Friday, September 4, 2015

August Reads

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds
Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Ubik by Philip K Dick

I also read a bunch of graphic novels for teens:
Tomboy by Liz Prince
Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

and finally, I read a graphic novel for adults:
The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis by Darryl Cunningham

Even in terms of reading prose and not comics, I read more than usual. So yay for me. Let's talk about the graphic novels first, shall we?

Telgemeier's Smile I thought was quite good: the cartoony style, the emotions, the scope of it. I enjoyed it well enough. Ostensibly about her younger self getting braces, the comic tracks her social development through junior high and a bit of high school -- classic Bildungsroman. But then I read the "companion" book Sisters and was blown away. Instead of a wide lens look at her life, Telgemeier narrows the focus to a three week long road trip with her mother, her quite young brother, and her close in age but younger sister. She skilfully deploys flashbacks to fill in some character development, and masterfully uses the road trip to explore the bond between the sisters. The tighter focus really helps the narrative, along with her obviously improved cartooning skills. I thought this one of the best comics I've read in a long time. It's too bad that it's "for girls" or some shit like that. Comics for boys aren't labelled as such; instead they're labelled simply as "comics," because boys are the "default." Very frustrating.

My partner picked up Tomboy at a comic book store on our recent vacation and I read it before they did. It was lovely. Rarely do I laugh out loud while I'm reading something, and this comic made me laugh consistently. The nostalgia for the 90s, an important element of the comic's time period, is not saccharine or annoying. My partner grabbed this because they recognized themselves somewhat in the author's story. Being somebody who doesn't align with the traditional gender binary is tough. A comic like this helps those that never have to think about their gender empathize with the author's struggles in life. Having it be funny, entertaining, poignant, and well made helps its work be successful.

This One Summer was beautifully illustrated but melodramatic as fuck. The problem is this wide canvas (a whole summer) and the creators' compulsion to fill that canvas with everything under the sun. There are great moments, though, moments of quiet, such as as two panel sequence when a street light turns on. Otherwise, this is a cluttered story, trying to juggle too many balls and dropping most of them. I'm glad I read it (it's gorgeous) but it wasn't great.

In Real Life was a massive disappointment. The introduction had me all primed to really enjoy a story about MMORPGs and economics (a topic I'm fascinated by) but the execution fell flat. This is pretty much a story about a young Western girl's social development through teaching dumb Chinese labourers about the Great American Union Practices of the 20th Century. The idea that these Chinese workers, eternally connected to the Internet, wouldn't know what a strike is is fucking preposterous and offensive. Add into the mix that the relationship between the girl and the Chinese worker she teaches is platonic until he dons a Westernized avatar and then it's romance city. Fuck this book.

If you ever wanted the graphic novel version of a Decemberists song, here's Emily Carroll's Through The Woods. It's another gorgeously illustrated comic, but boy is it twee. It's painfully twee and precious. Too precious for my taste.

With The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis, it's one of those things where I'm totally in agreement with the author, but I didn't care for the execution. Not the political stuff, but the aesthetics themselves. The author doesn't often use the form of the comic book beyond illustrations for his points. Even on a panel by panel basic, compositions are flat or completely lacking in depth. Nothing about the comic book form of this book is compelling. The only reason why this exists as a comic book is because thick tomes of financial irregularities are complex, daunting, and difficult. A ruthless reductionism is required for the form of the comic book, increasing its accessibility at the cost of decreasing its fidelity to necessary complexity. Still, I found the reasonable approach to this to be quite convincing. Liberalism certainly isn't perfect but it's a fucking utopia compared to the bullshit rapaciousness of the right.

Onto the novels, then.

Leviathan Wakes I've already written on.

Absolution Gap was a terrific conclusion to the main storyline of Reynolds's Revelation Space world. I found myself liking this one even better than the other two. Part of the charm, I think, was being able to watch an author progress, improve, refine. This novel (his fourth published, I believe?) was much more confidant and competent. I also thoroughly enjoyed how slow the plotting is. Reynolds always takes his time to move the pieces across the board, and while this hindered him in the previous novel, it worked to his advantage here, specifically in the way that he used different time periods. A lot of reviewers on Goodreads (lol) were disappointed by what they perceived to be a "deus ex machina" at the end, that the resolution to the Inhibitors was rushed or even handled off stage by an entity not previously introduced. I'm not entirely convinced by this criticism as I no longer believe that a "deus ex machina" is intrinsically a bad thing, nor do I believe that the resolution to the Inhibitors was the primary focus of the trilogy. It seems to me painfully obvious that Reynolds was interested more in thematics than whiz bang pew pew space battles. The trilogy appeared to be about a cast of characters who had made bad decisions in the past and were now trying to cope, either by finding forgiveness or redemption. The clues are in the titles. Near the end of the novel, I found myself almost sad that I would never spend more time with these indelible characters and their journey. While the Inhibitor plotline was intriguing, the true success of the novel was convincing me to care about their emotional and spiritual development. This is why I wasn't disappointed by the ending. The characters' emotional journey had come to an end, so why did I need another book detailing what comes after?

I did not love The Forever War. I didn't hate it either. I'd always meant to read it Hugo and Nebula award winning novel due to its thematic concerns and political nature. The novel was written in response to the Vietnam War, a topic that I find endlessly fascinating and I wasn't disappointed by that aspect of this. The clever conceit in Haldeman's novel is one of time dilation; the protagonist goes off to fight a war in the distant part of the galaxy, and by the time he comes home, over 100 years or so has passed on Earth. The idea I liked the most was the allegory that Vietnam vets returned to a hostile USA, one frighteningly dissimilar to the one they left. However, the execution in this novel left a sour taste in my mouth. In Haldeman's future, governments have collapsed, currency has collapsed, and the food industry has collapsed, leaving a one world government that uses calories as the only currency. The sheer unpleasantness of this culture is enough to convince the protagonist to re-enlist, thus completing the analogy's arc; this is clever, but not everything else is.

This dystopic world also features the head-scratching scheme that due to overpopulation, recommended homosexuality becomes the norm. Of course, this idea is presented to the audience and the protagonist through a flamboyant man wearing makeup (we're told his sexuality and his performance aren't related, but we're left to conclude that a world of homos means the feminizing of masculinity). In other boneheaded decisions, the protagonist lets the audience know that he's okay with women being gay, but not men. On top of this crypto-homophobia, the parlance of this lifestyle (for fuck's sake) refers to gay sex as "homosex" or "homolife." Haldeman's novel then reaffirms the fallacious idea that queerness is chosen, is a lifestyle, is something to be picked up or discarded based on convenience. In Haldeman's analogy (the future world : US after the Vietnam War), this homolife is a direct response to the rise of marginalized peoples and subsequent ideologies such as feminism or Black Power. Haldeman imagines a terrible unattractive future war to be result of minoritarian movements. It's gross and makes the novel pretty unlikeable. This puts the reader in the tough position of trying to read the novel as if it came out recently, not 40 years ago. Obviously, since the novel's release, culture and society in the West has drastically changed. What struck readers as liberal in the 70s becomes gross and retrograde in 2015.

However, like I said, I didn't hate the novel. The time dilation stuff was well done and gave the novel an emotional core, something often missing from clever "hard" science fiction like it. The Forever War still has astute things to say about the military's increased role in society, how war propels and structures a society and economy. Some of the gender politics of Haldeman's novel didn't even strike me as gross; he has men and women fighting together, sleeping together, bathing together. It's all very blasé, which is nice. It makes a striking change from other older science fiction. I'm glad I read it, but I don't think I'd read it again. I managed to finally read this because on my vacation, I picked up a super garish edition with a super 70's cover I couldn't resist:

Ubik was a great read, as Philip K Dick always is. I haven't read too many of his (copious amounts of) novels (I read VALIS a long time ago and A Scanner Darkly at some point, among a couple others) but I have read a bunch of his short stories ("Second Variety" represents, to me, a masterclass in short fiction; it's pure perfection). I picked up Ubik for no specific reason other than I wanted to read a Dick novel and I wasn't disappointed. Like most Dick stories, it's weird, it's crazy, and it's off kilter, both in subject and in execution. I'm always worried that Dick isn't able to sustain a novel's length, but this one contravened my expectations. Not only does Dick introduce plot elements near the beginning that pay off later, but he introduces thematic elements too. It's all very efficient and well done. The major flaw in this novel is a long sequence (about 30 pages) in which the protagonist feels the decay of accelerated time while he crawls to a room. It's way too long and way too abstract. Perhaps this is more my taste, but those dream sequences or sequences with little concrete meaning always annoy me. Still, I quite liked Ubik. Nothing is as it seems in his novels, but part of the charm is that his characters are often rather mild about realizing it. Very quickly, the protagonist realizes that his world isn't real and that he's the dead one and he's pretty calm about it. There's something very charming about that placidity while still retaining agency. Dick's stories, whether novel or short, are always a fun time.

I borrowed The Martian from work and read it over the course of a Friday afternoon. That I was able to read the entire thing in one sitting is in of itself a compliment. It's certainly readable and Weir's command of pace is masterful. However, as I suspected when I began reading it, the protagonist's voice annoyed the fuck out of me. It's all the same "sarcastic smartass" shit that pervades genre fiction, as if we can't have a protagonist without snark. I find it all very bland and very homogeneous. Luckily, as the novel progresses, Weir introduces more characters. The cast in NASA, working to get the protagonist home, also have similar voices (of course they do) but at least their interactions liven things up. When the protagonist communicates with NASA, it's livened up as well. Throughout the novel, I kept having to reread bits to properly imagine where things were and what they looked like. While Weir might be good with pace, his descriptive skills are severely lacking. The oxygenator's size is never detailed, leaving me without anything to imagine. When Watney flips the capsized rover and its trailer using ropes, I never understood how because Weir is unable to describe it in sufficient detail. This just makes me eager to see the film, as I think The Martian will be better as a visual story, rather than a novel. It does not surprise me in the slightest that mainstream genre fans have fully embraced this. Why not? It's as juvenile as genre fans tend to be. I'll go see the movie of this (hopefully a return to goodness for Ridley Scott) but I won't expect much!

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