Book Review: Space Opera

Book Review: Space Opera  by Jack Vance

It’s not that Roger Wool doesn’t want to work, as such.  It’s that he doesn’t want to be tied down to a single job day after day, the same desk in the same office.  And he’s too well-bred for most work that involves wandering from place to place doing odd jobs as they come.  Fortunately, his wealthy aunt Dame Isabel Grayce has been willing to subsidize Roger living in the manner to which he’s accustomed, in exchange for being available for her every whim.

Space Opera

And while opera is not Roger’s thing, the avant-garde performance put on by the alien Ninth Company of Rlaru has some interesting points.  However, later that night the performers vanish into thin air, leaving their human manager struggling for an explanation.  Dame Isabel learns that this was supposed to be part of a cultural exchange, and immediately puts her entire fortune behind the project of sending an Earthly opera company to the stars.

This is highly alarming to Roger, who was hoping that his aunt’s largess would continue into her will–if she goes broke on this wild adventure, there goes his inheritance!  While helping to make the arrangements for the voyage, Roger meets a mysterious beauty named Madoc Roswyn, who is hellbent on coming along.  Problem is, she has no musical training or other opera-useful skills, and Dame Isabel quickly sees through the secretary gag.

And so the Phoebus blasts off with a full opera company and orchestra aboard, as well as a crew led by the increasingly nervous Captain Gondar, Dame Isabel and her staff..and Madoc as a stowaway.

Jack Vance (1916-2013) wrote many fine science fiction works.  This comedic novel was a stand-alone, written (so he claimed) to fit the title, rather than adding a title to a finished manuscript as was the usual custom.  Mr. Vance was known for detailed alien cultures with unusual customs, and that’s on full display here.

The plot is episodic, with the Phoebus landing on new planets, meeting new strange customs, and putting on shows.  Most of the performances don’t go so well for reasons ranging from getting the wrong audience to the planet being actively hostile to life as we know it.

There’s a certain amount of classism and  cultural snobbery–Dame Isabel and her coterie are aghast to learn the crew has formed a washboard jazz band in their spare time.  And the romantic subplot is weak.  Madoc is goal-driven, leading her to some femme fatale tactics, and the resolution of that is a letdown.

But top marks for the zany culture clashes and some moments that opera fans will doubtless enjoy even more than the layman.

Recommended for fans of comedic science fiction.

Manga Review: One-Punch Man 01

Manga Review: One-Punch Man 01 story by ONE, art by Yusuke Murata

Saitama wanted to be a hero when he grew up, the sort of good guy who could beat any monster or villain with a single punch.   Like many people, he forgot that dream as he prepared for a more realistic career as a salaryman (white collar worker.)  That didn’t really work out for him, and Saitama became unemployed and stuck in the hell of applications and interviews and rejections.  Until he saw a monster about to attack a child, and it reawakened his desire to be a hero.

One-Punch Man 01

He managed to beat the (fairly weak) monster, and started training to become a hero.  After three years of intense training, his hair had fallen out, and Saitama had gained great power, the ability to defeat any foe with a single punch.  Now you may be thinking, “that sounds way too easy; surely there is some horrible down side to these powers.”  And you would be right.  For a hero who lives to battle evil, defeating any opponent in one punch makes the victories hollow.

Comic book fans sometimes talk about the “Superman problem”; a protagonist so grossly overpowered that he can solve most difficulties is difficult to write interesting stories for, since normal challenges just don’t work.  A skilled writer can overcome this problem, but you also end up with a lot of Kryptonite stories where the hero’s powers are arbitrarily reduced to provide a challenge.

This series takes a different approach to the problem.  The first few chapters set up what would normally be world-threatening dangers, which Saitama defeats with ridiculous ease as he notes how he’s become detached from his own emotions, mechanically going through the motions of fighting monsters, but  feeling hollow inside.

Things start to change with the appearance of angsty cyborg Genos.  He’s the first person to really see Saitama in action and understand just how impressive he is.  Thus Genos becomes Saitama’s sidekick (although “disciple” is closer to what he acts like) and his first real friend.  They battle the Mosquito Lady, which brings them to the attention of the first arc villain of the series, the House of Evolution, which specializes in uplifted animal monsters.

This manga has a different backstory than many, as it started as a webcomic by ONE, who is an okay artist but not first-rate; as far as I know it’s still running.  However, the webcomic had strong writing and a good sense of comedic timing, and became a huge success.  A deal was made to have top notch manga artist Yusuke Murata (of Eyeshield 21 fame) redraw the series for magazine distribution, with some minor story edits where ONE felt it was a good idea.  This also became popular, and now there’s an animated adaptation as well (currently streaming on Hulu.)

There’s quite a bit of over-the-top superhero violence in this series, so more sensitive young readers might be uncomfortable.  Mosquito Lady is simultaneously a parody and example of oversexualized female supervillains (why does an insect need mammary glands?) but Saitama is fully naked during the same sequence so you may think it balances out.

The characterization is relatively simplistic in these early volumes, but as more continuing characters appear, the storyline gets deeper.

Highly recommended for superhero fans.

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