Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016 by various

While I spend many of my comics-related posts on this  blog talking about the Big Two’s superhero comic books, there are a number of worthy small press comics companies that put out interesting material every year.  Oni Press has put out an affordable collection of seven first issues from various series they’ve printed over their existence.

Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Leading off this trade paperback is The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt.  This horror-western about a collection of cursed firearms is as it happens something I have reviewed before.  I won’t repeat myself here, but note that the series lasted eight collected volumes in its main storyline, with three extra graphic novels of spinoff stories.  Pretty impressive!

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque is science fiction.  When incoming president Stephen Blades reads a letter left for him by his predecessor, he learns that many of the bizarre actions taken by Francis T. Carroll were based on information not shared with the American people..  It seems that there are aliens doing…something…in the asteroid belt.  President Carroll felt it was most important for America to arm itself just in case the aliens are hostile, thus his warmongering activities on Earth that have made a mess of foreign policy while neglecting domestic issues that are coming to a head.

The United States also sent a secret manned space mission out to the location of the alien activity in an effort to learn more; they’re just now coming close to their destination.  The astronauts have concealed certain information from their Earth-bound mission controllers…among other things, one of them is pregnant.

There are some pretty clear parallels to the Bush/Obama transition, with mentions of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and a white conservative president with a bad reputation on the economy and war being replaced with a darker-skinned liberal.  But as the series progresses, the special circumstances lessen those similarities as President Blades tries a very different approach to the same situation President Carroll faced.

Meanwhile, the astronauts learn the truth behind the alien presence, and we learn the backstory of their mission.

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Joe Infunari starts with five recent college graduates going out to the woods to bury a time capsule.  Except that they find themselves uncovering a bunker with four of their names on it.  A bunker that contains items alleging to be from the post-apocalyptic future, including letters from their future selves.

It seems that by their actions, the quintet will bring about the near-extinction of the human race.  But not doing so might create an even worse future.  It’s not clear if the future selves are trying to create a time loop, or avert one.

This was a double-sized first issue, so a lot goes on.  This does include nudity and on-page sex, as well as some nasty violence and strong language.  The last page twist is foreshadowed, but still pretty shocking.

Stumptown  by Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood appears to be the first issue…of the third series.  Private detective Dex Parios participates in an amateur soccer match (her team loses) before going to a professional game of footy with her brother Ansel and friend Mercury.  It’s hometown Portland vs. Seattle, and autographs after!  But afterwards, Dex and Ansel find a badly beaten (maybe dead) Mercury in the bushes.  Is it hooliganism or a crime unrelated to sports?

Greg Rucka is well known for his crime comics, but the soccer elements took up most of the issue for a slow start.

Helheim by Cullen Bunn & Joëlle Jones takes place somewhere up North during the Sixth Century.  A stockaded village is caught in a war between witches.  A raiding party is chased by warriors of the witch Groa who soon become the undead.  A man named Rikard keeps having visions of himself weeping tears of blood.  When the village itself is breached, Rickard is beheaded, but that’s not the end of his participation in the war.  Especially if his lover Bera has anything to say about it!

Rikard is relatively nice for a Norseman of the time, not happy about abandoning comrades or turning over loved ones to the enemy as a peace offering.  His father is made of sterner stuff, but neither of them is fully prepared for what happens next.

Kaijumax by Xander Cannon is a considerable change of pace.  The world has long been infested with monsters who ran rampant over the human civilizations.  But now the humans have developed a way to give themselves giant superpowered forms (ala Ultraman) and have been capturing the kaiju they see as criminals, placing them on an island prison.

One of the latest inmates is Electrogor, who claims to have been just out looking for food for its children.  Alas, the humans take poorly to kaiju eating their power supplies.  Electrogor knows the humans are after its children, and it appeals to E68FE3 (“Hellmoth”), a monster that’s about to be released on a technicality, to help the kids out.

E68FE3 wants a return favor though, and the resulting altercation puts Electrogor in solitary confinement.  It’s only then that a guard lets Electrogor know that the “technicality” Hellmoth was released on is that there are no living witnesses to its crimes.  Especially the children.

Despite the cartoony art and many jokes, this series is a commentary on the American prison system and the abuses rampant within it.  So Not For Children.

We finish with The Life After by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo.  Jude sleepwalks through his life, every day seeming exactly like every other day.  Perhaps a little too much exactly like every other day–how many times can one woman drop her handkerchief on the bus?  But today is different.  Today, Jude picks up the handkerchief and tries to get it back to the woman.

It seems like the world is out to stop him, and it starts getting much weirder, but Jude eventually does catch up to the woman, and seemingly breaks her out of her routine as well.  This disturbs secret watchers who say that no one has escaped in two thousand years.

Shortly thereafter, Jude meets Ernest Hemingway, who believes that everyone in their city is in fact a suicide, and this is the afterlife.

Some nifty use of panels and other art tricks, reminiscent of the Franco-Belgian style.

Content note:  the woman’s flashback includes on-panel prostitution, gore and childbirth as well as suicide.

There’s a wide assortment of genres represented here, and this is a good choice to pick up if you’re unfamiliar with Oni Press and want to know which series you might like.  Based on these first issues, I’m least impressed with The Bunker which skews even more cynical than I have a taste for.

Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Book Review: Nexus

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.”  One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.

Nexus

Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five.  It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels.  Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology.  Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available.  These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.

After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights.  In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity.  Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.

Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD.  It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work.  The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory.  If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently.  Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him.  She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.

While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller.  Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory.  The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.

One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing.  The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies.  Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives.  Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work.  A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony.  But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.

Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.

Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse.  The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.

In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.

Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.

Book Review: The Marsco Dissident

Book Review: The Marsco Dissident by James A. Zarzana

It’s a Marsco world.

The Marsco Dissident

Much has changed by the last years of the 21st Century.  The rot started to set in with the Abandonment Policy (euphemized as “Divestiture”) where countries with prosperous sections and not-so-prosperous bits split off the not-prosperous sectors as “another country now, not our responsibility” and shoved any citizens they didn’t want to keep for whatever reason into the new Unincorporated Zones.  (It’s implied that even the United States did this on an unofficial basis.)  The new rich countries became the Continental Powers, while the castoffs became PRIMS.

Meanwhile, an IT startup ambitiously named “Marsco” grew into a cross between Microsoft, the Union and Pacific, and United Fruit Company.  Yes, it did eventually get to Mars, and its innovative finger disc cybernetic implants became the new status symbol.  As part of its philanthropic aims, it became the primary benefactor of PRIMS, providing food rations, some medical care, etc.

A Luddite movement also grew, primarily among the PRIMS who found themselves shut out of the modern world, starving and ridden with cure-resistant diseases.  It also found favor among some in the CP, and even associates of Marsco itself.

Eventually, the Continental Powers decided that Marsco was too powerful, and tried to nationalize it.  This was a huge mistake as the megacorporation had designed all their computers, had its own armed forces and the advantage of operating from space.  They even got PRIM armies on their side.  If that wasn’t enough, the more violent strains of the Luddites took advantage of the chaos to destroy or infect any high technology they could reach.

Now, Marsco rules what’s left of Earth’s population, just as a temporary measure until the locals can get back on their feet.  Except that it’s been a generation, and Marsco control doesn’t seem to be going away, and the Unincorporated Areas aren’t getting any better.  Certain people are beginning to realize that Marsco isn’t the solution anymore, it’s the problem….

This book is the first in a series planned for four volumes, the “Marsco Saga.”  It’s serious about the “saga” part; months or years often pass between segments of the story and I suspect by the end we’ll be reading about the grandchildren of the current characters.  It’s been a while since I’ve read a science fiction book that fits more into the “future history” subgenre than action.

The dissident of the title is Dr. Walter Miller, formerly one of Marsco’s most brilliant engineers, but now on an extended sabbatical  on his independent farm/research facility in what used to be the Sacramento Valley.  The first few chapters concern a visit to him by his daughter, Professor Tessa Miller, who teaches at a Marsco academy.  Her journey across Sac City to his grange has some interesting world-building, but then there’s no sign of a plot for a while.

Abruptly, we switch to a shuttle in the asteroid belt, and an entirely different set of characters for several chapters.  Not all of the crew or passengers manage to survive the sudden emergence of plot.

And then, it’s months later in a different part of the asteroid belt, and an Independent colony views the arrival of a mysterious Marsco deep-space craft with justifiable suspicion.  This part introduces another of our protagonists, Lieutenant Anthony “Zot” Grizzoti is one of the crew of the Gagarin, and Tessa’s ex.  He’s a specialist in hibernation technology, and knows things he can’t reveal.

Some time later, we’re in the SoAm Continental Zone, as Father Stephen Cavanaugh goes to the camp of the Nexus, the most violent of the Luddite factions, in order to retrieve two boys they’d lured away from his school for PRIMS.  A former student of his, Pete Rivers, is one of the Marsco Security personnel that escorts the priest to the area, but from there Cavanaugh must proceed on his own.   This is the tensest part of the book and could stand on its own as a novella.

With most of the characters now introduced, the story moves forward.

The best part of the book is the world-building.  Mr. Zarzana has done a lot of research, and worked out the details of the Marsco world.  The book comes with a glossary (there are some mild spoilers in this section) due to all the specialized terminology and future slang.  While some of the steps to reach this setting are dubious, it all hangs together well enough once it’s there.

However, a lot of the information is delivered in professorial lectures (Dr. Zarzana himself is a professor of English), which can get tedious.  A little fun is had with the delivery by having a precocious child do some of the lectures to show off to adults.  But too often, it comes across as “As you know, Bob….”

Many of the more interesting characters are in the book too little and some of them won’t be returning later.  I found the Tessa/Zot romance bits tepid and was irritated every time it came up.

The primary active villain, Colonel Hawkins, is planning to avenge the Continental Powers’ defeat and is working with others who want to change the balance of power, and haven’t realized just how obsessed he is.

Marsco has a lot of classism (Marsco associates on top, Sids (people who trade with Marsco) in the middle, and PRIMS on the bottom and treated as barely human), but little racism–one of the associates suddenly breaking out racist slurs shocks his colleagues and is taken as an indicator of his actual age.  Casual racism is more common among the Earth-bound.

There’s a lot of talk about rape, (including a possibly fake story about mind control rape) and a couple of attempted rapes onscreen .  Prostitution is rife in the non-Marsco areas. There’s bursts of violence, some of it dire.

This book is self-published, and the latter half starts having spellchecker typos (“site” for “sight” several times) which suggests that with books this size, the proofreader should take the job in smaller chunks.

Overall…it’s a decent beginning, but not really satisfying on its own.  A lot will depend on the next part expanding on the themes and subplots satisfactorily.  Consider this if you like detailed world-building.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy from the author for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was involved or requested.

Book Review: The Black Tulip

Book Review: The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

The year is 1672, and the Haarlem Tulip Society has offered a hundred thousand florin prize to the tulip breeder who can create a black tulip, without imperfection or spot of other color.   Cornelius van Baerle of the sleepy village of Dordrecht is one of the leading contenders for the prize.  He’s a medical doctor who knows something of science, a skilled painter, so knows something of art, and absolutely obsessed with tulips.  It doesn’t hurt that he’s independently wealthy already, so he doesn’t have to worry about a lack of funding while he concentrates on the project.

The Black Tulip

Cornelius van Baerle is entirely indifferent to politics, so is unaware that his godfather and namesake Cornelius de Witt and his brother Johan de Witt are in deep trouble with the supporters of William of Orange, the new Stadhouder of Holland.  Nor does Cornelius realize that he has inadvertently made an enemy of his next door neighbor, rival tulip breeder Isaac Boxtel.  Thus it comes as a complete surprise to Cornelius when he’s arrested for treason and sentenced to death.  How is he ever to create the black tulip now?

This 1865 novel by Alexandre Dumas starts with a real historical event, the mob murder of the de Witt brothers after Cornelius de Witt was (falsely, probably) accused of plotting to assassinate William of Orange, as he’d opposed reinstating the regal office of Stadhouder.  The rest of the novel is romantic fiction, as Dumas felt a good story was far more important than strict historical accuracy (or scientific accuracy–the description of Cornelius’ plans for creating a black tulip owe more to Jacob’s spotted and smooth staves than Mendel.)

Despite their relative closeness on the map, most Frenchmen of the Nineteenth Century considered the Netherlands an exotic foreign land, preferring to travel to the south for their vacations and education.   Dumas draws heavily on the fine tradition of Dutch painters both thematically and as an aid to the reader in imagining the events.

Dumas was of mixed ancestry (his paternal grandmother had been an Afro-Caribbean slave and his grandfather a French nobleman) and his father, a general, had fallen out of favor with Napoleon when Alexandre was very young, impoverishing the family.  It’s been suggested that the struggles caused by these factors explain why false accusations and injustice show up so often in his novels.

Back to the novel.  His sentence commuted to life imprisonment, Cornelius van Baerle is put under the cruel administration of jailer Gryphus, but also meets the jailer’s beautiful daughter Rosa.  Cornelius shares that he managed to save three offsets from a bulb that very likely blossom into the black tulip.  Rosa agrees to help him attempt to grow the tulip, and their affection for each other grows as well, also helped by Cornelius secretly teaching Rosa to read and write.

Unfortunately, Isaac Boxtel has realized that Cornelius must still have the offsets.  He begins a campaign to obtain the black tulip by any means necessary.   Boxtel makes an interesting villain for the book, because he never confronts Cornelius directly, and Cornelius only vaguely recognizes him at the end of the book, never learning about his motives.  Boxtel loves tulips as much as Cornelius, and has had a small success.  But he’s not as wealthy or smart, and when Cornelius accidentally cuts off light to Boxtel’s tulip garden, Boxtel realizes that he can never catch up.  Resentment and envy lead him to ever more openly criminal tactics in order to claim the prestige of presenting the black tulip (and the prize money would be good too.)

Cornelius is good-hearted, but often puts his passion for tulips ahead of other considerations.  (For example, he first plans donating the entire prize to the poor, then a few minutes later switches that to half the prize so he can fund more tulip research.)  It takes Rosa to show Cornelius that some things are more important to him even than tulips…but not by much.

Rosa is perhaps a bit much as a heroine–she’s beautiful (of course), pure-hearted and pretty smart.  Considering her father’s abusive nature and crudity, I presume this all comes from her never-mentioned mother’s side.  Rosa realizes that her illiteracy is a weakness, and takes the initiative to ask Cornelius to teach her to read and write, which helps her immensely towards the end of the narrative.  The narrator describes her as the sort of woman who is fearful over trifles, but has great courage in an actual crisis, which comes out towards the end.

Both are believing Christians, and their prayers seem to be answered, but not without suffering along the way.  The narrator flat out states that God is behind some of the coincidences that move the story along.

William of Orange is enigmatic–he clearly orchestrates the mob attack on the de Witt brothers at the beginning from behind the scenes, but afterwards is helpful to Cornelius and Rosa, and is never confronted for his part in the horrible events of the opening.  Part of this is because Dumas has added in character traits of his grandfather, William the Silent.  Another part is that William went on to become King of England in 1689.

The narration is old-fashioned, and often addresses the reader directly.  For example, after the first paragraph establishes that there’s a lynch mob on the loose, the second paragraph essentially says, “yo, I know you readers want to get to the exciting parts, but the historical background is a must-have.”  And so there ensue several pages of recent Dutch history to set up why there’s a lynch mob.

This is a relatively short book with fewer characters than some of Dumas’ more famous works, so is a quick read.  The Penguin edition is translated from the complete 1865 text, and comes with an introduction by the translator that covers such topics as the tulipomania of the 1830s and where Dumas played fast and loose with history, and footnotes for cultural references.

For those of you who prefer to watch movies, there’s a British film version from 1937, There were BBC miniseries in 1955 and 1970 as well.  The 1963 movie La Tulipe Noir was an adaptation in name only, making the Black Tulip a Scarlet Pimpernel-style masked crusader for justice.  That movie then inspired the Japanese anime series La Seine no Hoshi (“Star of the Seine) which mixed in some Rose of Versailles aspects in the story of a young woman who adopts a masked guise to aid the Black Tulip.

The Australian Burbank studio animated film version at least keeps the tulip-growing and false accusation, but adds talking mice and reimagines Boxtel as an evil alchemist who needs the black tulip to summon Azatoth and gain unlimited power.  There’s also a Black Tulip film from 1988, but that’s a documentary about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan.  Oh, and the story “A Coffin for the Avenger” which I reviewed a bit back has a German villain who calls himself the Black Tulip.

Recommended to fans of Dumas’ other work and to tulip fanatics.

And now, a video about the tulip:

Book Review: Herblock at Large

Book Review: Herblock at Large by Herbert Block.

Herbert “Herblock” Block (1909-2001) was a multiple-Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist.  He’s most famous for his coverage of McCarthyism and Watergate, but kept working until just before his death.  This 1987 collection covers the early years of the Reagan administration.

Herblock at Large

As might be expected, these cartoons aren’t very kind to that administration.  From an Attorney General who was more concerned with “proving” pornography caused violence than with tracking down illegal arms shipments to America’s enemies, to the heavy influence of the Religious Right on the government, to the dubious Supreme Court nominations (the Senate finally balked at Robert Bork), there were a lot of things to criticize.

Iran-Contra gets a lot of play here, as does the fact that under Reagan’s “fiscally responsible” administration, the national deficit and debt both skyrocketed.  (A feat that would be repeated by his fiscally responsible Republican successors, while the fiscally irresponsible Democrats brought down those numbers.)  The rise of televangelists also came in for several cartoons, contrasting the prosperous preachers with the poverty-stricken viewers who donated to them.

Now, of course, we know that Ronald Reagan really was having memory problems at the time, early symptoms of his Alzheimer’s.  The cartoons about terrorists hijacking airplanes also take on a new connotation since that subject came to a head.

There are also text pieces by Herblock introducing the themed chapters, clarifying his views if the cartoons weren’t pointed enough.  One bit of information is helpful for those who did not live through those times–Mr. Block often drew the Secretary of Defense with a $640 toilet seat around his neck as that was one of the ludicrously expensive trivialities the military was spending tax money on instead of servicemembers’ salaries.

Copyright Herblock 1987
Copyright Herblock 1987

One subject where we have seen improvement is South Africa; back then apartheid and anti-equality violence were still the order of the day, with Reagan refusing to do anything that might make the white minority government feel the U.S. was unfriendly to them (what with them being anti-Communist and all, which was why we were allies with a lot of nasty regimes back then.)

This is perhaps not Herblock’s best work, but it’s still very good political cartooning, and a window into the issues facing America in the early 1980s.  Recommended for those who lived through the era and need a reminder, and those that want to know about the time before cell phones.

Book Review: The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition

Book Review: The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition edited by Judith Merrill

This 1960 book features a selection of speculative fiction short stories published during the 1958-60 time period.  Editor Judith Merrill provides an introduction about the concept of wonder, chatty introductions to each story (she doesn’t think much of Kingsley Amis as a literary critic) and an ending summary (as well as a listing of “honorable mention” stories.)

5th Annual World's Best SF

The 22 stories themselves begin with Damon Knight’s “The Handler”, which is a metaphor for Hollywood phoniness, and end with “Me” by Hilbert Schenk, Jr., a humorous poem about the difference between machines and humans (which is as of now, still true.)

The absolute standout in this volume is the original novella version of “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.  Charlie Taylor, a man with developmental disabilities, volunteers for an experimental surgery that increases his intelligence.  Told through Charlie’s own journal, the use of changing vocabulary, literary style and attitude is masterful.  The dawning of a new intellectual world, the disappointment when Charles learns that being smart doesn’t in itself make you happier, and the sinking horror when he discovers that it’s all going away make for a powerful gut punch.

The story is also commendable for the sharply drawn minor characters, like Fanny Girden, who fears what has happened to Charlie and considers it evil, but refuses to sign a petition to fire him because discrimination is against her principles.  The novel version is also excellent but contains more sexual content (sometimes published as Charly because of the Cliff Robertson movie.)

Also interesting is an editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr. titled “What Do You Mean…Human?”  It asks the perennial question of what precisely the definition of “human” is, and how to explain it to something that is not human, such as an intelligent robot.  The question remains open at the end, but it’s a good starting point for late night discussions.

“Mariana” by Fritz Leiber turns out to be about clinical depression, and a failed treatment program.

Mark Clifton’s “What Now, Little Man?” is a question about the nature of intelligence, and an uncomfortable look at colonialism.

“The Other Wife” by Jack Finney details how one man learned how to travel between alternate universes, and how he exploits this fact.  Kind of sexist, as he doesn’t let either wife in on what’s going on, but decides for them that this is the best use of his time.

Most of the other stories are readable, but also a bit forgettable.  As is common with books of this vintage, “World’s Best” means the English-speaking world at maximum, and there’s a heavy tilt towards white male protagonists.  The New Wave hasn’t quite hit in this volume, although there  is a hint of it in J.G. Ballard’s “The Sound Sweep” which focuses on the social effects of new acoustic technology.

Well worth looking up at your library or picking up if you see it at the used bookstore.

Book Review: Death on a Warm Wind

Book Review: Death on a Warm Wind by Douglas Warner (also published as The Final Death of Robert Colston)

When newspaper editor Michael Curtis witnesses a man being gunned down in front of the Evening Telegram office, he’s startled to realize that it’s Robert Colston, a man who’s already been declared dead twice.  Robert Colston, who has been missing since the disaster at Arminster five years ago, and even now is being sought by the police on unclear charges.

Death on a Warm Wind

This time, Colston is really dead.  But is it coincidence, or something more sinister?  Mr. Curtis allows another survivor of the disaster and a police detective to read the story his reporter originally wrote as a fifth-anniversary piece, one that could not be published.

We read it with them, learning of the teeming throngs of tourists in that pleasant beachside resort town.  We see a number of them in some detail, going about their lives as Mr. Colston does his best Jor-El impression, warning of an oncoming earthquake.  The authorities ignore him, and so do almost everyone else, until the earthquake actually happens, as predicted with uncanny accuracy.  In this crisis, the true nature of people becomes evident; a handsome, wealthy nobleman and sports hero is revealed as a sniveling coward, while a common thief selflessly sacrifices his life for others.

Back in the present day, a weather phenomenon that happened in Arminster occurs again, letting the survivors know that another earthquake is about to happen, but this time in the heart of London!  Can Curtis assemble the proof he needs to warn the public in time?

This 1968 novel is a cross between a disaster story and a thriller, as the protagonist races against time and other obstacles to try to save millions of lives.  The obvious first question is, if Colston, a formerly respected physicist, was able to predict earthquakes with such precision, why did no one listen?  And if his theory was rubbish, discredited by the worlds’ seismologists, why did it work at Arminster?

The characterization isn’t very deep, but is effective.  The author actually got me to shed a tear for a character named Groins Mackenzie!  And the villain of the piece is truly chilling in his motivation, which Curtis guesses wrong at until the last moment.

There’s also some nice moments of dawning horror; the first time the characters realize what the wind shift means; the final confrontation with the villain, and the realization of just what Colston’s “earthquake prediction theory” actually is.

Certain aspects of the plot do rely heavily on contrived coincidences, and the science is dodgy at best.  It would make a terrible movie due to front-loading the disaster scenes.

Of amusement to me was the almost-sex scene in which a young honeymoon couple discover that “abstinence only” education has left them at a complete loss as to how to proceed now they actually can.  (It ends tragically when the earthquake hits.)

A fun read, but don’t engage your brain too much.

Book Review: Cell 8

Book Review: Cell 8 by Anders Roslund & Borge Hellstrom

Disclaimer: I received this advanced reading copy from the publisher as part of the Firstreads giveaway program on the assumption that I would review it.  Minor changes may be present in the final version.

Cell 8

“Cell 8” is part of the Scandinavian thriller/mystery fad currently going on and appears to be the second book featuring Swedish police detective Ewert Grens.

Grens’ surprised when a minor scuffle on a cruise ship turns into an international incident.  It seems the perpetrator was convicted of murder in the United States–and is supposedly dead!  Now the U.S. wants him back so they can execute him properly, but Detective Grens and his team aren’t keen on the prospect.

I’m going to go right into SPOILERS here; this is less of a mystery book (though there is a mystery) than a soapbox. The authors don’t like the death penalty and were clearly itching to write about how much they don’t like it. Problem is, Sweden doesn’t *have* the death penalty, and hasn’t for quite some time. So, the story requires some elaborate and contrived setup to get our Swedish police officers involved with an American death penalty case.

The convict in question is extremely sympathetic and the case against him is suspiciously thin, even before later revelations, while the main spokesperson for the pro-death penalty viewpoint is an extremely unlikable nutcase.

Truth be told, Grens and the other Swedes don’t actually have much to do here; some subplots are advanced, but in the end, both the start and resolution of the central plotline are in far-off Ohio, where our main characters never go.

As for that resolution, it is, to say the least, outlandish and requires some serious suspension of disbelief that the killer’s plan never once went off-track, relying on, as it does, literally hundreds of people acting *exactly* as predicted.

The good news: For a soapbox, it’s quite well written, and I liked Grens and his colleagues (even the annoying ones.) The authors have clearly done their research on the physical “how” of execution, even if they gloss over the difference between American states’ attitudes towards the death penalty.

I suspect that the translator is more used to British than American English, based on a small slip of naming towards the beginning. Also, several words are italicized unnecessarily. I suspect they were in English in the original, and someone overlooked the transliteration issue.

I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book, but if you liked Three Seconds and want more of Ewert Grens, or are very tolerant of soapboxing, it’s not a bad novel.

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