Boneshaker

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest, was one of the best-reviewed sci-fi titles of 2009, and it was even nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards. It has become a much-beloved title in such a short time, and a gateway book into steampunk for a large number of people who would never have considered the genre before. When it finally came out in a low-priced paperback, I was very excited to read it.

However, I just can't say I was as thrilled with it as I expected to be. After reading a few reviews by others, I really thought this book was going to be something revolutionary, so maybe I was cursed with the weight of unreasonable expectations.

Boneshaker is the story of a family on the edge of ruin, haunted by a past that has left them pariahs in the worst sense, a mother and son living in the unforgiving world of the Seattle area in the late 19th century. In an effort to clear his family name, Zeke Wilkes, or Zeke Blue, depending on who you ask, embarks on an adventure into the most dangerous area imaginable -- the desolate walled city that was sealed because of his father's alleged crimes; a place where even the air brings death and despair.

His loving mother Briar, a woman of considerable grit, must save him from a world of peril, including ruthless mercenaries, poisonous yellow fog, the zombie-like rotters, and, maybe most importantly, the truth about his birth and lineage.

I found the book quite enjoyable, but I felt the middle was almost unbearably long. Priest's prose is perfect for a certain type of reader who loves vivid, lengthy descriptions of items as meaningless as the patterns in the wallpaper and the texture of a cavern wall. But, for me, that kind of writing acts as little more than a tease, pushing back the meat of the plot further and further. It builds tension without contributing to story, and feels like unnecessary padding.

I'm sure that some people will call me a Philistine for even saying that, but, to each his own, I guess. I felt the book started well, with a fully-realized world that is both strange and familiar, and it ended with well-developed characters, interesting plot development, and memorable action sequences. I just wish it had been a little tighter, and more quickly paced.

Incognito is bad-ass. Just face it.

I finally got around to finishing Incognito, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. It's not that it was slow going, or even remotely boring. The main problem was that I couldn't ever get my hands on the single issues before the trade paperback came out. I think I own 1-4, but it took me most of a year to get even those. Even at Meltdown LA, which probably sells more comics than 95% of comic shops in America, that title generally sold out within hours of being stocked.

Man, was it worth the wait, though. The combination of these two rare talents succeeds once again in creating a new perception of superheroes and villains that never relies on clichés or stupid genre tropes. Brubaker's rich character development elevates the superhero comic to a place that many may think is not possible. By focusing on crazy things like motivation, internal conflict, and the duality of man, he breathes life into a world that is generally so stale and boring.

And Phillips adds amazing emotion and understanding to the panels. By using a more impressionistic art style, influenced more by Noir film than Stan Lee, he manages the difficult task of leaving something to the imagination. The character on the page stays vague somehow, rough, despite being visually exceptional. I don't know what their process is like, but there is a reason that Phillips and Brubaker sell comics on their names alone. They consistently create comics that elevate the medium.

Incognito takes place in a near future where the government has taken steps to eliminate the presence of superheroes, both good and bad. Those that cannot be reformed are forced into maximum security prisons, while those that they feel can be reintegrated into society are put on power-draining drugs and forced into menial positions, such as the protagonist's gig as a file clerk.

Although we may have seen this in well-known projects such as Watchmen and even The Incredibles, it is done with such nuance and creativity, with such a different vibe, that it almost seems unrecognizable. By focusing on character instead of the constant obsession with action sequences, the story feels full and rich, and the characters seem very real.

As we follow the story of the Overkill Brothers, we quickly fall completely into a new world of drug use, failure, despair, longing, vengeance, where the only disappointment is that it eventually ends.

Although I definitely have enjoyed the Criminal series by this fantastic pairing of artist and illustrator, Incognito is the first series I've read that is as satisfying as Sleeper, which, in my opinion, is one of the best comics I've read.

Tychism and Charles Sanders Peirce

Occasionally, in my virtual travels, I come across something that is actually interesting. That is to say that it seems capable of keeping my attention, and not just finding a spot in my mind to throw some meaningless information. Today, that thing is Tychism, a concept first coined by Mr. Charles Sanders Peirce. Named after Tyche, the Greek god of Chance, tychism is a seemingly-forgotten philosophical concept which posits that there is a a real thing in the universe called "chance" or "randomness," and there are things that are simply unpredictable.

This mad genius also proposed the idea of Synechism, which is valuable, because it touches on something that is probably my most constant fixation. In this philosophy, Peirce tackles an issue that is constantly being discussed in artificial intelligence, and remains one of the nagging questions about reality. He makes the following statement regarding the synechist ideology:

"There is a famous saying of Parmenides {esti gar einai, méden d' ouk einai}, "being is, and not-being is nothing." This sounds plausible; yet synechism flatly denies it, declaring that being is a matter of more or less, so as to merge insensibly into nothing. [---]

Synechism, even in its less stalwart forms, can never abide dualism, properly so called. [---] In particular, the synechist will not admit that physical and psychical phenomena are entirely distinct, -- whether as belonging to different categories of substance, or as entirely separate sides of one shield, -- but will insist that all phenomena are of one character, though some are more mental and spontaneous, others more material and regular. [---]

Nor must any synechist say, "I am altogether myself, and not at all you.[---]
Synechism refuses to believe that when death comes, even the carnal consciousness ceases quickly." ('Immortality in the Light of Synechism', EP 2:2-3, 1893)

Synechism proposes an idea that I have been pondering for quite some time. What if "mind" and "body" are not entirely different things, but merely the ends of a spectrum of things. Or, more appropriately, body is more the middle of this spectrum, the other end of which is marked by things which seem to demonstrate no "psyche" at all.

Well, just food for thought. Enjoy.

Jan Brewer does it again

So, Arizona governor Jan Brewer has gone full fascist, and you NEVER go full fascist. Honestly, I don't like to use that particular f-word very often, but, here it's just becoming a little too apt.

After last week's passage of SB1070, a law that virtually mandates racial profiling as a means of enforcing national immigration laws, she has signed a bill that removes Ethnic Studies programs from Tucson high school (and presumably high schools in the rest of the state).

Of course, it's all shrouded in feel-good rhetoric, but explicitly states the following in HB2281:


8 15-112. Prohibited courses and classes; enforcement
9 A. A SCHOOL DISTRICT OR CHARTER SCHOOL IN THIS STATE SHALL NOT INCLUDE
10 IN ITS PROGRAM OF INSTRUCTION ANY COURSES OR CLASSES THAT INCLUDE ANY OF THE
11 FOLLOWING:
12 1. PROMOTE THE OVERTHROW OF THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT.
13 2. PROMOTE RESENTMENT TOWARD A RACE OR CLASS OF PEOPLE.
14 3. ARE DESIGNED PRIMARILY FOR PUPILS OF A PARTICULAR ETHNIC GROUP.
15 4. ADVOCATE ETHNIC SOLIDARITY INSTEAD OF THE TREATMENT OF PUPILS AS
16 INDIVIDUALS.

This intentionally divisive bill seems to be deliberately aimed at limiting the political power of young Latinos.

Step 1) SB1070 marginalizes and criminalizes skin color.
Step 2) HB2281 makes it a crime to talk about it in school.

The worst part of the bill is that it makes it a crime for a teacher to "advocate ethnic solidarity." Unless Jan Brewer can figure out a way to make Arizona's brown students suddenly turn white, it seems to me like ethnic solidarity is the only defense they have against the world that she's creating for them.

There are some reasonable points that are being made in Arizona, and few will argue against the idea that the US needs to either stand behind its immigration policy, or reform it. But there is no justice and no benefit to deliberately alienating a generation of people for nothing more than the skin they inherited.

In the long run, in a country like ours, with vast empty spaces, massive deposits of untapped natural resources, and near-zero population growth, opening the doors to immigration is the only way we're going to save our economy. The pundits like to make sweeping generalizations about how illegals take our jobs, and consume our tax dollars. But, they also buy cars, go to restaurants, pay sales tax, and anyone in construction will tell you that the housing industry is built on their backs. Legalizing millions of illegal immigrants will force them to pay into social security as well, perhaps pushing back our reform-or-collapse deadlines long enough to come up with a real solution.

Word of the Day: psephology

I read a word that I liked today. That word is:

psephology (n) - the scientific study of elections.

The interesting thing about this word is that Merriam-Webster dates it from 1952, from the Greek for "pebble."

It's just kind of entertaining seeing it used as though it's a "real" word, when it's clearly just an unloved political neologism.

The article is boring. I don't recommend reading it unless you care about what some bow-tie says about today's military.

The Investigation

Picked this one up on a whim while I was at Skylight Books in Los Feliz. They've created a nice section for "speculative fiction," that is filled with intellectual sci-fi. I assume that this book was crammed in there because Lem made a name for himself with science fiction. But, this is more of a weird detective story.

The story concerns a Detective Gregory of Scotland Yard who has been assigned to a bizarre case by his equally bizarre chief. It seems that corpses have been disappearing, or at least attempting to, from the mortuaries in London's neighboring villages. Sciss, the statistician assigned to assist him in cracking the case only confuses things with his seemingly nonsensical ramblings about things as meaningless as cancer rates, ambient air temperature, and recent UFO sightings.

By the end of the novel, it's really impossible to figure out what is going on, and the reader is left with this odd feeling that, like Gregory, he has been manipulated by a higher power. The book's overall sense of the unknown is constantly compared to the low-grade paranoia inherent in almost all of Kafka, but, to be honest, I believe it finds a closer cousin in the X-Files, where a cop with the best of intentions is misled by the people who are on his side, confused by the best evidence, and eventually left lost because of the hard work he's put into the case.

As a bonus, he has recently rented a room in a house where the landlords would be equally well-loved in the works of Monty Python or David Lynch.

All-in-all, I really liked the book, and was quickly drawn into the mystery aspect of it. Discussions of topics as unimportant as mutually assured destruction, the Gaussian curve, and the possibility or resurrection make for fascinating intellectual exercise, but not for great mystery fiction. It's not Raymond Chandler at all. It's something both worse and better.

Usurper of the Sun

I am in love with Haikasoru, a little division of Viz Media that is specializing in English translations of Japanese hard sci-fi. This is the second title I've read from this imprint, and I have to say I really liked it.

Usurper of the Sun, by Housuke Nojiri, does something rarely seen in science fiction. Unlike so many novels where time is simply overlooked as a plot point, here, it is absolutely central. We follow the life of Aki Shiraishi as she grows from a precocious high school astronomy student to one of the most important voices in world politics.

The plot is primarily concerned with a decades-long space project begun when the young Sharaishi discovers a massive-scale antenna-like apparatus extending from the planet Mercury. It begins to create a huge ribbon-like metal sheet spanning the entirety of Mercury's orbit, and creating serious atmospheric problems on Earth as it blocks a substantial part of the sunlight we receive.

As Aki grows up, forever followed by fame over her discovery and subsequent theories over the purpose of the ring, she goes to college and becomes the world's most respected authority on the Ring. When the situation becomes too serious to overlook, she is part of a team of astronauts sent to destroy the ring at all costs. But, the outcome of that mission will affect her in ways that no one could have foreseen, and her insights into the race who created it, The Builders, will take over the rest of her life.

An extremely interesting piece of speculative fiction that looks at space exploration and extraterrestrial life with a philosopher's mind and a cognitive scientist's curiosity. Aki is reminiscent of Card's Ender Wiggin character - alone, and obsessed, hopeful, and carrying the weight of two civilizations on her shoulders.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

So, the special lady in my life is a teen librarian, which is to say she is an adult who specializes in library services for teens, not that she is a teenager who is also a librarian. This is important because it means that she gives me impromptu reviews of a couple hundred books a year, and also because it means that I sometimes get to meet interesting people and see interesting things that would otherwise be limited to teenagers or weirdoes.

A couple of weeks ago, this meant going to the LA Times Festival of Books at UCLA, where I was dragged to a panel featuring the two authors of this novel, John Green and David Levithan, who completely sold me just by being so damned amusing. After listening to them talk about life and writing and profanity and everything else they could fit into an hour, I had no choice but to immediately read their newest book, Will Grayson, Will Grayson. (I believe some are calling it "double-you, gee, squared.")

The story appears to be focused on two teenage boys in the Chicago suburbs, both named Will Grayson, who meet in the strangest imaginable coincidence. But, by the time you are two-thirds of the way through the book, it becomes clear that they are both supporting characters for Tiny Cooper, the world's largest and most creative gay teenager, whose epic musical about himself and the thinly disguised Phil Wrayson is going to revolutionize high school theater.

I loved this book. It's honest, heartfelt, and one of the funniest things I've read in a long time. I worry that its myriad references to modern technologies and trends may make it feel dated in the future, because the characters feel so real, and their relationships are so truthful that I could easily see this book becoming a sort of underground "Separate Peace," once it receives its inevitable bans from school libraries across the country.

It's hard to say what this book is about without giving away some major plot points. But, I can't recommend it highly enough. A really stellar book that fits absolutely perfectly in our changing society. It talks about problems and needs and love and friendship in a way that never feels forced or contrived. An outstanding offering from these two much-beloved authors.

Futurama / Simpsons: Crossover Crisis

I probably would not have bought this title, because I haven't been following the Simpsons or Futurama in comic form. But I've been a fan of both series for a very long time. Luckily, my significant other received a super-deluxe mega-awesome copy from the publisher for review.

I guess the first thing you realize reading this title is that it's more like a storyboard for an episode of either show than it is a stand-alone comic. This is probably okay, since it's impossible for me to read the dialogue without hearing it in the voice of the characters with which I am familiar.

While I did enjoy the gags and general silliness, I have to admit that the whole thing is seriously contrived - an attack by a race of brains (you may remember the episode where they were powerless against Fry because he lacks a common brainwave) leads to the release of all fictional characters into the real world. I told you it was hard to swallow, didn't I?

Anyway, the Planet Express crew, with the help of our favorite yellow family are called upon to set things right. A fun, if ridiculous, adventure that's clean enough for kids, and funny enough for fans to enjoy.

Bonus: the hardcover deluxe edition has dozens of pages of interesting end-matter, including scene development sketches, and alternate covers or poster art from top comic artists. The best, by far, is Alex Ross's cover for Radioactive Man.

Batman - The Long Halloween

I can't believe that I never got around to reading this 1996 title until yesterday. What the hell was I thinking?

In this gritty Gotham adventure, Loeb and Sale create a real sense of mystery and intrigue as they paint the picture of a city in crisis. Overrun by mob bosses, insane villains, and a serial killer who executes a different Mafia family member every holiday, Gotham is simultaneously being freed from the forces that control it and being scared into submission by some new and unknown force.

Strangely enough, Batman is kind of a bit player in The Long Halloween, which is largely the story of "The Roman" who leads the Falcone Crime family, Harvey Dent, the dedicated City Prosecutor, and Captain Gordon, as they try to figure out who is killing Gotham's bad guys.

The book has some fairly gratuitous appearances by fan favorites The Joker, The Sandman, Solomon Grundy, and Catwoman. But, it's mostly the story of three men trying to find a killer, with an ending that leaves more questions than it answers.