Friday, December 22, 2017

Book Review: Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1

book cover for Transmetropolitan Volume 1After years of self-imposed exile from a civilization rife with degradation and indecency, cynical journalist Spider Jerusalem is forced to return to a job that he hates and a city that he loathes. Working as an investigative reporter for the newspaper The Word, Spider attacks the injustices of his surreal 23rd Century surroundings. Combining black humor, life-threatening situations, and moral ambiguity, this book is the first look into the mind of an outlaw journalist and the world he seeks to destroy.

Spider Jerusalem is the cyberpunk homage to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. You can see it in his appearance, demeanor, personality, and politics. And he's always smoking. Like HST, he savagely attacks what he perceives as a corrupt system filled with politicians, aristocrats, and cult leaders on the take with the use of his trusty computer. He's an anti-hero sticking it to—and sometimes kicking—the man. But he's also flawed. In Spider's case, it's manifold: booze and drugs, loyal to no one but himself, sloth, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur that manifest in the form of a self-righteous arbiter of morality attacking the powerful. He's judge, jury, and punisher (he doesn't execute anyone) who takes too much delight in carrying out his sentences.

Forced out of retirement due to bankruptcy and a publishing contract, Spider returns to the city he loves and loathes. He feeds off that loathing to craft his column for one of the local newspapers. His editor rewards Spider with a generous stipend and improved lodging (and later an assistant), which feeds Spider's ego and gives him all the justification he needs to continue his crusade.

Volume 1 collects the first six issues. The first three issues see Spider's return to the city from his mountain retreat. We learn about this world of his as he gets re-acquainted with it, noting what has changed, what hasn't. Along the way we discover that there are transients, humans who are re-writing their DNA to become aliens. Spider decides to make their story the subject of his first column.

The next three issues are one-offs where Spider meets his assistant (Channon, who deserves hazard pay for putting up with Spider's eccentricities) and runs into the President in a public bathroom, spends an afternoon watching TV (watch out for the ad bombs!), and visits a religious cult convention.

Darick Robertson's artwork is spot on. He perfectly captures the commercial chaos of the city, filled with the circus sideshow of humanity with all of its quirks, cultures, fashions and fetishes. I love scrutinizing the wide shot panels, combing through the debris of this world to catch a glimpse of the detritus and details that offer clues into what this world is all about: Ebola Cola, Necro Porn and Playgray magazines, Sin Gin, Dead Boyz cigarettes.

On a personal note, I just finished this volume before attending a corporate Christmas party. When I wasn't engaged in polite conversations with people who would soon forget I existed, Spider Jerusalem's commentary was there, running through my head with acerbic opinions about the occasion and its attendees. Having a character stick with you like that is a good sign that the author did his homework.

Given the current political climate, Transmetropolitan seems more relevant now than when it debuted 20 years ago. One major difference: the caricatures of people in the comic have now come to life.


Monday, December 11, 2017

Book Review: Foundation

book cover for FoundationFor twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future—to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire—both scientists and scholars—and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a future generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation.

But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind's last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun—or fight them and be destroyed.

If you can look past certain technological anachronisms like paper still being a medium for the storage of information in a technologically advanced civilization with FTL travel or archaic cultural limitations on women (I didn't see a single female character that wasn't a secretary or wife, and these were throwaway roles), then this classic sci-fi novel (and later series) from the 1950s still merits reading (assuming you haven't done so already).

At this point in the series (several novels were written that take place before this one, although they were published later), the Galactic Empire has begun to decline, though there's little visible evidence for it. Hari Seldon, the leader of a group of psychohistorians, has declared that the empire will crumble, leading to a galaxy-wide dark ages that will last for thirty millennia. Seldon's scientific work leaves him without a doubt that the collapse is inevitable, but the recovery period doesn't have to be nearly as long. His plan involves the creation of a foundation that will work to preserve the empire's knowledge and minimize the damage from its fall.

The book is broken up into five sections. The first, the Psychohistorians, deals with Seldon's announcement and subsequent arrest. He's put on trial for treason and must successfully argue his case or face the death penalty. Although modeled after the Roman Empire, I found an interesting parallel to Seldon's argument about the eventual collapse of the empire in 500 years time and those individuals, most notably James Hansen, warning the American government and the world about climate change. Just as too many people have a problem envisioning how climate change is happening or that its effects will be more severely felt decades from now (or want to cover it up by discrediting the messengers), the Imperial government denies that the empire is crumbling, can't see the cracks that will take centuries to manifest, discredits Seldon's work, and seeks to silence him permanently. After all, who wants to hear that their way of life is having a deleterious effect upon the world (galaxy) around them?

From here, the remaining sections deal with pivotal moments in the Foundation's early years. These are dubbed "Seldon crises." In each one, the protagonist is a man who sees that the current political environment, if not handled correctly, will lead the Foundation down the wrong path. Sometimes the system needs to be overthrown; sometimes it needs a steady hand. Each one uses his wits rather than brute force to defeat his opponent. Like all successful chess players, he's able to see his opponents moves several steps in advance and plans accordingly.

While I wouldn't say it's an exciting work, it nonetheless makes for an entertaining read. Despite the aforementioned anachronisms, its influence is widespread and can be seen throughout sci-fi. When people as far apart on the ideological spectrum as Newt Gingrich and Paul Krugman cite it as an influential work, it bears looking into.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Book Review: Ronin

book cover for RoninIn this tale of a legendary warrior, the Ronin, a dishonored, masterless 13th Century samurai, is mystically given a second chance to avenge his master's death.Suddenly finding himself reborn in a futuristic and corrupt 21st Century New York City, the samurai discovers he has one last chance to regain his honor: he must defeat the reincarnation of his master's killer, the ancient demon Agat. In a time and place foreign and unfathomable to him, the Ronin stands against his greatest enemy with his life and, more importantly, his soul at stake.

When I first encountered comic books in the 70s, I thought they were garbage. The stories weren't worth the tissue paper they were printed on. But when I went to college, a roommate of mine told me that was no longer the case (more on that here). He used three graphic novels to make his case: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Ronin.

Suffice it to say, I was convinced.

Having had a warm reunion with Watchmen, I decided to re-visit Ronin to see if still held up after all these years.

The artwork certainly isn't as good as I remember it. Most of the art strikes me as a rough draft or conceptual sketches meant to be passed on to the illustrator. I can see what imagery Miller was attempting to convey and the feelings he wanted to evoke, but the execution seemed amateurish.

And the color palette! Blech! Algae green and muddled browns. Scenes of the facility viewed from above reveal it to be an amorphous mass of greens ovals infecting the grey and brown straight lines of the city like a fungus.

However, I still enjoyed the story. We have a samurai who's lost his master (hence ronin) battling a demon in the distant past only to be carried into the future (the inspiration for Samurai Jack?). In the future, we have a limbless child (Billy) attempting to master telekinesis with the help of an AI (Virgo) with a grandmother complex. Both work for an advanced biotech company looking to resurrect Manhattan from severe degradation.

When the storylines converge, the tale hits its stride. All is not as it seems. Magic, technology, fantasy, identity: It all blurs. Caught up in the middle of it all are Peter and Casey, a couple who work at the facility. Peter is a research scientist responsible for most of the science behind the technology. Casey is head of security. Each tries to hold firm to reality despite what their eyes are telling them. When people start dying, they refuse the easy answers and dig deeper to find the truth.

Since I first read the story, I'd heard about Miller's negative view of Manhattan. To paraphrase, he felt that the city was overrun by degenerates. He projected the future Manhattan in Ronin to be filled with racists, criminals, and cannibalistic mutants. Life holds very little value. It makes me question why a biotech company would bother building a mammoth (and expensive) facility among such filth and decay. The corporate directors talked about revitalizing the city, but we never saw anyone outside of the company that wasn't a degenerate. So why bother? But such a viewpoint works perfectly for Batman, which Miller would write (but not illustrate) not long after this one.