Archive for the ‘What’s New’ Category

Review: Dracula

Saturday, May 18th, 2024

The folks at Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone were talking about Dracula and made it sound so good that I wanted to revisit it.

It’s more interesting than fun to read. There’s a lot of the foundations of horror in there, but as a book there’s a lot more logistics than excitement to it. At some point Mina Harker mentions having memorized the train schedules of a city she’s just arrived in and I remember being surprised that all of that schedule wasn’t reproduced in Stoker’s dialog. Not to worry, plenty of other minutia are.

I can kick Dracula a lot from the position of a reader used to different prose conventions and as a viewer of tons of derivative works. The world building is all trees and no forest. The characters are pretty stock. The team seems to deliberately not communicate with one another just to advance the plot, and more.

But the bones are great.

The feeling of dread of a powerful supernatural force plotting its way to power remains chilling. The action set pieces are genuinely suspenseful and thrilling. The absence of specificity of the cause of the Evil lets adapters dress those bones in everything from a horror of temptation gone wrong to terror of encroaching otherness to comedic horror while keeping a ripping action adventure going. You have to trim some train schedules, but what’s left is such a great canvas that people keep coming back to it.

I did find it more of a trip to the vampire museum than a ripping yarn of its own, but there’s a lot to conjure with here. There are great reasons people keep coming back to the source.

Recommended.

Grap 1.48

Tuesday, May 7th, 2024

grap 1.48 is released. It’s a very small output syntax change to accomodate dpic.

Review: First Lensman

Thursday, April 18th, 2024

This is the second book of E. E. Smith’s Lensmen series. I got thinking enough about Triplanetary that I figured I’d take the next bite of this series. It is a fascinating core sample of post-WWII SF.

The basic idea is that there are two advanced alien races using the galaxy as a chessboard. One race is dedicated to good and and the other evil. As humanity begins to reach outside its solar system using some annoyingly nonsensical technology the good aliens begin exerting their influence to promote civilization in the human expansion. This is countering the pre-existing and continuing evil alien influence. They do this primarily by bringing together skilled and virtuous humans and gifting them resources, including the lens in Lensmen. That device gives the owner a variety of telepathic powers. The lens is set up as both only being usable by the virtuous and acting as proof of virtue.

First Lensmen is basically the story of how the Lensmen grow and attempt to become leaders of humanity. They plan to essentially take over the fundamentally sound democratic government and military structures that have been overrun by evil alien corruption people.

There are only so many paths to power, and as the novel goes on it’s clear that the paths are independent of the virtue of the people using them. Smith doesn’t ignore that as both sides strategize about things like building military forces and manipulating public opinion in ways that are close. There is a pragmatism to the idealism that is welcome. The evil-alien-driven drug trade is basically the only tactic that’s hard to spin both ways. And though the lens grants credibility, the evil folks predictably claim its effects are hypnosis. The space fights are pretty by the numbers, but the bare knuckled elections are refreshing. There’s some Capra Corn in there as Mr. Lensman goes to Washington, but even at that it’s more interesting than the zap gun fights.

I can mostly look at it as a genre piece of its time, except for the misogyny. There’s only one female character of consequence, and a few with very minor roles. It fails the Bechdel Test without getting the nature of female interaction. No two female characters have a conversation.

The one woman character of consequence is there to verbalize her acceptance of the rule that women can’t be Lensmen though she qualifies in every other way. Then she is captured, tortured, and rescued by Lensmen. After that she basically doesn’t return for the last 100 pages of the book. Infuriating.

There are some interesting ideas to chew on in here about power and public opinion. I did find the characterization wooden at best and the plotting much the same. There are a lot of toxic males debating the merits of solutions to imaginary problems. The election stuff is more nuanced, but it’s a long way in. Overall an interesting thing to have read.

Review: Triplanetary

Sunday, April 7th, 2024

Triplanetary is the retconned beginning of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series, which I’ve always heard of as the prototypical Space Opera. I’ve been meaning to get around to reading the series and a friend recently prodded me to have a look. This is one of those books that my thoughts about it stuck with me more than reading it did. It seems to be a trend in my reviews lately.

And Triplanetary is exactly what I’ve heard it is. It is a Space Opera (primarily) written in the 1930’s about an interstellar war of first contact. The influence of the work is such that I can describe what was a pretty groundbreaking piece of genre fiction in less than 10 words and even a casual fan of the genre knows what’s going on. And I’m not going to split hairs or make claims about who created the Space Opera. Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers are running around already and I’m sure there are others. Triplanetary has the scope and shape of a Space Opera – even without the framing sequences that link it to an emerging serial – and it’s the earliest thing I’ve read that has that shape.

I really didn’t like it much.

I would tell you that I like Space Opera. Star Wars has the formative spot in my history that it has in any nerdy kid’s life who saw it when they were 10. I generally dig the Green Lantern Corps, though I don’t follow it closely. I just wrote a review this year of a Space Opera I quite enjoyed. I like big doings, broad analogies, and morality plays. But, honestly, Triplanetary has shaken me up.

I’m reading along and watching our hyper-competent heroes fighting an alien race that is violently pillaging the solar system for resources while the Big Bad lurks in the background. The good guys get captured and pull a ruse to get access to tools to make an escape, which they do, and on the way out commit a pretty blatant act of genocide. Or that’s what it reads like to me. It jarred me quite a bit.

And I don’t even think it was bad writing. It was clearly established that the bad guys were waging total war as well. They destroy Pittsburgh, where I have family. I know that in times of warfare people do terrible things. But it kind of humanized the scope for me in a way that I don’t feel like the text intended to.

Which got me to thinking about Space Opera in general. And that scale of gratuitous violence and the moral choices it imposes seems pretty baked in to me. The Empire destroys Alderaan as an interrogation tactic just so we know how bad they are. And the good guys kill a lot of folks in return. Both sides in the Space Witch Space Opera I liked are also violent on a planetary scale. And I don’t always think those were bad choices. Leaving the Death Star standing, even if it somehow doesn’t wipe out the base on Yavin isn’t really tenable.

I think that because I disliked the characters in Triplanetary I was more critical of what they had done. But when I went to defend characters I like who had done similar scale things, it wasn’t as easy as I thought. Reasons characters I liked killed a lot of people felt like excuses when I applied them to the Triplanetary characters actions. I don’t think I should let people and characters I like off the hook more easily for their choices. I owe “Doc” Smith for the wake-up call.

Back to the book. The writing is fine. It hits story beats, builds tension, and generally has the shape of a serial. As I mentioned, I didn’t like the characters much. They were pretty one-dimensional action heroes, to the point where I felt like they were on the wrong side of snobs/slobs. The misogyny of the times is on impressive display. The only female character I remember is in the story to tell the hero how manly he is and react to another gigantic loss of life caused by our protagonists.

I usually end these with a recommendation, but this has been less a review than me grappling with my reactions to it in print. Triplanetary is a 1930’s Space Opera. The writing is pedestrian, but effective. It’s influential in the genre – there’s even a board game. If that sounds good and you have a look.

Review: Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?

Thursday, April 4th, 2024

Every couple years I like to check in on Stephen Dobyns. He seems to have made himself a nice career writing interesting crime fiction, including at least one mystery series. Not surprising given that his debut, The Church of Dead Girls fits into that broad category. Girls impressed me with what it hangs off that structure and he generally has something up his sleeve.

Which brings me to Is Fat Bob Dead Yet? It starts off as a crime drama/mystery in the style of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen. Splashy murder, bombastic characters, lots of organized crime vibes. A good time. But at some point Dobyns starts talking directly to his reader in a way that is more conversational. It’s a nice bit of writing. I mean there was a narrator there the whole time, but there’s a slow shift that imbues that narrator with some character that draws attention to the fact that the reader is being told a story.

Dobyns manages an interesting balance of that metafictive storytelling and entertaining potboiler. I’m not blown away by either side of the approach, but I can’t complain either. The characters are engaging and I wanted to see how it all turned out.

Recommended.

Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2024

I am a huge fan of A Psalm for the Wild-Built, the book that establishes the world of A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. I definitely was excited to see how Becky Chambers built on that phenomenal start.

Crown-Shy takes us farther into the world and fills in more of how a society of sentients who are completely violence-blind works. The society is also cooperative at its root, which provides some interesting ideas on the economics. Even more interesting is how family dynamics evolve in such a world. It’s all interesting but I felt less of the awe of discovery.

I tend not to talk about plot details and characters in when I discuss these books, but that’s not because they’re dull. This is a fun read with interesting characters and dramatic tension. I want to keep turning the pages and follow the twists in the road. But in the long term I find the world chewier.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Island of Doctor Moreau

Monday, February 19th, 2024

Looking over my reviews of The Time Machine and The Invisible Man I see that I touted how Wells’s social commentary was flavored by his times, but not overwhelmed by it. I can’t really say the same for Moreau. It’s really about very turn of the 20th century ideas about evolution, savagery, and humanity.

Maybe check out one of those other ones.

Review: Void Black Shadow and Static Ruin

Saturday, January 20th, 2024

This is the second book of Corey White’s trilogy that started with Killing Gravity. It continues to deliver on a well-tuned space opera. I had been away from the characters for several years and fell right into the narrative. I read both Void Black Shadow and Static Ruin back to back. Since I’m not digging too deeply into plot, I’m covering about both here.

I like that though White is clearly writing a space opera, he’s not writing in a world without logic. His evil galactic empire isn’t shaky enough to put all its eggs into one Death Star. And it’s also populated with the sort of punch-the-clock evildoers who wind up working for evil in the real world.

It’s also a world with consequences. While White and his protagonist, Mars, may understand how you wind up as a file clerk for the Empire, they neither excuse or forgive temptation into more nefarious vocations. There’s a “break in to Devil’s Island to break our guy out” trope in here that runs aground on the kinds of terror that runs amok in such places. Those responsible are neither excused nor forgiven, but Mars gets her scars, too.

Evil’s not incompetent either. Mars’s plans do not always go as she expects or as a reader of space opera might expect. Competent foes and real consequences are in play.

I quite like the mix of full-bore planetary-class superpowers and real-world dynamics here. Being able to throw a starship around with your mind has less practical application than one might wish. White brings that home without losing the operatic scope.

The protagonist remains a space witch, though some unpleasant alternatives are put forth as well.

Recommended.

Review: The Best of Richard Matheson

Saturday, January 20th, 2024

Richard Matheson made his name writing short stories and novellas that looked at genre standards with a modern eye. The unexpected turns those took made them both standards in SF magazines of the day and the basis for many a Twilight Zone episode. I saw a collection at the LAPL and decided to have a look.

The man deserves his reputation. The stories are well crafted and clever. It’s easy to see how these stories both delighted readers and inspired later writers to play with different perspectives on old tropes.

They are a product of their time. I wouldn’t want to be a woman in a Matheson world. While I can be frustrated that a writer who can generate sympathy for the Devil would still have Satan’s wife doing the dishes, I still recognize the craft.

Recommended.

Review: The Last Chairlift

Saturday, January 20th, 2024

To get ready to write this review, I looked at my previous Irving reviews, and the review of In One Person covers everything I want to say.

I want to underline that John Irving is one of my favorite novelists. I enjoyed reading this novel. If you like John Irving, you will too. But if you don’t know if you like John Irving, I’d probably point you at The Cider House Rules. Or A Prayer for Owen Meany depending what I know about you.