tokyo is destroyed and a prison is built on it, where prisoners are required to battle for the pleasure of viewers.  A boy is framed for the murder of his class, imprisoned, and discovers he has bizarre blood-based superpowers.  Both manga and anime.

Durarara!!:  A light novel series and now anime about the odd happening in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo,  It’s urban fantasy with some added elements; everyone has a secret, but few of them are the secrets you might immediately guess.  Very entertaining.

Eden of the East:  A naked man with a cellphone and a gun but no memory is met by a Japanese tourist at the White House.  This begins a rollicking adventure as they try to unravel who he is and why he doesn’t remember anything.  Anime series and a couple of wrap-up movies.

Evangelion:  In a now-alternate timeline, the Earth is being attacked by alien monsters known as Angels, and must be defended by fourteen-year olds in giant robots.  However, not all is as it seems, and the reason the robots require teen pilots is sinister.  Started as anime, has had a couple of manga series, is being done as a series of reboot movies.  Very influential.

Fairy Tail:  Lucy Heartfilia is a young wizard who runs away from home to join the wacky Fairy Tail guild, teaming with a fire specialist named Natsu.  They and their guildmates have exciting and long running adventures, both in the manga and anime.

Ghost in the Shell:  Cyberpunk action with a special ops group in a future Japan overrun with cyborgs, robots and less definable cyber-beings.  Major Motoko Kusanagi, a full-body cyborg, is our main protagonist.  Manga and several different anime, both TV and film.  Very influential.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time:  A high school student discovers the ability to jump through time (literally) and promptly abuses the heck out of it.  Eventually, she comes to realize that just overwriting events doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, and there’s a hidden cost to her powers…oh, and they’re about to stop working.  Very well done.

Higarashi-When They Cry:  A small mountain village is trapped in a time loop–each repeat ends in murder.  The characters slowly realize what’s going on, but can they stop it?  Originally a “visual novel”, also now anime and manga.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventures
Dio and Jonathan

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure:  A series of series about people with strange powers, all of whom have a “jojo” sound in their name.  Check out my review of the first two seasons of the anime adaptation!  (The third season, “Stardust Crusaders”, is currently running.)

Kill la Kill

Kill la Kill:  In the indefinite future, a girl seeking revenge for her murdered father comes to a high school ranked by special uniforms, and must partner with a sentient costume to battle against what turns out to be a much larger threat.   Warning:  nudity, sexual harassment.  See my review!

Laputa–Castle in the Sky:  A Welsh boy has a girl drop in from the sky–it turns out she’s the last rightful heir to the flying island of Laputa.  Another descendant of that dead land wants to use it to conquer the world, and the kids must seek help from sky pirates.  Vintage Miyazaki.

Last Exile:  An “aeropunk” series set on a world at perpetual war–courier pilots must protect and deliver a girl who is the key to a peaceful resolution.  Anime with a manga adaptation.

Legend of the Galactic Heroes:  A sprawling epic space opera concerning the clash between two great star nations, and the heroes on each side.  Originally a novel series, turned into a lengthy anime.  Very rich in character development.

Log Horizon: Another MMORPG gone horribly wrong story–this one is notable for the development of “non-player characters” who suddenly are developing actual personalities and free will.

Medaka Box:  A girl who’s good at everything takes problem solving requests from a suggestion box at her school.  Several volumes in, it turns out superpowers exist and (according to the fans of the manga) it gets really good.  Was turned into a less well received anime series.

Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya:  A girl forms a club at her school to look for science-fiction beings, not realizing that she and everyone else in the club are themselves science fiction character types.  Light novels, adapted into anime–skip all but the first and last episodes of Endless Eight.

Millennium Actress:  A Satoshi Kon film about an actress who played many roles over several decades who’s being interviewed for a retrospective.  It interweaves her life story with the history of Japan’s film industry.  Some magical realism.

Moribito:  A richly-imagined light novel/anime series about a spearwoman who becomes bodyguard to a prince supposedly possessed by an evil spirit.  The truth is much more complicated.  The author is an anthropology major and it really shows.

Patema Inverted:  An experiment to control gravity as an energy source goes horribly wrong and much of Earth suffers inverted gravity, killing billions.  The story picks up much later when two young people with different gravity orientations meet and their civilizations clash.  This is an Internet-original series.

Record of Lodoss Wars:  A Dungeons and Dragons inspired series set on the fantasy island of Lodoss, wracked by periodic wars between good and evil.  A band of adventurers discover that there is a hidden hand behind the chaos.  Two different animated series–the second is much longer and involves a second generation of heroes.

Redline:  A “Wacky Racers in Space” movie–much motor action.  The art style takes some getting used to.

Revolutionary Girl Utena:  A girl was rescued by a prince as a child.  Now Utena has come to Ohtori Academy to become a prince herself.  But first she must fight a series of duels.  Lots of symbolism and hidden agendas.

Usagi

Sailor Moon:  Wimpy junior high student Usagi discovers that she is actually the reincarnation of a moon princess and becomes a magical girl to fight evil, along with the rest of her Sailor Senshi pals.  Manga, anime, live action series, and now rebooted as Sailor Moon Crystal.

Samurai Flamenco

Samurai Flamenco:  A metafictional series about a male model who decides to become the first real-life superhero.  Goes all the way down the rabbit hole and pulls it out the other side.  See my review!

Samurai Jack:  Japanese warrior trapped in a future where the evil spirit Aku has already won.  Not anime, but clearly inspired by it.

Space Dandy:  An “alien hunter” (he tracks down new species to register for the government) and his wacky companions run into various bizarre circumstances.  Each episode appears to happen in a slightly different reality.  Heavy on the fanservice.

String (?):  Someone mentioned this, but I have no information on it.

Summer Wars:  A math prodigy is invited to his crush’s family reunion to pretend to be her fiance.  Meanwhile, an amok AI is taking over Japan’s primary Internet provider.  These events are more related than they appear.  Very heartwarming movie, but the English dub is heavy on swearing.

Aincrad

Sword Art Online:  Our third series about an MMORPG where the players are trapped inside.  Very uneven–the first arc is pretty satisfying, but the second is painful and subsequent storylines become divisive.  See my review!

Tenchi Muyo–Ryo-Ohki!:  Teenage boy discovers that he’s part-alien and has all sorts of alien girls coming on to him.  This installment heavily features Ryo-Ohki, the adorable alien cabbit (who might also have a crush on Tenchi.)

Twelve Kingdoms:  A very well-done example of the normal(ish) teenager sucked into a fantasy world plotline.  Good world-building, and she’s not the first person to be brought over.

Yokohama Shopping Log:  A quiet series about a gynoid who runs a cafe after most of humanity has gone away.  Very peaceful.

Yukikaze:  After an alien invasion, a pilot with an intelligent plane tries to battle the invasion despite interference from other humans.

 

Your thoughts, comments, anime or manga you’d add?

 

 

 

 

 

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