Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Since this is a book chosen for my book group, this blog entry will be less involved than usual, focusing on a single aspect of the book rather than an overall review.

One of the critiques of Robert Heinlein is that he can be preachy. I generally hear this claim especially about Starship Troopers, which, granted, has a number of monologues by people in authority….like teachers. In Starship Troopers, Heinlein discusses some pretty controversial ideas, a lot of which might be completely new to the reader—a reader that Heinlein saw as a juvenile, since ST was intended for his younger audience, so he spends time building the background to those ideas. Those ideas ask a lot of readers, especially young readers, as they center on issues like patriotism and service. In many ways, Starship Troopers is a primer to Heinlein's ideas about the relationship between the individual and the state.

If Starship Troopers is the primer, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the advanced text. Rarely do the characters in Moon feel as "preachy" as they do in Troopers, but just as much information, if not more, is delivered regarding Heinlein's thoughts on the role of the individual in a society. But in this case, it's practical information, since the main characters of the novel are attempting a coup, releasing the Lunar colony from the oppression of an Earth-based government.

The novel balances a fine line between two competing goals, ones that a lesser writer might find himself lost in; on the one hand Heinlein must describe the culture that has grown up on the moon during its evolution from primarily being a penal colony to a colony of a more traditional sort. At the same time, however, Heinlein must describe the grievances this colony has against its government and then provide a practicum for rebellion. And then, interwoven into this mix, Heinlein also provides an intriguing range of characters including the world's first AI and his best friend. As a result, unlike segments of Troopers which involves students actually sitting in a class and being lectured, the characters in Moon must learn on the fly and the readers' education is more Socratic, based on conversations more than lecture.

It being a Heinlein novel, the characters on the "right" side of the rebellion are profoundly capable, never really placing the outcome in doubt. But of course, the devil is in the details, which provides the most entertainment as the history unfolds. And also, of course, one of Heinlein's strengths is in his character development and interaction—we like the people we meet, almost intuitively, and we enjoy seeing them work together, even if one of them is a computer. The result is a near-painless exploration of ideas that might have been somewhat radical when the book was published, but actually have some bearing on current political conversations in the US today.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Source of My Lack of Reading

Rear Admiral Thomas Hobson. Commander of a small fleet of starships in the Star Trek Universe, most notably, the U.S.S. Cape Hatteras--an Exploration Cruiser with a crew of 1000:

and the U.S.S. Robert Heinlein, a Reconnaissance Science Vessel with a crew of 350.

And with that, my Starfleet career is pretty much done. Any book recommendations?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Blackest Night: A Post Mortem

DC just finished their massive eight-part crossover event, Blackest Night, which actually felt like it ran much longer due to all the build-up that went into it. Now that it is done, let's take a look back at what went wrong and what went right.

On the positive side, the events leading up to Blackest Night and the event itself was some of the best story-telling DC has put forth in a while. Final Crisis was supposed to be a bigger and more important event, looking back as it did at the entire history of the DC universe, but its main title was written with a different type of enjoyment in mind, that of looking back at DC history and making connections that required fairly esoteric knowledge of DC history. Between that and the disturbing pattern of having a lot of important action take place between the panels so that the reader had to guess what was going on in a lot of cases, Final Crisis was difficult and not very accessible to a casual reader. And since part of the premise of the big crossover events is to pull in the more casual readers, in some ways Final Crisis was a failure. On the other hand, Blackest Night did not really require a lot of background, and what background was needed was not very esoteric. The important beats were highlighted early in the series, such as the invention of a new spectrum of lanterns, and the rest flowed fairly easily from there.

Blackest Night also had the advantage that its primary series was written by the current Green Lantern writer, Geoff Johns, so that the build-up over time was fairly gradual. And its tie-in to the Green Lantern series and the companion book, Green Lantern Corps was tight. It's a difficult game that the publisher must play—if it's a big event, how much crossing over is required, or from the readers' perspective, how many other books will they have to buy? DC did a good job of keeping the story contained in those three titles, and it could be argued that Green Lantern Corps wasn't really necessary for the primary plot.

But these considerations are secondary to what's most important—Blackest Night was a really fun concept and made for good reading. The dead of the DC universe, good, bad, and ancillary, are rising up and devouring the hearts of every living thing they can encounter. The revenants appear to have all the memories and emotions of the former living, which makes some of them pitiful and some horribly conniving. From the revenant Terra pleading with those who loved her to kill her again to put her out of her misery to the horror of Donna Troy's infant son attacking her, there were a number of fascinating character moments. That the overall rationale for these stories was a little lacking paled when compared to the "cool factor" of seeing resurrected enemies and friends.

And the art through the major titles was particularly gorgeous. Ivan Reis did wonderful work in Blackest Night and Doug Mahnke handled the art chores in Green Lantern really well. The story flowed between cosmic and personal, and the art captured the nuances of both easily.

The negative side seems to be made of editorial decisions that I just can't fathom. The biggest blunder was a skip month after the first six issues, which seems to have been planned for by the insertion of secondary titles in the vacuum (more on them below). Blackest Night had a ton of momentum after its sixth issue—the reader has finally been introduced to the main villain and he has expressed his power by turning some of the DC heroes who had died and come back into Black Lanterns. And then nothing for two months, nothing but one-shots of cancelled series being restarted to bring back dead characters. No movement on the big plot, so that when Blackest Night restarted with issue seven, it really did feel like a restart. Momentum was gone, and the formerly fun beats felt more like audience manipulation. No doubt it will work much better in collected trade paperbacks, for those of us reading as the issues came out, it was a horrible anti-climax and made it difficult to get excited about the conclusion.

And there were a lot of tie-ins to Blackest Night: there were several mini-series, like Blackest Night: JSA that focused on a specific character or characters' response to what was happening around them. There were the restarts of cancelled series that brought back old characters so we could get their reactions to those they cared for being reborn. And there were the special Blackest Night issues of ongoing stories, usually two parts, performing much the same function as the mini-series. Most of these had very little to do with what was going on in the main story arc and felt like some sort of filler. Particularly egregious to me was the JSA mini-series, where Mr. Terrific figures out how to defeat the regenerative revenants, and in the process clears out New York City of every undead. But in nearly the last two panels he explains that the process required parts that cannot be duplicated and so the weapon cannot be rebuilt. It's a fairly standard cop-out and an example of lazy story-telling, but it does lead to the question of why, if he knew he could only make one such weapon, didn't he take it to the heart of the revenant uprising in Coast City? The tie-in stories in existing series felt like everyone marching in place, especially as they all took nearly exactly the same format: one issue to remind the reader who the revenants are and then they attack, and the second issue to find some miraculous way to overcome them, a method which was never reproduced in the main storyline. Some of them are ingenious—freezing the revenants, for example—but if the methodology is never returned to the main story, it really serves no purpose. There were some potential "oh cool" moments in the tie-ins, like for example the idea of Dick Grayson and Tim Drake meeting their respective deceased parents, who by the way want to eat their hearts. But the potential of those moments is not fulfilled, again, as they never seem to have any relation to what's happening elsewhere.

There were also some strange moments that remain inexplicable to me. For instance, the highlight of the first issue of Blackest Night is the resurrection of Martian Manhunter and Ralph and Sue Dibny. In fact, their undead appearance was perhaps the most scary (after Donna Troy's dead son) and showed the potential of what the revenants could do. But after their splash page appearance in that first issue, we never see them again. And also in that first appearance, Hawkman and Hawkgirl are killed and then made undead, but we never see them again either. In several of the tie-ins, we discover that heroes that are light-based are better able to deal with the revenants, but that information doesn't seem to make it over to the main story.

And somehow, despite having eight issues and numerous tie-ins, the last bits of the story still felt particularly rushed. I'm still not terribly sure what the main villain's plan actually was and how it involved his allowing dead heroes to be resurrected in the past few years. I have no idea why there was a White Lantern Corps that lasted for all of an eye-pleasing panel before the story swept past them and those members were returned to their normal costumes. And the biggest mystery of all, why twelve formerly deceased characters were resurrected, is not even told in Blackest Night but left as a cliffhanger to be resolved in the ubiquitous follow-up series, Brightest Day.

Finally, there were some unfortunate pile-ups in the editorial office as far as scheduling went, as different aspects of the many series collided with each other. For instance, in Blackest Night #4, the hero Damage is gruesomely killed and his heart ripped from his body. And yet in his "home" title, JSA, life goes on and Damage fights alongside his teammates, even taking part in the splitting of the JSA team and appearing in the new title JSA All-Stars. Every other title in the DC universe is in the crossover, but apparently the JSA titles are not…and there is no indication anywhere on the pages that they aren't. Such a complaint may seem nit-picky, but it was (And still is) a stumbling block and impairs the impact of killing the character elsewhere if he still goes on in his own title. Worse was two other big DC events that collided with Blackest Night blunting their impacts a well. For a long while, DC had been building up the return of the most famous Flash of all, Barry Allen, in Flash: Rebirth. In that series, the newly reborn Flash deals with perhaps his worst arch-nemesis, Reverse-Flash, who has somehow returned from the dead. Supposedly, this was going to be a nice lead-in to Blackest Night, except that the Flash series got bogged down and didn't finish before Blackest Night. So in one series, Flash is wandering about trying to understand how his dead nemesis could possibly have come back, and in another series, coming out at the same time, he has no such concerns about lots of dead people coming back.

Similarly, some fairly ground-breaking things happened in another mini-series, Justice League: Cry for Justice, where there was some interesting contemplation of how justice works in the comics world. But its conclusion ran smack dab into the conclusion of Blackest Night, and its somewhat powerful conclusion, which opens the door to all sorts of interesting and thought-provoking questions, is muted by the return of twelve characters from the dead and the death of many many others in the pages of Blackest Night.

The result is that Blackest Night shows the potential of a thoughtfully planned event at DC. The story generally was good and fun to read, and I am excited by the return of a few characters. At the same time, however, it shows the weakness of such an event, dealing as it does with a lot of working parts that all have to remain in synch for the best, most dramatic impact. There were some hiccups that served as momentary distractions from what DC hoped to accomplish with Blackest Night, and that's unfortunate. Blackest Night really is the best event that they have had in some time and should serve as a signpost for how to do similar things in the future. Only, let's not do them too near in the future—event fatigue has set in and I'd like to see time spent on the repercussions of all that just happened.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Burn Me Deadly

After the success of Alex Bledsoe's The Sword-Edged Blonde (http://perrynomasia.blogspot.com/2009/07/sword-edged-blonde.html), I had some fairly large expectations for the sequel. Charmed as I was not only with the cross-genre play but with the well-written protagonist, I hoped for more of the same and perhaps some new twists in Burn Me Deadly. What the new book delivers, however, is something subtly different and yet still rather compelling.

I suppose it is something of a truism that if book one breaks new ground, then there's not so much new ground to break in book two. And while I know that in my head, my heart didn't seem to recognize it or apply it to Burn Me Deadly. I wanted more of the fertile interplay between the noir genre and heroic fantasy, and I admit to being a little disappointed as I set down the book—it was not there at the same level it had been for the first book. But as I thought about it in more detail, I realized that Bledsoe is performing a real melding here, and that if he kept using the heroic fantasy as his framework it would eventually obscure the noir aspects. Since The Sword-Edged Blonde told a story that involved the biggest tropes of heroic fantasy—really, Eddie LaCrosse interacts with gods!—we also have to recognize that the life of a shamus/sword jockey more often consists of mundane cases resolved not with leaps of intuition or deific intervention, but by old-fashioned footwork. And that's what Burn Me Deadly delivers. The story is still set in a fairly medieval world, but we don't get to see as much of it this time around, since LaCrosse doesn't travel very far from his home. But we do get to see Eddie interact with his friends and resources, which is ultimately what any ongoing noir series relies on: the cases come and go, but the cast of repeated characters grows into fully rounded persons.

The story begins with Eddie attempting to rescue a young woman he stumbles across in the woods as he rides home after his latest case. His attempt fails, and Eddie finds himself the victim of horrific assault beside the corpse of the young woman he tried to save. After he is able to rescue himself, he throws himself at solving the crimes. As he follows the few clues he has, the local constable Gary tries to dissuade him from getting too involved and a captain in the king's guard tries to throw him off the trail completely. Eddie's response is typical of the noir protagonist: it only compels him to try that much harder. And when more bodies start piling up and an ancient dragon cult seems to be involved, Eddie just grows that much more determined to figure it out.

To be honest, I wanted to be angry at the "mystery" aspect of the story. As it went along, it seemed terribly obvious who the villains were, but my supposed detective skills were based on way too many TV shows and movies where the conclusions generally are obvious and somewhat trite. It's a testament to Bledsoe's writing chops that the resolution and revelations were more often a surprise than not, teasing the reader with the obvious and then surprising in the details. Even more compelling to me was that such manipulation gave me cause to spend time thinking about what makes the genres what they are and how Burn Me Deadly plays with those expectations.

Truly, though, the real joy of this novel is the development of Eddie's voice and the growing cast of regulars. We discover that Eddie and the woman he met at the end of The Sword-Edged Blonde are now lovers, and the interaction between he and Liz is powerful in its authentic feel. This is what two confident and emotionally stable people are supposed to sound like in a relationship, no matter the setting. And this is not to say that they do not have their issues, but they deal with them humanly and fairly appropriately, indicating their maturity, even when they recognize they each have growing still to do.

There is also the bar owner Angelina, who remains fairly enigmatic though more and more trusted. She offers relief for the reader when the action gets tough. She has acerbic wit—as any barkeep worth their salt does in a noir novel—but she begins to grow into something more than a cliché, specifically because of her obvious affection for Eddie and because of hints she lets drop and another big one that Eddie uncovers as he chases the murderers. She nearly steals every scene she is in, and I look forward to her development over what I hope will be a prolonged series. Her main waitress, Callie, is also a delight, growing as she does from well-endowed dimwit into something much more interesting and a formidable force on her own.

There are new characters as well, such as Doug the constable who devoutly pursues getting paid for doing the least amount of work possible, and the owner of the bar across town, Angelina's primary competitor. But most interesting is the introduction of a nemesis for Eddie, a local crime lord who is tangentially involved with the activities of Burn Me Deadly but who promises to be a thorn in Eddie's side for a long time to come.

The result is a deceptively quick read—like a lot of mysteries Burn Me Deadly doesn't feel like it has a lot of intellectual heft. But within it, there are more things going on than in a typical "beach read"; Bledsoe continues to play with genre expectations, but in a more subdued manner than before, and he is growing a stable of interesting characters that compel the reader to learn more about them. To be sure, the novel can be read in a cursory surface sort of way, but a little examination reveals the promise of more good things to come. And, a tribute to his craft, Bledsoe has made me care to learn more about these people and their world.