Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows by Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin

The universe is vast, and intelligent life has arisen on many worlds.  Over millennia, these different lifeforms have spread out from their points of origin and met each other.  Sometimes, these meetings have led to friendly interaction, sometimes they have ended in interspecies war.  No one remembers precisely when, or who did it, but an artificial habitable environment was created to serve as a meeting place for diplomats.  Each new species has added on to that space station to create Point Central, our last, best hope for peace.

Ambassador of the Shadows

Now at last it is Earth’s turn to preside over the Council in the Hall of Screens, and the new ambassador from that planet has big plans.  Plans so big, he needs to be guarded by top spatio-temporal agents Valerian and Laureline.

Valerian and Laureline is a French comic book series originally published from 1967 to 2010, very popular in European comics, and an influence on the look and feel of the movie The Fifth Element.  A new live-action movie version is coming out this summer, so I thought I’d check in on the source material.

The future Earth civilization, Galaxity, is based on time travel technology, which their space travel utilizes for faster than light speed.  This technology is dangerous in the wrong hands, thus the need for special time/space agents.

Valerian is a native of the 28th Century, and initially is quite respectful of authority, and does not question his orders, even when they seem ethically dubious.  That said, he is a good-hearted fellow who does the right thing as he sees it when the chips are down.  While in Middle Ages France, he recruited Laureline as a guide, and she proved so effective that he brought her home with him as an agent.

While Laureline is a fast learner who quickly adjusts to her new surroundings, she has an outsider’s view of them.  A fiery redhead, Laureline is impulsive and suspicious of authority figures, especially when their behavior is fishy.  (She initially was scheduled to be a “girl of the week” but was so well-received by the audience that she became the co-star.)

Earth’s ambassador initially emphasizes the “ass”, but that quickly becomes moot, as both he and Valerian are abducted by mysterious parties immediately upon arrival at Point Central.  Laureline must track them down through the labyrinthine construction and clashing cultures of the diplomatic station.  Comic relief is provided by a cowardly protocol officer Laureline dragoons into service as her sidekick.

The story becomes something of a shaggy dog when things going on in the background make the heroes’ actions irrelevant in the big picture, but this volume is important to the continuity because it introduces two recurring elements.  The Grumpy Transmuter from Bluxte is an astonishingly rare animal that can create copies of any item it ingests; since it’s a tiny animal with a small mouth, it’s limited to things like gems and pharmaceuticals.  Since the galactic community has no common currency, it’s like a portable cash machine and becomes Laureline’s pet.  Also, the Shingouz, greedy information brokers who will dispense helpful data in exchange for large payments.  Laureline becomes one of their favorite customers and they frequently appear in later stories.

The art is good, with the setting allowing the artist to go wild with interesting alien designs.  I’m not a fan of the coloring, though, which is often garish and inconsistent.  In particular, the humans often have bright orange skin.

There’s some violence, but it’s non-lethal, and one scene takes place in an alien brothel where we see some scantily-clad aliens (including Laureline in a disguise.)  Say a PG-13 rating.

Recommended to fans of science fiction adventure and/or French comics.

The City of Shifting Waters

And now a special bonus review of The City of Shifting Waters, which is as of 5/13/17 available for free download on Kindle.  This is an earlier adventure, when Laureline was still a new partner for Valerian.  A mad scientist named Xombul has escaped confinement and used a one-way device to travel to New York City in 1986.

Time voyages to that era are forbidden as global disaster, including melting of the polar ice caps, wiped out the existing civilizations, and there’s a blank spot three centuries long in the history books.  It’s not clear what Xombul is up to, but he must be stopped, so Valerian is sent back.

The secret time portal in the Statue of Liberty becomes inoperable shortly after Valerian arrives when the statue collapses, and the agent is pressed into service by a gang looting the flooded city.  While Valerian does manage to find a clue as to what Xombul is doing, he can’t do much with it.

Until Laureline shows up.  When Valerian didn’t report back in, she went to the time portal in Brazil and worked her way up to New York.  Reunited, the time agents make a deal with the leader of the looters, Sun Rae.  Since there are no historical records of this period, one petty warlord or another makes no difference but allowing Xombul to take over would change the future unpredictably.  They’ll let Sun Rae keep any 1980s science Xombul has gathered in exchange for his help against the intruder.

Turns out Xombul has big plans indeed, and intends to spread his “benevolent” rule over all of space-time!  Will our heroes (and their not so heroic ally) be able to stop him before the future vanishes?

The faces are a bit more cartoony in this volume; perhaps the artist hadn’t quite settled his style yet.  Valerian also comes off a bit more sexist, with some stupid remarks.

Thankfully, even in this cartoonier style, Sun Rae (who’s presumably African-American) doesn’t look too much like a racist stereotype.  When he’s first introduced, we learn he was a flutist before the Great Disaster, and he’s pretty sharp, instantly grasping the advantages of having scientific knowledge once he’s alerted to the idea.  He also doesn’t go out of his way to be evil despite his ruthlessness.

Xombul’s a bit more of a stereotype, given to explaining his brilliant plans to his enemies before disposing of them, and wanting to try out new cool gadgets on human subjects before they’ve been completely tested.  His captive slightly saner scientist, Schroeder, is clearly based on Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor but is better at social skills.

The writing isn’t quite up to the peak of the series, but is pulpy good fun.

Here’s a trailer for the movie!

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years.  Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within.  Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.

Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946
Cover by Timmins

The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.)  It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again.  After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists.  They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies.  Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.

Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets.  Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest.  Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.

Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks.  He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department.  It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in  the process.  For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)

There are time travel shenanigans involved, and  one character seems determined to produce a specific future.  The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board.  The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.

A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims.  There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”

Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends.  The cliffhanger is neat:  “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips.  And kissed him.”

“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova.  He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot.  (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.)  As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.

“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.)  A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human.  Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.

The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch.  While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for.  A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.

The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day.  (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.)  Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.

The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.

“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel.  A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans.  They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.”  Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.

All that is background.  A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky.  There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell.  Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.

It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story.  It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while.  Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)

Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later.  (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)

“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life.  Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens.  Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet.  Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants?  A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.

“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece.  It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop.  A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain.  The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.

Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet.  But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes.  He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.

Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries.  Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.

The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted.  It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)

Calvert Ad 1945
Patches considers switching the gift labels.

John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.

There are two science fact articles.  “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses.  “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained.  Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.

I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.

Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.

Book Review: The Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park

Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park by Erin Peabody

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.

A Weird and Wild Beauty

In early 1871, the readers of Scribner’s Magazine, one of the best-selling periodicals in the United States, were treated to an article about a mysterious land south of the Montana Territory.  According to the article, there was a place of geysers that shot steaming water hundreds of feet into the air, where mud pools exploded on a regular basis, and trees were encased in stone.  This was the first widely-published  account of the Yellowstone, and many dismissed it as an absurd traveler’s tall tale.

But the Yellowstone River and its surroundings were very real.  It had been named “Mi tse a-da-zi” (Rock Yellow River) by the Minnetaree tribe, and translated to “Roche Jaune” by French trappers before English speakers gave it the present name.  Native Americans had often visited or lived there for its special properties, and stories of it were shared by the few hardy white people who’d managed to survive a visit.  They were generally disbelieved by those who had not been there.  It took a proper expedition organized by former banker Nathaniel Langford and staffed by sober, reliable citizens to show the reality.

This volume is a history of how Yellowstone became a National Park written for young adults by a former park ranger.  The primary emphasis is on the two important expeditions, first Langford’s and then a full scientific expedition led by government  geologist Ferdinand Hayden.  In addition to the hardy scientists and support staff, the expedition had two artists and photographer William H. Jackson, and their visual evidence was key in convincing Congress of the reality of the fabled wilderness.

The writing is clear and concise, rated for twelve and up, but quite readable for adults.  There are multiple sidebars about related subjects such as the Transcontinental Railroad and Henry David Thoreau, and many illustrations in both black & white and color.

The history section briefly covers what is known of the history of the Yellowstone area before the expeditions, and up to the point where the National Park bill was signed into law.  More recent events concerning the park are not covered in the main text, although some are mentioned in the sidebar.

After the history section, there’s a map of America’s National Parks and other federal preserves, then a couple of chapters on the science of why Yellowstone is a unique area.  There are endnotes, a bibliography, index and photo credits (in readable sized font!)

Part of Yellowstone’s importance is mentioned in the subtitle; it was not just the United States’ first National Park, but the world’s.  Previously, when land was set aside to preserve it, it was only for the powerful (“the King’s forest”) or the very wealthy to enjoy.  This was the first time a national government had set aside wilderness for the sake of the public at large.  And just in time, as the Hayden expedition had already run into people planning to exploit the Yellowstone area for private commercial gain.  (At this point in history, the U.S. side of Niagara Falls had already been completely privatized and commercialized!)

The book briefly touches on mistreatment of Native Americans, the extinction or near-extinction of animal species and other difficult topics, but these are not the main concern.  The bibliography contains books that go into much more detail on these matters.

Most recommended for teens interested in history and the outdoors, but also good (and affordable) for adults with similar interests.

Book Review: Wild Among Us: True Adventures of a Female Wildlife Photographer

Book Review: Wild Among Us: True Adventures of a Female Wildlife Photographer by Pat Toth-Smith

Disclosure:  I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Wild Among Us

This is a coffee-table book of wildlife photographs, with chapters for each kind of animal and the stories of how the photographer got the pictures.    There are indeed some lovely photographs in here.

The stories will be familiar to anyone interested in wildlife photography.  The elaborate preparations,  the missed chances, the miserable conditions and the brilliant moments when that one perfect shot is available.   Ms. Toth-Smith has several terrifying encounters with wildlife, but usually comes out okay, except for that one time with the mosquito.  (There are no mosquito photographs in this volume.)

Depressingly, the photographer details how she needs to take extra precautions from human threats because she is a woman who often travels alone.  Lucky so far, but a few terrifying moments.

The book is kind of expensive at $45 suggested retail price; consider it as a gift for people who love wildlife photography or animals in general.

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