Friday, September 28, 2018

Book Review: In the Ocean of Night

original book cover for the In the Ocean of Night1999: NASA astronaut Nigel Walmsley is sent on a mission to intercept a rogue asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Ordered to destroy the comet, he instead discovers that it is actually the shell of a derelict space probe - a wreck with just enough power to emit a single electronic signal...

2014: Then a reply is heard. Searching for the source of this signal that comes from outside the solar system, Nigel discovers the existence of a sentient ship. When the new vessel begins to communicate directly with him, the astronaut learns of the horrors that await humanity.

First, a bit of backstory. I actually started this series, not knowing it was a series, back in the 80s. I'd picked up Across the Sea of Suns (book #2) through a sci-fi book club as a teen. Upon reading it, I realized that it wasn't a standalone but a sequel. However, there was enough backstory that it didn't matter. But then the ending was left wide open, so I knew that it was, in fact, a series. I was not amused and subsequently forgot about the series for decades.

By chance, while perusing through one of the local library's book sales, I came across Sailing Bright Eternity and discovered that it was the last book in a six-book saga. I bought it, and it has sat on my nightstand for years hence. So when I spotted this book last summer, I knew that I should go back and read the whole series start-to-finish. Besides, I really liked the titles of the books.

I might be regretting that decision.

This book was written from 1972-1977 and parts were published in If magazine over that time. The book starts in 1999 and runs through 2019 (reprints bumped those dates back 20 years). There is so much 70s dreck hanging over this story that it's downright suffocating. Everything that was ugly about the 70s is concentrated and perpetuated for forty years! The Clean Air Act never accomplished anything, people passively gave up their cars for mass transit because Detroit and Tokyo couldn't innovate, Moore's Law failed to materialize, and the US never snapped out of its economic funk and continued to slowly slide into turpitude. It's enough to make me want to thank Reagan for his "Morning in America" pep rally speeches just to avoid this rubbish.

What arises out of this miasma is a new religious movement dubbed The New Sons. As far as I can tell, it's an amalgam of hippies, Eastern philosophy, Old Testament Christianity, and mysticism that infects the country and the world. Traditional religions are powerless before it and are soon negotiating for inclusion. It comes across as wholly implausible and schlocky. Maybe if I'd been trapped in Haight-Ashbury and my girlfriend was seduced by a bunch of hippies, I'd believe it. In essence, this is what happens to the protagonist, Nigel Walmsley.

Nigel is an insufferable, self-absorbed, patronizing jerk. A certain comment he made regarding a potential asteroid impact in India makes me think he might even be racist. He thinks he's right about everything and disobeys orders because he's right, damnit! What sucks is that too often he is right. But who wants to give that guy the satisfaction? He's a bit of a hypocrite: After witnessing a New Sons' bonfire ritual, he calls it a "license for public rutting" then goes home to have a three-way. Said three-way is Benford's rather clumsy way of informing the reader about Nigel's polyamorous relationship. What's worse is that most of the other characters in the novel are pathetic: power mad bureaucrats and passive aggressive religious zealots. In his relationship, Alexandria seems about ready to pass away from ennui (yes, she's ill, but Benford doesn't take advantage of her lucid moments to develop her character) while Shirley is always angry at Nigel for something. Too much of this book—almost a third—is spent detailing this relationship. While there's some hope for him by the end of the novel, after reading his stream of consciousness babble, I can't help but think he's just going to be a different flavor of insufferable, self-absorbed, patronizing jerk going forward.

So is there anything good here? Yeah, sure. Nigel's encounters with the aliens and anything involving Dr. Ichiro and Nikka. There's the "big idea" that attempts to answer the Fermi Paradox. But there isn't enough of this to counter the swamp of bad I had to slog through.

Now I probably shouldn't be so critical of a book that was written over 40 years ago and was one of Benford's first works, but this was a book that was nominated for both the Nebula and Locus awards. Sure, I'll give him points for the concept, but he lacked vision. How is there a space program if the economic malaise of the 70s never ends and only worsens? He was a physicist at a prominent university; how did he not hear about the advances underway with microelectronics? I gotta use a fax machine on the Moon 50 years after we set foot on it? Maybe we can excuse him for not foreseeing the innovations that would drive the last decades of the 20th century, but not his characters' behavior. Benford writes this damnably sexist scene where Alexandria's doctor won't tell her his prognosis of her medical condition until after Nigel arrives from work, and even then, he directs his conversation to Nigel as if Alexandria is no more than a sick pet. She was an executive at American Airlines negotiating a deal with a Brazilian company! How can Benford do that to her?

Maybe, this book probably would've been easier to deal with reading it right after it was finished, trapped in the 70s, but by 1980 this book's days were numbered.

A weak one and a half out of five stars. Maybe less.


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Book Review: Saga - Volume 1

book cover for volume 1 of SagaGoodreads has been recommending this one to me for some time, and good many of the people I follow there gushed with praise. My local library had a copy so I figured that I'd finally pick it up. I burned through it in two days. I only put it down because I had to sleep. Then I read it again.

As per the book blurb, two soldiers on the opposite side of a war fall in love and conceive a child. All they want now is to be left alone to raise her in peace. But the opposing factions have been at it for so long, that talk like that is treasonous, blasphemy. Now they're being hunted down in order to stifle their narrative busting idea that peace between their worlds is possible.

There's an American-Soviet Cold War parallel here. Both worlds recognized early on that they'd grown too powerful. If the war continued on their respective worlds (one is a moon of the other planet), the damage would be catastrophic and likely lead to mutually assured destruction. So instead, they've exported their war to other worlds in the galaxy. Forced to choose sides, the locals soon realize the hard way that it's a lose-lose situation. Worlds are mined; people are executed for collaborating with the enemy. They've become collateral damage in a war without end.

I get a slight Heavy Metal vibe (film or comic). It most notably comes through in the scenes on the pleasure planet, Sextillion. There's also Saga's juxtaposition of magic and technology in a space fantasy setting that lends a commonality to Heavy Metal, though Saga seems more grounded with its adult themes—some of them dark—than some of the latter's absurdist stories.

But enough of the comparisons. Brian Vaughn has written a compelling story, told with straightforward dialogue and populated with a whole smorgasbord of mashup aliens, wonderfully rendered by Fiona Staples. Staples' artwork captures the fantastic elements of the story and perfectly conveys the emotions of its characters. I love the color palette. The backgrounds look like they're watercolors while the characters are rendered in solid colors.

I have to give this five stars. I can't think of a reason why I shouldn't.


Monday, September 10, 2018

Book Review - The Alcoholic

book cover for The AlcoholicWhen I picked up this graphic novel from the library, I had no idea who Jonathan Ames was. Upon further investigation, I'd never even heard of any of his works, be they book, film, or TV show, save one (Blunt Talk). But even that one show I've never seen and only knew of it because Patrick Stewart played the titular role.

I gathered from the liner notes that this was the fictionalized memoir of a writer (Jonathan A.) who struggled with alcohol. Having had my own wanderings down that path over a number of years—luckily changing course before it was too late—I was curious to hear his story, even if there was a bit of fiction in it.

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to refer to the fictional Jonathan A. as the author, Ames.

Ames explores how alcohol played a role throughout his life. Like many, his relationship started in high school. Alcohol is that wonderful social lubricant that helps combat the terrifying awkwardness of being a teenager, a human being. But alcohol didn't like Ames, and it kicked his ass. Ames ignored it though; the euphoria that came with drinking was worth it to him. And when various relationships with family, friends, and girlfriends turned sour, alcohol was there to get him through it. While he had periods of sobriety, there was always something to trigger a relapse, sometimes into harder drugs.

Ames takes us from high school parties in New Jersey to starry beaches in Bequia. He relives sexual escapades, detoxing, and the emotional fallout of 9/11. Dean Haspiel's black and white artwork perfectly encapsulates each scene, clearly conveying the emotions that Ames' character is feeling.

Although fictionalized, it still feels like Ames is telling an honest story, but only to an extent. He tries to balance the melancholy with humor, but when the latter wanders into the scatological, it took away from the sympathy I'd felt for the character. The ending seems rushed. The epiphany Ames experienced might be true, but I was left unconvinced that it would stick. An earlier epiphany after 9/11 was forgotten after a chance encounter with Bill Clinton went straight to the character's head. But the very last page has me thinking that no epiphany will ever suffice until the void in his life is filled.

3 1/2 stars.


Friday, September 7, 2018

Book Review: Hellboy, Volume 1 - Seed of Destruction

book cover for Hellboy volume 1I saw the Hellboy movie years ago and loved it. Rasputin and the Nazis, Lovecraftian monsters, Gothic ruins, arcane machines, and a wise-cracking, cigar chomping, good demon who kicks ass. I didn't know anything about how Hellboy was supposed to be, but I thought Perlman knocked it out of the park.

I always meant to get around to reading the comic, but I didn't get a chance until now. Starting at the beginning, I see that the movie and the book start off on the same page, but then wildly veer off in different directions with only loose connections as the stories unfold. This is going to be blasphemous of me to say, but I liked the movie more.

In the movie, more time was spent developing the characters and the backstory. In the comic, Hellboy and the reader are subjected to a bad case of monologuing (I've had characters do it, too. It happens to writers all the time.) by Rasputin. As the comic is told almost exclusively from Hellboy's POV—after his origin sequence—there's no other place to put it. Perhaps if this opening story had been told over eight issues instead of four, there might have been a better way to develop it organically.

John Hurt and Ron Perlman in a scene from HellboyHellboy's relationships with other characters is largely undeveloped in this issue of the comic. Other than a little background on Abe and Liz, we really don't get any reason why Hellboy cares about them. And Professor Bruttenholm? Forget it. In the movie, Perlman and Hurt really develop the relationship. Here, it's over before it starts with nary a thought or feeling. I have to imagine that these relationships and characters were expounded upon in subsequent issues.

But despite these shortcomings, I liked the story. The Lovecraftian vibe, Rasputin, and occult-Nazis are there with their arcane machines. The Hellboy that Perlman brought to life is a bit more subdued though. The raw power is there, but still in a more embryonic state. There's clearly more to come.

Mignola's art really captures the brooding darkness. Even bright yellow energetic struggles to keep it at bay and won't last long against the suffocating gloom. Sepia tones lend age and authenticity to portraits on a wall. Hellboy pops off the page with his signature fire engine red, particularly when contrasted against the moodier background hues of blue, purple, and gray or contrasting with green-colored foes. And black. Always black.

At the end of this volume, there were a couple notes from Mignola about the origin of Hellboy's appearance, two short four-page comics, and a gallery of Hellboy portraits as interpreted by other artists. It was a nice addition.

3.5 stars.


Monday, September 3, 2018

Book Review: Altered Carbon

book cover for Altered CarbonFour hundred years from now mankind is strung out across a region of interstellar space inherited from an ancient civilization discovered on Mars. The colonies are linked together by the occasional sublight colony ship voyages and hyperspatial data-casting. Human consciousness is digitally freighted between the stars and downloaded into bodies as a matter of course.

But some things never change. So when ex-envoy, now-convict Takeshi Kovacs has his consciousness and skills downloaded into the body of a nicotine-addicted ex-thug and presented with a catch-22 offer, he really shouldn't be surprised. Contracted by a billionaire to discover who murdered his last body, Kovacs is drawn into a terrifying conspiracy that stretches across known space and to the very top of society.

Biotechnology has advanced far enough that immortality is available for those who can afford it. Consciousness is digitized in "stacks" and stored until a new "sleeve"—an all encompassing term for natural, cloned, or synthetic bodies—is ready. Add to this a diverse menu of drugs that enhance or dull aspects of human physiology. A whole slew of possibilities, noble and illicit, opens up. Death, prison, identity, and sex are all re-defined. The whole system is exploitable, and therein lies the story.

Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-Envoy, a type of Special Forces, who is taken from stack prison on another planet and dumped into a sleeve on Earth. He's been recommended to a billionaire (Laurens Bancroft) to solve his murder. The police say it was suicide, but Bancroft believes he was murdered. If Kovacs can solve the case to Bancroft's liking, the billionaire will purchase his freedom. If not, Kovacs goes back on stack for the rest of his two-hundred-year sentence.

What difference does it make to a billionaire why one of his sleeves died? He claims not to be the suicidal type. He has daily backups, keeps new sleeves on standby, and has already lived 350 years (making him a "meth," short for Methuselah). What's the point of suicide, if he won't remember it when he's downloaded into a new body the next day? Murder makes more sense, which likely means that there's a conspiracy afoot.

As Kovacs sets out to solve the case, he shares his experiences as he gets accustomed to a body that isn't his. Some readers have found this to be oversharing as Morgan is graphic in detail. I saw Kovacs' adjustment as having to go through puberty again. The changes our bodies go through seem alien and strange, and it takes some time before our minds grow accustomed to them and reasserts control. What Kovacs (and others) goes through when entering a new sleeve is no different. It's awkward and discomfiting.

Kovacs' past, both military and criminal, bubbles up in flashbacks, offering glimpses into what shaped his psyche. Underneath the cool, indifferent, tough guy exterior lies a soul that seeks justice for the little guy. The plutocrats can buy their way past the wheels of justice; the poor are ground up like hamburger. And it's that sense of injustice that fuels Kovacs. He internalizes it, makes it personal, and sets off on rampages.

Overall, I have to say I loved it. It's a sci-fi story soaked in noir: Cigarettes and whisky, posh AI-run hotels, a femme fatale, morally corrupt billionaires, and a complicated relationship with the cops. You could also think of it as a much more violent cousin of Blade Runner. Like that film, it also asks questions about the human condition, but doesn't lead to easy answers.