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.

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.

The Question V1 - Zen and Violence

Based on a recommendation from Darren at Skylight Books, my favorite independent bookstore, I picked up this little gem from 1987. Back in print since 2007, The Question, by O'Neil, Cowan, and Magyar, takes place in the DC Universe in a town called Hub City. The series follows the life of The Question, a night-time vigilante in the spirit of Batman, and day-time freelance journalist Vic Sage.

While the comic throws a battery of genre clichés at you, it's still a very entertaining read with a protagonist who gets more and more interesting, and a few bad guys that you really want to learn more about.

My only complaint is that the first 80% of the book takes place under a consistent story arc, and the last chapter feels like it dropped out of the sky. Not the best way to end a trade. If it made sense to just collect the first 4 issues, they should have done it.

All in all, a good read. Unfortunately, I don't see this title stocked at many shops, so it may be a while before I have a chance to get V2 and V3.

The Black Swan

Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan is the kind of non-fiction that I can't put down: an arrogant, self-important, and unapologetic attempt to show people that the world is not as it seems. But, there is more to it than the much quoted indictments of probability professionals and the predictions about Fannie Mae and the simultaneous failures of interconnected banking interests. Taleb gives us a book that combines a trader's experience with an academic's rigor, leaving us with something not quite math, not quite philosophy, and definitely not common sense, but certainly worth more than all three.

The central premise of Taleb's book is that the world does not move along a slow, predictable continuum. Rather, it moves along a slow continuum of events until seemingly random, unpredictable events come along to make massive changes, upheavals that alter lives, but, for some reason, not perceptions. He calls these events "Black Swans."

Taleb systematically dismantles the silent epistemology of every day life, questions the ways that we choose to spend our time and money, exposes all prediction professionals as frauds, and shows a new way of looking at the world that is both repulsive to our instincts and an accurate description of our world.

Highly recommended reading from the author of Fooled By Randomness.

Surrogates: Flesh and Bone

In the 2009 prequel to one of my favorite graphic novels ever, Venditti and Weldele give us a glimpse into the past and reveal the events that will eventually lead to the story in Surrogates.

Brett Weldele's moody, atmospheric drawing once again dazzles, straddling the line between comics and graphic design, with a signature style that puts him in the upper echelon of current greats like Ashley Wood and Ben Templesmith. The art is strong and loud, with linework that feels raw and gritty.

Robert Venditti's story is a bit hobbled by the fact that it has to get to a certain place at a certain time, and feels, at times, more interested in continuity than nuance. But, it remains clear that his work is more that what we see in most comics: a clear vision of a possible future; speculative fiction transformed into a new medium, and done for great effect. If he decides to continue the series, I'd love to see a story that is barely even tangential to the main arc, maybe something with completely different characters. I understand that the Prophet story is what's really happening, but it seems that every city must have a million other stories going on.

In summary, I guess my expectations were too high. Surrogates, in my opinion, is one of the best comics ever written, with a unique and realistic voice about where the world is going. It speaks through allegory about real problems in our time: racism, sexism, self-image, the cult of vanity. Don't get me started on the butchering that Ferris, Brancato and Mostow gave it. The movie was disappointing beyond mentioning, especially the last scene. And why did they get rid of the burglar surrie with the laser whip?

It's not fair to compare Flesh and Bone to what may be Venditti's masterpiece. It's a very good comic that has something important to say about race and class in a frightening future, a future that may be just around the corner. The pacing and action start off strong, but it fails to deliver a memorable climax. What begins with violence ends with politics, making the work seem excessively front-heavy.

Catching fire - Just finished

Finally finished Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, and, of course, all I can do now is count the days until the third volume ships. It looks like none of my librarian friends were able to get an advance copy, so I'll have to wait like all the rest of you suckers.

The story picks up a few weeks after The Hunger Games, so, if you haven't read HG, you should probably stop reading right now and go get a copy. It's impossible to talk about the sequel without spoiling everything. And Hunger Games is such a compelling page-turner, you'll be happy to give up your entire Sunday reading it. Honestly, most people I know who have read it did so in just two or three sittings. It's that much fun to read.

Now, my first and only real criticism of Catching Fire is that it begins so slowly. The tumultuous action of HG hooks you from the very beginning. But Collins really takes her time in this volume, working hard to establish a world that is politically and socially interesting, and setting the stage for the events that will happen later in the book.

Again, we meet Katniss, Peeta, Gale, and Haymitch, who all maintain their unique character. However, District 12's win, we learn, has had heavy ramifications throughout the country of Panem. As the two victors begin their Victory Tour (not unlike the Jacksons in 1984), Katniss learns that President Snowe, the leader of the known world, has special plans for her, as well as certain expectations of behavior.

When the tour doesn't go as Snowe has planned, and the presence of Katniss and Peeta causes unexpected repercussions in the Districts, he decides that there is still one more way he can have his revenge while squashing any hope of revolution.

After this lengthy exposition, Catching Fire really takes off, and once again, we're back in the thick of the action, and Katniss the Appalachian Amazon is kickin' ass and takin' names. Haymitch is communicating in his cryptic way, and Peeta becomes the baffling object of protection while the world seems to be spinning out of control. The big reveal in the last chapter reminds us why we love this series so much, and leaves us with an unquenchable thirst for more.

New characters include Finick, the crazy-gorgeous career contestant from District Four, Nuts and Volts, the inventors, and Johanna, who seems to like getting naked all the time. Everyone's favorite designer, Cinna (who we desperately hope will be played by Christian Siriano), returns, as well as Effie, the annoying scheduler lady.

Overall, the book is a great read, but it ends so abruptly that it leaves you with a narrative hole the size of District 13. Guess we'll just have to wait until Fall.

Please cast Christian! He's the only person who can be Cinna!