Book Review: Octavia’s Brood

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha

One of the many uses of science fiction is to talk about current issues in a speculative setting.  One can posit a world in which current trends have become exaggerated to dystopian levels, or where a solution has been found to a current problem and what that would result in, or imagine how a change in the past would affect an issue…or even just go the allegory route by, say, having anti-Martian prejudice stand in for anti-immigrant prejudice of the current day.

Octavia's Shadow

This anthology is dedicated to science fiction stories on the theme of social justice issues.  It’s dedicated to the memory of Octavia Butler (1947-2006) a Hugo-winning author of works that touched on such themes as racism, alienation and the environment.  There are twenty stories and two essays by a variety of experienced and first-time authors.

The first story is “Revolution Shuffle” by Bao Phi.  Two Vietnamese-American young people in the middle of a zombie apocalypse are about to liberate an internment camp for Asian and Middle Eastern-descended people.  It seems that in this future, the zombie infestation was declared a terrorist attack, and the most likely suspects were locked up in special facilities to maintain zombie-attracting pistons “for their own protection.”  It reads like the first chapter of a YA dystopia novel.

The last fictional story is “children who fly” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.  It’s a future starring her daughter in a globally-warmed Oakland, trying to preserve what’s left of the community through group disassociation.  “Evidence” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs also uses heavy author insertion in foretelling a future where material goods are no longer important but personal growth is.

Several stories are clearly in the Afrofuturism mode, such as “Lalibela” by Gabriel Teodros, about a time-traveling Ethiopian king.

The most stylistically interesting piece is “Sanford and Sun” by Dawolu Jahari Anderson, which is a script format tale about junk dealer Fred G. Sanford encountering cosmic funk musician and philosopher Sun Ra.  It’s a neat concept, but the “jokes” reminded me of just how much Redd Foxx’s comedic delivery skills carried the Sanford and Son show.  Without specifically imagining him in the role at all times, the lines fall flat.

Some of the stories feel like incomplete fragments.  “Aftermath” by LeVar Burton (about an African-American scientist developing a cure for Parkinson’s Disease, only to be kidnapped by people who want to skin her alive) and “Fire on the Mountain” by Terry Bisson (an alternate history where the Civil War went very differently indeed) are open about this as they are previews of longer books.  Others come off as essays more than stories.

Of the stories in this volume, the one I liked best was “The Long Memory” by Morrigan Phillips.  It takes place in an archipelago where people known as Memorials can access the memories of the Memorials who have come before them, back to the beginning of their line.  These Memorials have become an important part of the society as the rulers must consult them and their knowledge of history before each important decision.

A wealthy and ambitious politician has become an enemy of the Memorials for reasons including the fact that they remember his ideas turn out badly.  He manages to get enough of the government on his side to imprison the Memorials.

The protagonist organizes a hunger strike in an effort to bring the politician to the negotiating table (and also to remind the people that the Memorials have been locked up.)  She naturally wants herself and her colleagues to be freed, but also comes to the realization that the people of the Archipelago have leaned on the Memorials for long-term memory so much that they’ve lost the capacity to remember history for themselves.

The essays are “Star Wars and the American Imagination” by Mumia Abu-Jamal, which is about pretty much what you’d think, and “The Only Lasting Truth”  by Tananarive Due, which is about Octavia Butler herself, her work, and her legacy.

There’s also a foreword, introduction and outro discussing the themes and importance of the works included, and a set of author bios.

This collection is “important” more than “good”; the quality of submissions is uneven, but they are nevertheless interesting to read and contemplate, and I look forward to seeing the future work of many of these authors.  If you have an interest in social justice themes or Afrofuturism, please consider picking this book up.

 

Anime Review: Active Raid

Anime Review: Active Raid

The year is 2035 in an alternative history Japan, and the city of Tokyo is rapidly recovering from the Third Quicksand Disaster, which turned much of the metropolitan area into quagmires.  Powered armor units called “Willwear” have helped the reconstruction immensely, and are spreading into other industries, but there are people who use Willwears for crime.  Thus the Metropolitan Police have created the Fifth Special Public Security Section to battle Willwear crime.  The focus of this series is on Unit 8, a collection of oddballs and marginal officers who are assigned to a difficult part of the city and wear special prototype Willwears.

Active Raid

Assistant Inspector Azami Kazari has been assigned to the Eighth to run an assessment on them for Internal Affairs, but being a young idealist, her plan is to whip the oddballs into shape as respectable police officers.  She soon discovers that her strait-laced ideas may be less useful in the field than the more laid-back attitudes of the rest of the team, especially as a series of unusual crimes hits the city.

This recently-concluded 12-episode science fiction anime is available legally on Crunchyroll as of this writing.  It bears some resemblance to Patlabor, a classic series about an oddball collection of future cops who use special weapons to deal with criminals using similar technology.  However, it’s crammed into much less time than the earlier series, so the characterization is shallower, and there’s no breather episodes that allow the writers to stretch their worldbuilding legs.  Most of the unit get one episode that focuses on them, and in a couple of cases have a single line in any other episode.

The opponents are Logos, which is not so much an organization as three temporarily allied teen hackers whose motivations clash, and who initially act through pawns with seemingly random crimes.  The real problem is Japan’s social ills, and ultimately, while combat is important it is understanding that saves the day.

A source of humor in the early going is that despite their destructive reputation, the Eighth actually does follow regulations; they have to get authorization from the government to pursue a criminal, to fire weapons, etc.  And since several different governmental agencies have jurisdiction (at least one of which hates the Eighth) the unit commander spends much time trying to navigate the bureaucracy while incidents are ongoing.  And of course, when the hostile governor finds an excuse to close down the Eighth, he does, playing into the hands of Logos.

A Jim Jones-style mass cult suicide is part of the backstory.  There’s also a few fanservice scenes, as the police must strip to underwear to don their Willwears.

This is an enjoyable but disposable series, worth a look if you like powered armor stories with some comedy.

Manga Review: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14

Manga Review: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14 story by Eiji Ohtsuka, art by Housui Yamazaki

It’s finally out!  To recap for newer readers, the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is five students at a Buddhist college that each have skills or talents related to the dead.  They form a small firm that fulfills the last requests of corpses, resulting in creepy yet funny stories often focused around odd bits of Japanese culture.

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14

This volume has three stories; the first has our heroes going up against a fake Kurosagi team of corpse disposal workers who are actually making a profit.  It unfolds into a conspiracy involving a completely unnecessary dam project  that has been claiming lives for three generations.  The story also introduces a mysterious man named Nishi who manipulates social media and may communicate with the dead via smartphone app.

The second story is a one-shot breather about an Americanized cartoon version of the series, where the boys are all pizza delivery workers (with special talents) who wind up employed by the FBI’s Black Heron division identifying corpses that died in bizarre circumstances.  There are interesting touches, like making one of the delivery guys a former rescue worker who discovered his powers on 9/11, and the diminutive embalmer an actual child prodigy.  But it would never fly as an actual American cartoon due to the morbid bits.  (At the end we learn it’s a bootleg DVD Numata picked up…along with a leather jacket with a really cool design…which turns out to be made by the bad guys in the cartoon!)

And the volume wraps up with another political story, as a museum of execution devices is abruptly closed by the government agency that controls it just before an investigation into its funding is about to take place.  It seems that more than one person is losing their head over bureaucracy.   The villain uses a gender-based slur.

As usual, the art and writing are excellent, with the “cartoon” section allowing the artist (and assistants) to show off some range.  There’s an extensive endnotes section with all the cultural references and in-jokes, which Kurosagi is rich with.  It’s been about two years since the last volume due to undeservedly poor sales; the problem is that this series, while of superior quality, is very niche in its appeal.  Dark Horse will be releasing the early volumes in “omnibus” editions, so I urge readers to purchase those to increase the chances we’ll see volume 15 this decade.

This particular volume doesn’t have any appreciable nudity, but there is some nasty violence and dismembered corpses, so the mature readers warning still applies.

Book Review: Bring Back Yesterday|The Trouble with Tycho

Book Review: Bring Back Yesterday | The Trouble with Tycho by A. Bertram Chandler and Clifford Simak, respectively.

This is another Ace Double, two short novels printed upside down from each other.  Very nostalgic.

Bring Back Yesterday

Bring Back Yesterday stars John Petersen, a merchant ship’s second mate.  Or he was, until he decided to have a night of drugs and sex with one of his former passengers in port.  The drugs were more potent than advertised, and he wound up missing his ship.  Apparently, there is a surplus of starship crewmembers, as the line promptly fires him under their one-strike rule, and he’s blacklisted from any other respectable starship company.

Which leaves Mr. Petersen stranded on Carinthea.  His options are few, as there’s no jobs for starship officers on the planet.  He can take a menial, minimum wage job, competing with the local unskilled workers; sign up with the Rim Worlds starship line on the lonely frontier and their deathtrap ships; or wait until a ship goes by heading to Earth so he can be deported back to that dying planet.  Carinthea has recently left the Federation, so that might be a while.

None of these sound appealing, but Mr. Petersen meets someone who knows a person who’s looking for someone just like him.  Steve Vynalek is a private eye who needs a field operative that knows how to operate in space.  Why?  It seems there’s a retired starship engineer who may have invented precognition and/or time travel, and he’s living on Wenceslaus, Carinthea’s moon, under a spy-ray-proof dome.  The government would very much like to know what’s going on, but their regular spies have been stymied by other circumstances.

It’s off to Wenceslaus then, and Mr. Petersen soon becomes aware that someone doesn’t want him to get there, as the shuttle is sabotaged.  His space training really comes in handy.  From there, it’s dodging death while trying to discover the truth.  But the truth may not set him free, but instead condemn him to eternal imprisonment….

This is in the line of hard-boiled detective stories; our hero does relatively little in the way of mental detection, and a lot in the way of engaging in life or death struggles, including against the deadly Post Office.   It’s also got more sex than was common for SF in 1961, in that it mentions sex at all–Mr. Petersen gets it on with two women, and is interrupted in the middle of a third tryst.  No gory details of that, though.

There are also a number of improbable coincidences, with an actual reason behind them.  The science fiction bits make a certain amount of sense in context, and the action scenes are exciting.  Most of the female characters are there to be sex objects for Mr. Petersen or secretaries, but we do have Liz, the hard-bitten proprietor of the Spaceman’s Hostel, who has a bit more personality and gumption.

It’s middling-good science fiction.

The Trouble with Tycho

The Trouble with Tycho takes place on Earth’s moon.  Chris Jackson is a prospector who’s not been doing very well, and is in danger of losing his stake.  When he runs across Amelia Thompson, a stranded traveler, he learns that she knows the location of valuable salvage.  Just one problem–that location is in Tycho Crater, which no one ever escapes alive.  Joined by a scientist who has his own reasons for entering Tycho, they start an expedition to certain doom.

This is more of a straight-up adventure story with survival elements.  The deadliness of Luna’s environment is played up, and that’s even before the mysterious dangers of Tycho are added in.  It turns out that the secret of Tycho is highly implausible, but Mr. Simak does his best to make it all fit together.

Amelia is depicted as being reasonably competent, but undercuts this by emphasizing that she learned her skills from her brother (who should be the one doing this, but got sick) and giving her a “schoolgirl” appearance.  And of course, Chris is far more competent.  This was a thing in stories of the Twentieth Century; a female character whose useful skills are due to being related to a man who either taught them to her, or allowed her to follow in his footsteps.

The suspense is good. though, as their resources dwindle and their escape options are cut off.

Overall, not the best work by either author, but a fun read if you happen across it.

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now by Herbert Block

Shortly after reviewing Herblock at Large, I discovered this volume in the local used book store.  It was published in 1955, and contains many of Mr. Block’s political cartoons from the early 1950s.

Herblock's Here and Now

This included his Pulitzer-winning Joseph McCarthy work; Herblock appears to have actually coined the word “McCarthyism” for the witch hunt-like anti-Communist grandstanding so popular at the time.  Mr. Block was pleased to be able to speak of the senator’s career in the past tense.

There is quite a bit more prose here than in the 1980s volume, helpful as I am less familiar with the period.  Some prominent figures who feature in multiple cartoons are lost in the mists of history now, remembered perhaps only by their hometowns.   President Eisenhower comes in for quite a bit of ribbing, but his treatment is gentle compared to that of Vice President Nixon, who is depicted as crawling out of a sewer.

The John Q. Public figure is seen quite frequently in these Fifties cartoons, a short, bespectacled fellow who is much put upon.  He seems to have vanished by the 1980s, replaced by more varied civilians.   Also a frequent visitor to the editorial page is Atomic War, a stylized atomic bomb wearing the helmet of Ares.  He’s usually grinning menacingly, always ready to threaten.

Of resonance to today’s situation are the cartoons on the refugee crisis, thousands still displaced after World War Two, and the U.S. only allowing in a trickle–and under great suspicion at that.

Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.
Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.

The Soviet Union was considered a huge threat, and so was covered in detail as well–but Herblock reminds us that he has no inside information, so his depictions may be highly misleading as to what was actually going on inside the U.S.S.R.  There’s also some commentary on the U.S. habit of  supporting dictators and other unpleasant people in the name of containing Communism–this would come home to roost many times in the coming decades.

There’s surprisingly little on the civil rights struggle, only mentioned as part of a broader concern for American’s freedoms under the Constitution.

This one will probably be a bit harder to find, but highly recommended for fans of editorial cartooning, and those wanting a window into the early 1950s.

Book Review: Analog 1.

Book Review: Analog 1 edited by John W. Campbell

Astounding Science Fiction was one of the most influential science fiction magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s.   But long-time editor John W. Campbell had felt for years that the title did not reflect the more mature, “hard” science fiction he preferred to run.  So in 1960, he finally got permission to transition the magazine over a period of months to Analog Science Fact and Fiction.

Analog 1

This volume is a collection of stories from that first year of Analog and as such is a time capsule of the science fiction genre at that moment.  The opening editorial is perhaps a little hubristic, claiming that “mainstream literature” is just a subset of science fiction.  Mr. Campbell touts the fun of science fiction being the way it allows the mind to stretch and struggle with new concepts.  Then we begin the eight feature stories.

“Monument” by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. concerns a planet that is a tropical paradise, inhabited by primitive, peaceful humanoids.   A lone spaceman stumbles on the place, and lives out his life in peace…until near his death, he realizes that inevitably more humans will come, and given the history of tropical paradises on Earth, this will result in disaster for the natives.  He comes up with a plan.   Some time later, galactic civilization indeed comes calling.  All unfolds as O’Brien had foreseen–greedy developers, broken treaties, military men with their hands tied by regulations.  The people of Langri have the Plan, but will it come off in time?

This is the longest piece in the volume, being a full-fledged novella.   The critique of colonialism is pointed enough to sting a bit.   The greedy capitalist who doesn’t really hate the natives, but doesn’t understand that their interests should come ahead of his own, and so does them dirt, is the major villain of the piece.  He’ll be quite willing to employ the locals as maids and laborers in the hotels he’s building, once they’re properly put in their place.   He’s blind to the way he’s being outmaneuvered, and even the sympathetic military men don’t quite grok what the natives are really up to.

“The Plague” by Teddy Keller is set in the then present day.  The obscure Pentagon office of Protection from Germ Warfare had the previous officer retire a few weeks ago, and his replacement is tied up in red tape somewhere.  So when a plague breaks out, Sergeant Major Andrew McCloud and Corporal Bettijean Baker are the spearhead of the effort to stop it, despite the military brass trying to interfere.  A general is running interference, but if they don’t figure out why this illness has such a weird pattern of attack quickly, some new officer will be found to start all over.

The vector of spread is a clever one, and I have seen it in at least one other short story.  Younger readers might not catch on until it is spelled out for them, as customs and technology have changed since 1960.   There’s a whiff of the period’s sexism in regards to how grown women in the military are referred to as “girls.”

“Remember the Alamo!” by T.R. Fehrenbach is a time travel tale.  A scholar has gone back to observe the Battle of the Alamo, infiltrating the small garrison to get the full details.  Mr. Ord doesn’t quite grasp that the differences piling up between the history he knows and the events he is experiencing aren’t just trivialities he can dismiss.  The end result is telegraphed because we see the thoughts of those around Ord, and what they’re not telling him, since he should already know it.

“The Hunch” by Christopher Anvil features scout ship pilot James Connely, who is informed that two scout ships have vanished in a certain sector, despite having the latest equipment.  So his ship is being refitted with even newer equipment.  Equipment he has no chance to test before being launched into that same sector. As it happens, his hunch that one of these devices is actually responsible for the disappearance of the other ships is correct.  But which one of these newfangled gadgets is it?  This story is heavy on the sarcastic humor.

“Barnacle Bull” by Winston P. Sanders is a rarity, in that the protagonists are a Norwegian space crew in the “near future” flying the Hellik Olav in an attempt to find a safe way through the asteroid belt.  They discover why none of the other ships ever reported back.  Space barnacles.  This is one of those stories where the problem is in fact its own solution, looked at a different way.

“Join Our Gang?” by Sterling E Lanier concerns a galactic civilization attempting to convince a newly discovered planet to join them.  Sadly, the aliens are refusing, so it is time to apply pressure.  Turns out that invasive species are an Earth specialty.  Not exactly a happy ending to this one, more of a “that’s just the way it goes.”

“Sleight of Wit” by Gordon R. Dickson stars another scout, Hank Shallo lands on the same planet, in almost the spot as, the first alien scout humanity has ever met.  The alien’s ship is heavily armed, while Hank’s has no conventional weaponry.  But as he warns the alien, Hank is in possession of the universe’s most deadly weapon, one that cannot be detected or stopped.  Or is he bluffing?  Does the alien dare find out for sure?

“Prologue to an Analogue” by Leigh Richmond is the sole non-“hard” SF story in the volume.  We’re back in the present day, as an advertising campaign featuring “witches” proves successful in unexpected ways.  For younger readers, I should mention that many television programs used to be wholly owned by a particular advertiser, so a cleaning product company hosting its own nightly newscast wouldn’t have been considered unusual.   The story is also tied heavily to the politics of 1960, with tensions between the USA, the Soviet Union and Red China important to the way the plot unfolds.  The actual mechanism of the events is never explained.  Psionics?  The will of God?  Actual witches?  Who knows?  A rather frustrating tale, as intended.

These aren’t all-time classic stories, a couple are very dated, but are pretty good representatives of the magazine’s content.  It’s been reprinted a few times, and some of the other covers are better–check your local library or used book store.

 

 

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.

Magazine Review: Thought Notebook June 2014

Magazine Review: Thought Notebook June 2014 edited by Kat Lahr

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

Thought Notebook

This is subtitled “Literary and Visual Art Journal”, which means that in addition to poetry, short fiction and essays, it has a lot of pictures.  The theme of this issue is “A Time of Renewal” and it groups the pieces by key words that relate to the theme, such as “Restoration” and “Awakening.”

Each piece is accompanied by a small blurb tangentially related to it.  They range from interesting to trite.  The art is serviceable, but none of the pieces really popped for me.  Of the written bits, I was most struck by two pieces by Skeeze Whitlow about his alcoholism and recovery from same; and a brief essay by Marcie Gainer discussing Andrei Tarkovsky’s last three films.  Also of interest was an interview with poet and vocalist Shanara.

There’s a strong emphasis on the importance of creativity, thought and spirituality in the overall choice of pieces.  I find it somewhat more accessible than other journals I’ve read.

I’m going to plug a couple of the journal’s projects that might be of interest to readers–Project Teen Voice www.thoughtcollection.org/teenproject and Healthcare Reform Research Project www.thoughtcollection.org/hcr

 

 

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