Book Review: The Fall of the Towers

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. Delany

Five hundred years after the old civilizations perished in the Great Fire, the Toromon Empire occupies all the known livable space on Earth.   But they are hemmed in by deadly radioactive belts and there’s nowhere for it to grow.  And yet–and yet, the Empire is not alone and there is something beyond the barrier…is it the enemy the Toromon government claims?

The Fall of the Towers

This science fiction trilogy is an early work by noted author Samuel R. Delany.  I have previously reviewed the first part, Out of the Dead City and it would be best if you read that review first.  To briefly recap, escaped prisoner Jon Koshar, the Duchess of Petra, and scarred giant Arkor are contacted by a disembodied intelligence called the Triple Being to battle another disembodied intelligence, The Lord of the Flames, which is interfering with humanity.  This is set against a backdrop of the Empire preparing for war with its unknown enemy.

The Towers of Toron:  It has been three years since the climax of the previous volume.  The war with the enemy beyond the barrier is in full swing, although it is impossible to tell how well it is doing, as none of the soldiers ever return.  The Lord of the Flames has returned to Earth, and must be rooted out again regardless of the cost.

The emphasis shifts somewhat in this volume, with two previously minor characters taking on new importance.  Clea Koshar, physicist and math genius (and Jon’s sister) is in hiding.  She is suffering what we would now call PTSD due to her war work, and is triggered by a common patriotic phrase, so has holed up in a boarding house under an assumed name and tries to avoid interacting with anyone.  Towards the end of the book, she begins to heal with the aid of circus acrobat Alter.

Runaway fisherman’s son Tel joins the army and is sent into the war.  Anyone who’s ever been through basic training (and quite a few who haven’t) will recognize that the training sequences don’t make any sense–which is only the first clue that something is very wrong here.  Once Tel is in the war itself, it turns out to be a murky affair, mists constantly concealing everything even a few feet away, constantly repairing machinery of unclear purpose, and random lethal attacks by an enemy that is never actually seen.

While banishing The Lord of the Flames is a necessary thing, it is not sufficient to stop the war.  That will take an unprecedented act of communication and understanding.

The City of a Thousand Suns:  A month after the events of the previous book, the war appears to be over, but one of the participants hasn’t put down their arms, and the consequences of the war are coming home to the island of Toron, where the Toromon Empire is centered.

On another front, actions taken by the Triple Being earlier in the trilogy have left their agents susceptible to influence by The Lord of the Flames, which is starting its endgame, to learn how to make war against the universe.  The Earthlings must finish their final mission without the direct aid of their sponsors.  That mission: collect three books that represent the finest thinking of humankind.

One of the authors comes directly on stage for the first time in the trilogy:  poet Vol Nonik.   He’s finally gotten out of the street gang he was in, but former rival gang leader Jeof still holds a grudge.  He and his minions attack Vol and his artist wife Renna, crippling the poet and murdering the woman.  This tips Vol Nonik over the edge into despair..which is good for his poetry…maybe?  He’s not so sure.

This volume is heavy on the Big Ideas as it wraps up the themes of the trilogy.  Creating new perceptions by forcibly moving a person from one setting to another, the question of whether it’s better to fix sick social systems or just let them go smash, and of course, the meaning of life.  One of the recurring images is the gambling game Randomax, which appears  as random as the name suggests, but is actually easily manipulated by those with higher math skills.

There’s more sexism as the trilogy continues, less, I think, from the author himself than from the social assumptions he’s working with.  There’s also a fair amount of “fantastic racism” as prejudice against the Neo-Neanderthals and the gigantic forest guards comes up every so often, and within the forest guard culture, how they treat their telepathic minority.

The closing chapters become clumsy, with hallucinatory paragraphs meant to show a poet plunging into suicidal madness, and a huge infodump by the Triple Being to explain what The Lord of the Flames really is and how it was working behind the scenes of the final book.  The Lord never becomes a character in its own right, and we will just have to accept the Being’s word that it is no longer a threat.

But then there is the city of a thousand suns, and perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

Recommended for Delany fans and those interested in the roots of New Wave science fiction.

Book Review: Festival of Crime

Book Review: Festival of Crime Edited by Christine Husom, Mickie Turk & Michael Allan Mallory

Minnesotans have a reputation for being a bit mild-mannered and reserved.  But we love celebrations just as much as anyone else, and the state is filled with fairs and festivals, from small-town scarecrow contests to the crowded Pride in Minneapolis.  And sometimes crimes happen at these events.  Thus this collection from Twin Cities Sisters in Crime, a local writers group.

Festival of Crime

Most of these 19 tales are indeed crime stories, but not always murder, and a few have mystery elements.  A couple have supernatural elements, though only one has it proven.  Some merely take place at or near a festival, while others have it essential to the plot.

The collection begins with “Sawbill Checkpoint” by Michael Allan Mallory (wait, isn’t he one of the editors?)   A man is shot during a dogsled race, and his final word may be a vital clue…if only someone knew what it meant.  The last story is “All Sales Final” by Douglas Dorow.  A pair of art dealers discover a treasure trove owned by two elderly women.  Now, how to get it away from them before the old ladies figure out how much it’s worth?

Stories I enjoyed the most were “Looney Daze” by Cheryl Ullyot, in which a gambler woos a woman obsessed with wiener dog races; and “Corn on the  Cob” by Colin T. Nelson, about a sheriff faced with criminals he can’t put in jail, and an election coming up.

“No Time Like the Present” by E.B. Boatner is about a man who spots some anachronistically-dressed people, and learns their secret.  It feels a little too tidy, with a long-winded wrap-up.

Content warning:  homophobia, torture and domestic abuse come up in different stories.

The writing is decent on average, and I only spotted a couple of minor typos.   There are author bios in the back if you decide one of the stories makes you want to read more.

Recommended primarily for Minnesotan crime story fans, as they’ll be most familiar with the local color, but any fan of crime stories should be able to enjoy this.

Manga Review: Inuyashiki #1-3

Manga Review: Inuyashiki #1-3 by Hiroya Oku

Life is tough for Ichiro Inuyashiki.  He’s only 58, but looks a good ten years older.  His wife and children think he’s a loser (and they’re not entirely wrong,) he gets pushed around by jerks, and now he has cancer.  The prognosis is terminal, a few months at most, and he’s not sure anyone will miss him when he’s gone.

Inuyashiki 1

The only creature on Earth that seems to appreciate him is his Shiba dog Hanako.  And it’s when he’s out walking Hanako in the park that Ichiro’s life takes an unexpected turn.  When he wakes up in the wee hours of the morning, Ichiro has missing time, and his aches seem to have disappeared.  Little things keep adding up, until Mr. Inuyashiki finally realizes he isn’t human any more.

This seems to be the last straw, until Ichiro sees some juvenile delinquents attacking a homeless man, and for the first time in his life, he can step up to help…

The “aliens accidentally kill an Earthling, and rebuild him (or her) with superpowers” plot device is a long-running one, even being parodied in Osamu Tezuka’s A*Tomcat.  The writer is fully aware of this, and references Tezuka’s Astroboy, which A*Tomcat was riffing on.  But it’s mixed with the “dying man finds a new purpose in life” plot from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Ikiru.

The opening scene is the Inuyashiki family moving into the new home that Ichiro has saved up years to be able to buy–which would be a nice place except that it’s literally overshadowed by newer and bigger houses on either side.  It’s clear that Ichiro didn’t consult anyone else in the family before making the purchase, and the surprise he wanted to impress them with is a huge disappointment.  Still, they could be a teensy more appreciative.

The homeless man later in Volume 1 is almost ridiculously sympathetic.  He’s working again, tomorrow he’ll be able to move into a place with a roof, his ex agreed to take him back, he has everything to live for…so naturally now is when the monstrously cruel tweens decide to attack him for funsies.  Saving him and finding a way to punish the children without using violence against them makes Ichiro feel alive again.  Saving lives makes him feel…human!

Inuyashiki 2

Unfortunately, Ichiro wasn’t the only person in the park that night.  Teenager Hiro Shishigami was also present, and also rebuilt by the aliens with unusual powers.  In Volume 2, he takes center stage for a while, helping one of his friends who’s being bullied–and also murdering an entire family for fun.  Hiro only feels alive when he’s killing, and now he can whenever he wants.  Ichiro tries to confront the boy, but neither of them recognizes the other, and while Hiro is able to escape, his instant-death power doesn’t work on the older man.

In some ways, Hiro is a very typical teenager.  He likes comics, is bad at talking to girls, wants to help his friend, and lets his impulses override his better judgement.  The excessive bloodthirst is much less typical.

Not knowing how to track Hiro down, Ichiro explores various ways his abilities can help others.

Inuyashiki 3

In the third volume, the gigantic Yakuza thug Samejima becomes the main enemy.  A man of enormous appetites, he chooses to kidnap a woman to be his sex slave until his abuses kill her.  Through gumption and quick thinking, she temporarily escapes, but that just makes Samejima angry and willing to kill her boyfriend.  It’s at this point that Ichiro interferes; but even with his new powers, Samejima’s physical prowess may be too much for him to handle.  Plus, of course, making the entire Yakuza his opponents.

The creator’s previous work was Gantz, a long-running SF action series noted for over-the-top violence, gratuitous nudity and disturbing sexual situations.   The first volume of this series might fool you into thinking it’s more sedate, but by the third volume we’re back to things like mass eye-gouging and on-page rape.  Sensitive readers should exercise caution.

One thing this series has that Gantz initially didn’t is a sympathetic viewpoint character.  Mr. Inuyashiki means well from the beginning, even if he doesn’t have the courage or physical skill to back up his convictions.  And while his family does come off as pretty awful people, we can understand some of their feelings about the situation.

On the other hand, the “teens are monsters” thing gets tiresome quickly, and in a way it’s a relief when the adult criminals take center stage.

Recommended to fans of Gantz and those who enjoy well-drawn ultraviolence with gratuitous nudity in their science fiction.

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Ogami Itto was once a samurai warrior of high rank, the official executioner for the shogunate.  He had a lovely wife and new son; life was good.  But another clan was ambitious, and framed Ogami for treason.  Under sentence of execution and with his wife murdered, Ogami asked his infant son to make a choice between merciful death and life on the run. now Ogami is a ronin, and an assassin for hire.  If you need someone dead, and you can find them, you can hire the Lone Wolf assassin who travels with his cub.

Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

This classic manga series was popular enough to spawn a series of live-action movies, a television series and several spin-off manga.  It was also influential outside of Japan, notably influencing the art and storytelling style of Frank Miller (who provided the cover for this omnibus edition.)  As such, it was one of the first manga series to be translated for the emerging American market, using the expensive and painstaking “double-flipping” method to make it read left to right.

This volume contains the first three volumes of the Japanese version, and these stories are very episodic, focusing on an difficult assassination, a particular facet of feudal Japanese life, or a philosophical point.  It is not until several stories in that anyone recognizes Ogami for who he is, and even longer before even a partial explanation of his past.

Ogami is a stoic character who works hard not to give away his emotions; his tenderness towards Daigoro is almost entirely seen in his actions, not his face.  This does not prevent him from placing his son in danger if it will help with an assassination plan.  Daigoro himself is one of the most ambiguous characters I’ve ever read.  He seems most of the time to act like the small child he is, but in other instances is far too mature for his age, even allowing for the massive trauma Daigoro has undergone in his short life.  It makes him kind of creepy to be honest.

The art is dynamic and varied, able to handle both exciting battles and calm scenes of nature.  There’s a fair amount of reused faces, which with the episodic stories make the manga feel like a television series with a limited pool of guest star actors.

As expected from a samurai revenge story, there is plenty of violence and death; not all of Ogami’s assassination targets are evil people deserving of death.  In particular in this volume, one target is a Buddhist priest who must die for political reasons–he teaches Ogami how to attain mu (“emptiness”) which allows the assassin to strike without projecting sakki  (“killing intent”).  This becomes an important part of Ogami’s personal sword style going forward.

There is also quite a bit of female nudity, and at least one rape/murder scene.  Ogami himself is decent to the women he meets, but feudal Japanese society is not a good place for them.

Because of its influence on the subgenre of samurai manga, this series is well worth reading and rereading.  Recommended for fans of this sort of thing.

Manga Review: Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan

Manga Review: Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the first volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s  massive history of Japan during the reign of Emperor Hirohito, the “Showa Era,”  It was a long reign, covering most of the Twentieth Century, from 1926-1989.  In addition to the larger story of Japan, it is also his autobiography, as Mizuki’s earliest childhood memories coincide with the beginning of that era.

Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan

This volume opens several years earlier, with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 which devastated Tokyo.  The repercussions of this, combined with fiscal mismanagement, created a financial crisis that crippled Japan’s economy.  The optimism and liberalization of the Taisho period took a huge hit.  Japan struggled along until 1929 and the worldwide effects of the Great Depression hit.

A combination of the Red Scare (the belief that Communists were about to take over), military successes and government incompetence led to the rise of right-wing organizations, especially military cliques.  Japan became ever more aggressive against its neighbors in Asia, setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo and grabbing ever more territory from China.

Japan became a rogue state, leaving the League of Nations when that body attempted to intervene in its conquests.  Only Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy recognized Manchukuo, and Japan’s alliance with those nations was about to drag it into World War Two.

This is a “warts and all” history, which covers events that many Japanese schoolkids might not be taught in official classes, or have glossed over for them.  There are many painful topics in here, so despite childish hijinks in the parts dealing with Shigeru’s early life, I would recommend it for senior high school students and up.

Warts and all is also how Mizuki depicts himself as a child and young man.  Naturally athletic but lazy, bright but unmotivated, sensitive but engaging in fights both as part of a gang and solo.  It will take the horrors of war (as depicted in the third volume) to force him into a responsible adult life.  Perhaps he got some of it from his father, who is shown as a Micawber-like optimist despite his economic woes.

There’s a lot of names and dates, so the end-notes are very helpful–you still might want to have Wikipedia open to assist with some of the more obscure bits and to cross-reference what else was going on in the world at the time.  Some bits come across as very dry, making the personal stories a relief.

The art may be jarring for those unused to Mizuki’s style; many pages are drawn directly from photographs in a realistic style, while others are done in a very loose, cartoony fashion.  It’s also kind of weird to have Nezumi-Otoko (Rat-man) as the narrator of the more serious history portion-he would not seem the most reliable of narrators.

Overall, not as interesting as the third volume, which features Shigeru’s most harrowing experiences, but well worth seeking out from the library.

Book Review: Lois Lane: Fallout

Book Review: Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond

Getting in trouble her first day at East Metropolis High School was not Lois Lane’s plan.  Keeping her head down, fitting in, allowing her family to settle in for her general father’s new long-term assignment, that was the plan.  But when she witnesses a student’s report of bullying being laughed off by the principal (especially odd as Anavi Singh claims the Warheads are somehow bullying her inside her own brain), Lois’ curiosity and hatred of injustice are aroused.

Lois Lane: Fallout

While her interference is not appreciated by Principal Butler, local newspaperman Perry White sees some potential in Lois, and invites her to join the staff of the “Daily Scoop”, a teen-oriented website attached to the Daily Planet.   Lois decides to make school bullying her first news story, but she may be getting in over her head.  The Warheads are not ordinary bullies, and almost every adult in Lois’ life is against her pursuing this scoop.  Good thing she has an online friend “SmallvilleGuy” that can help out some–now she just needs to make friends in real life!

This young adult novel re-imagines veteran comics character Lois Lane as a modern teenager just starting out on a journalism career path.  This works pretty well, and Lois makes a good YA protagonist.  She’s mouthy, incurably curious, stands up for what she thinks is right and is clever enough to get herself in trouble but not always clever enough to get herself back out solo.  Her background as a military brat is a plausible explanation for such skills as she has, while allowing her to clash with her authoritarian father.

Romance is mostly on the back burner (thankfully); while Lois does have some romantic thoughts towards the fellow she met on an UFO website after reporting she saw a flying man, she’s well aware that SmallvilleGuy is keeping secrets such as his actual name and appearance from her.  He does seem to be a good friend, though.

Other characters tend not to develop much; a couple have hidden depths that are likely to provide subplots for further stories.  (There’s already a sequel.)

While Lois hasn’t realized this yet, she does live in a superhero world, and there’s some science-fictional technology that plays a part in the story.  Notably, it is not played as inherently bad, though it can be abused.  (In some cases, relatively harmlessly, as Lois’ little sister Lucy demonstrates.)

The main problem for me was the central mystery of the book–possibly it’s because I have decades of experience reading science fiction and superhero comics, but I figured out all the twists by about Chapter 4 of 25.  This meant that the story dragged for me while I waited for Lois to catch up.  I hope that this will not be so much of a problem for the intended audience of young adults.

Overall, it’s a good first installment in what could be a long series, and I recommend it to fans of plucky reporters who enjoy knowing something the heroine doesn’t.

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Economics can be a deadly dull subject, at least when dominated by stuffed shirts talking about trade deficits, returns on annuities or fiat currency.  But the basics of economic theory can be used to learn useful or amusing things about the world.  With a large enough set of valid data, you can tease out fascinating conclusions, such as the answer to the question “is there cheating in professional sumo wrestling?”  (Probably, or some really amazing and highly consistent coincidences.)

Freakonomics

This book, as the front cover, back cover and several pages at the front remind us, was a New York Times bestseller and all-round phenomenon back in 2005.  (I wonder if there’s some sort of data available on whether having eleven pages of praise for the book before you even get to the title page is a good investment; I skipped right over it.)  It talks about such concepts as positive and negative incentives, regression analysis and information inequality as they relate to cheating schoolteachers, crime rates, baby names and other offbeat subjects.

Perhaps the most controversial subject covered is the notion that legalized abortion led to a massive drop in crime rates in the United States.  The evidence seems sound, but as the authors remind us, the data only shows us what is there, not what should be there.  The same results might have been achievable by other, less painful means.

There are some major changes to this edition of Freakonomics; the chapter  with the story of how the Klu Klux Klan was beaten back had to be heavily revised when one of the sources was revealed to have been exaggerating his role.  There are also several newspaper articles covering subjects that only got a passing mention in the main text, plus the one that got Mr. Dubner interested in covering Mr. Levitt’s research in the first place.  The advertised “Author Q & A” is rather flippant, and more of an advertisement for their next book, Super Freakonomics.

As a semi-scholarly book, there are footnotes, and an index, as well as a list of baby names you might want to consider.

I found this an interesting book with some thought-provoking insights, though some of the conclusions seem a bit iffy.  Recommended to just about everyone, but especially those who’d like to know more about the less stuffy side of economics.

Magazine Review: Out of the Gutter #7

Magazine Review: Out of the Gutter #7 (Winter 2010)

Back in the day, the low-cost entertainment option of choice was the pulp magazine.  It contained fast, exciting stories on cruddy paper–a lowbrow art form that is still fondly remembered by some.  “Out of the Gutter” tries to be somewhat in that tradition.

Out of the Gutter #7

This is the “U.S. vs. U.K.” issue, with alternate stories from American and British authors.  They’re handily arranged by the time it takes to read them, with the shortest stories up front, interspersed with somewhat relevant quotes and bits of non-fiction.

Unfortunately, while the cover promises “pulp fiction and degenerate literature,” the stories tend much more strongly to the degenerate side of the equation.   Lots of drugs, sex (yes, including rape), strong language and of course violence, with few likable characters to be seen.  It’s kind of like pouring habañero sauce on your jalapeños; too much burn and not enough nutrition underneath.

That said, there are a couple of good stories.  “Darkness Creeps” by Stephen D. Rogers is a good snapshot of a petty bureaucrat trying to fix a town one atrocity at a time.  “Real Estate” by Benedict J. Jones is about a finger man investigating drug dealers’ deaths.  And “Pleading and Bleeding” by Charlie Wade follows two police officers tracking down a serial killer with a thing for bankers.

The non-fiction is more varied.  A comparison of infamous murderers of the U.S. and U.K.,  a remixed comic about social etiquette, and a piece suggesting that the Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Paine rather than Thomas Jefferson are a sample of these.

Based on this issue, I would not recommend this magazine, but it was certainly an interesting read.

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