Reviews

The Dark ForestThe Dark Forest by Liu Cixin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Dark Forest picks up where the Three-Body Problem left off. It tells the story of humanity preparing for an alien invasion that will occur hundreds of years in the future. Technology is locked into stagnation by the clever intervention of hyperintelligent AI the size of atomic particles, referred to as sophons, which have been deployed to interfere with particle physics experiments to create erroneous results. This technological block is supposed to keep humanity from progressing in the field of materials science. Can humanity rise to face this seemingly impossible task in time to stop the coming invasion?

Even though the book tries to present itself with a dark aura of catastrophe and impending doom in the face of a conflict with a vast technological difference it still manages to come off as naively optimistic. The idea that humanity could manage to muster even the slightest unified effort to face a threat that will not be real for four hundred years I find ultimately ridiculous.

Faced with this threat an (almost) unified human council called the Planetary Defense Council organizes what they call the Wallfacer project. They give 4 individuals unlimited and unquestioned access to resources to make plans in their own minds where the alien surveillance cannot instantly be aware of them. It is an original idea and plays out like a philosophical chess game as each of the Wallfacers develop their public and private plans and the alien intelligence and the co-opted human Wallbreakers move to counter them. This is easily the best part of the book though it would have been far more interesting (and effective) if the characters that were involved were more human and less robotic. The first three individuals chosen as Wallfacers are known political leaders and the third, the main character Luo Ji is a underachieving intellectual everyman whose qualification for the project is that he briefly studied cosmic sociology. Each Wallfacer develops their own stance in trying to face down the coming destruction, each plan is used (somewhat clumsily) to showcase different possible philosophical reactions.

As the book progresses we take a cryogenic time leap with our main characters as they rush forward in time to enact their plans to face the invasion. It is interesting to see how humanity has changed in the intervening years and it is refreshing to see that the pessimism of the earlier era has been done away with and the reassuring size and might of the earth space navy is exciting to hear about leading to an epic showdown with the alien vanguard, easily the second best part of the novel.

I appreciated the interweaving of natural imagery and passages of travel out into the wilderness with the harsh metal of the giant future-cities and space fleets that dominate the narrative. But the subplot where Luo Ji imagines a girlfriend while writing a novel and then asks his security guard to find a real girl like her and then subsequently marries her and has her used against him to motivate him to actually do something other than engage in dissolute hedonism was creepy, unnecessary and downright demeaning to female characters everywhere.

The final twist of the novel is a fascinating plan executed on foreshadowing given in the first few pages of the book and using almost nothing from the intervening five hundred pages. This conclusion is intellectually titillating but narratively unfulfilling, though it does set up a reversal and a massive widening of scope possible in the third book. It presents a sinister interpretation of the Fermi paradox that will be interesting to see play out in book three.

As with The Three-Body Problem I find myself reading the book and being fascinated by the thought experiments and the ideas that are being explored while at the same time being bored by the story and characters and confused by the emotions and motivations that are expressed. The idea that the elite professional and intellectual thinkers of the world would find the assured destruction of humanity in 400 years more intellectually and emotionally crippling that the knowledge of their own personal death in 30-40 years shows an interesting collectivist mindset alien to me. I am struggling to decide how much of that is from the divergence in shared cultural perspective and how much of it is just poor storytelling. Either way, this book is interesting and original but I can’t recommend it highly due to systemic problems with the characters and narrative style.

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The Aeronaut's Windlass (The Cinder Spires, #1)The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a steampunk flavored fantasy adventure novel set in a post-apocalyptic setting. Humans live in ancient constructed habitats referred to as Spires. Cities built out of implausibly strong material that the inhabitants have no way to replicate that tower into the sky and who communicate, trade and battle with each-other using airships powered by “aetheric” currents and magic crystals. The novel attempts to capture the gritty post-apocalyptic feel of population pressure and dangerous environment alongside epic three-dimensional naval battles and fast-paced swashbuckling action. But if fails to reconcile these pressures and ends up with a sprawling cast of viewpoint characters who split the focus of the fast paced action and a light bantering tone and description-light style that detracts from the weight of danger the setting feels like it should have.

Jim Butcher is most well-known for the Dresden Files urban fantasy novels where his sarcastic and hard-bitten gumshoe wizard gets entangled in high-powered magic showdowns with a variety of magical beings. I have read and enjoyed a few of them and I definitely respect Butcher’s ability to weave a variety of references into his genre mashup framework. I recognize that some of the flaws that I see in the Aeronaut’s Windlass are present with Dresden it works better because of the character viewpoint focus on Dresden and the genres he is working with are tighter. Combining noir detective story, modern setting and fantasy leads to a tighter paced novel with a more unified perspective and less need to explain background to the reader. The combination of swashbuckling adventure tale and a post-apocalyptic setting with a fantasy framework leads to a much more sprawling story that lacks the focus to tighten the story and highlights the lack of depth in the characters.

The biggest problem I had with this novel was the characters. They were wooden archetypes and worse than that almost all of the dialog and character interaction could be predicted by guessing “what is the most cheeky thing to say or do in this situation” and then repeat from the other actors in the scene back and forth until you get tired of it. Everyone was making smart comments and striving for wit in a brash and irresponsible way. It didn’t matter if it was the bratty heir to a high house, the shy awkward girl, or the honorable but disgraced airship captain. It was in your face levity all the time. The villains were comically bad or just doing their duty. There just isn’t much nuance and glaringly obvious mysteries are the norm. The one exception to the characters all feeling the same were the mages, who are unironically and unabashedly insane, but in a childish “what are insane people like” sort of way. It made them convenient deus ex machina machines to showcase their powers but unreliable to actually be applied as part of a plan to deal with any situation.

The plot of the novel is a bit of a mess, I’m guessing here but I think the overarching plot may be intended as a kind of move-countermove representation of a larger game between two (or more) actors plotting large schemes with superhuman foresight selecting and positioning pawns in the right place to conveniently thwart each other’s plans. This sounds like it could be an interesting structure or idea, but the capricious nature of the external hand and the lack of knowledge of the pawns involved makes it narratively frustrating. The story leads to an impressive plot cascade where each move is answered and the full force of the enemy plans is never fully realized because the bigger action has already been blocked by something the characters have done. As such it feels like there is never any danger and the reaction to the circumstance seems obvious though the characters do somehow manage to muddle it up to make the situation worse than if they hadn’t split up or if they had any capacity for long term tactical thinking.

I would like to say that the worldbuilding is nice: it does not rely on exposition and we aren’t treated to long passages about the histories of the different Spires or why the setting is the way it is. The hints throughout the story that suggest things about the world are well placed. I am intrigued by the suggestions that metal is corroded by contact with air unless sheathed in copper and am very interested to see what the world looks like on the surface which we never see in this story.

The other things I enjoyed about this novel is the portrayal of the sentient cats the live in the underbelly of the Spires. The interactions with the cats are done in a way that is both plausible, entertaining and humorous, I was particularly fond of the viewpoint character who was a cat who keeps one of the other viewpoint characters as a pet. The other thing that was done quite well and I wanted more of was the airship battles. It is obvious that Butcher spent a lot of time thinking about the mechanics of how aeronatical tactics would work, the consequences of the technologies he had invented and the application of a third dimension to standard naval ship-to-ship combat. These action scenes were well paced and thrilling, but they were few and far between.

I am a little conflicted overall about this novel. I enjoyed parts of it but there were significant flaws in the execution that really disappointed me. I keep going back and forth: but I think in the end it intrigued me enough that I will probably try to pick up the next book when it comes out. However I have a hard time recommending it based on the first book alone.

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Reviews

Lock In (Lock In, #1)Lock In by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lock In is a near-future crime story set in a future America. The setting is defined by Haden’s disease a flu-like disease epidemic that causes some of its sufferers to experience what they call “lock in” leaving their minds perfectly healthy but unable to move. In reaction to this symptom technology has been developed to allow people who suffer these symptoms to be able to interact with the world. Neural interfaces are developed that allows the user to connect directly to a virtual internet-like space called the Agora and to perceptually inhabit android bodies (called Threeps after everyone’s favorite annoying droid C-3PO from Star Wars) or other humans who have also been implanted with a neural interface. The story revolves around a locked in rich-kid joining the FBI in the midst of rising tensions as Federal funding for supporting victims of this disease is being withdrawn and follows a sequence of crimes that are related to violence against these digitally assisted humans.

I’ve read several of Scalzi’s other novels (Redshirts and Android’s Dream) so I was familiar with his style and I was not disappointed. His writing is clever and concise with a refreshing tone of wit throughout. This novel was a little bit more serious than the other novels I had read but still maintained an optimistic note of techno-optimism throughout. The worldbuilding is well done on the large and small scale, it is obvious that a lot of thought went into thinking about the disease symptoms and technological consequences. The narrative is involved with the technical and political ramifications but does not devolve into heavy-handed exposition. The world felt natural through the eyes of the characters who were themselves fun and enjoyable people to spend some time with.

The discussion of the partisan political debate as government considers decreasing funding that previously went to Haden’s research and healthcare for the victims is in the background of the novel with characters reacting in understandable personally motivated ways. I find it unlikely in the current political climate that the imagined bi-partisan effort could have unified behind spending the billions of dollars necessary to support the technology development and special treatment of the victims in the first place. And I also find it highly unlikely that if such technology as the neural network were available that it would be possible to restrict it only to victims of Haden’s. It is also strange to me that the use of Integrators is allowed, it seems to me the ethics of having a brain network implanted in your mind expressly for the purpose of allowing a locked-in individual to inhabit your body would be the subject of a heated debate. Most importantly the technology is handled with respect. The presentation of neural net coding and the security flaws, obsolescence and software development process described were refreshingly believable from a technical standpoint. I basically squealed with joy at the plausible description of the exploitation of a security flaw and the description of how it was accomplished and the resultant deployment of a security patch.

It is to the author’s credit that I didn’t realize until reading the discussion about it, but the main character, Chris Shane’s gender is never mentioned throughout the book. As expected I just kind of assumed that he was a white male, but that is mostly because I am a white male, I know Scalzi is a white male and I listened to the audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton who is also a white male. There is another version of the audiobook narrated by Amber Benson for this reason. Looking back on the novel it makes sense that since Chis doesn’t inhabit his own body for most of his life that he doesn’t associate strongly with gender.

The plot is that of an exciting action-thriller with clever twists and turns and it holds together until the end when the motivations and execution of the overarching plot turn on a comically implausible super-villain economics. Other than that it was a refreshing quick and exciting read. It manages to accomplish two things very well. It provides a framework to explore concepts of self and identity while giving us a diverse cast of characters and a fun and engaging plot that manages to stay lighthearted and endearing throughout.

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The Hero of Ages (Mistborn, #3)The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Hero of Ages is the conclusion to the first Mistborn trilogy, neatly wrapping up all the elements of the world introduced in the past two books and tying everything together with a neat and tidy bow. This is an example of Sanderson’s ability to take all the little world-building details of his work and tying everything together with almost obsessive consistency. There are no loose plot threads, everything comes together in the conclusion and elements introduced along the way that you didn’t even realize were mysteries are revealed. This attention to detail and care for consistency and conclusion make this novel stand out despite its other flaws.

*Spoilers Final Empire and Well of Ascension*

After the conclusion of the second book, Eland has been left in charge of the largest part of the remains of the misnamed Final Empire with Vin at his side and the world coming to an end around them as the manifestation of deific power called Ruin was released from its prison in the Well of Ascension. Can they unite humanity in the face of the dangers of the world and will Vin be able to fulfill the role of the Hero of Ages as foretold by the pre-Emipre religion?

The book reflects on what religious truth means and explores both the struggle between faith and logic and the way religious beliefs can quickly diverge from truth when shaped by individual perceptions. Sanderson presents religious fanaticism as an obstacle that keeps people who share the world with a deific being intent on destroying everything from working together to save the world. We are shown elements of radical Survivor-ism worshiping Kelsier and dragging the world to Ruin in one city and elements of what is left of the Lord Ruler’s organized church struggling to preserve the status quo which also poses a threat to the forces trying to fight Ruin directly to save the world. It is also interesting to see the take on the prophetically ordained savior, as the words of the past are filtered through falsehood by the passage of time and the twisting influence of Ruin. I am always wary of the prophecy trope but I think that it was applied with sufficient subtlety in this case.

I appreciated the way that the human antagonists were humanized. We are given glimpses into the mind of the Lord Ruler that almost redeem the way he oppressed the people and polluted the world. And Yoman is an excellent addition as a foil for Eland with his faith in the Lord Ruler motivating his resistance. However the conclusion is also hampered by the true villain being an elemental force of god-power whose sole goal is encapsulated in his name: Ruin is as stereotypical evil destructive force with no nuance and sympathy, which makes him an uninspiring antagonist.

The craft of writing is not Sanderson’s best here, the text is rendered in clear and usually invisible standard American english, but there are a few times that jarring use of modern colloquialism or word choice stood out for me as harmful to the tone of the setting. But overall I enjoy the clean and workmanlike translation of the world into simple standard language though the dialog is occasionally awkward and unrealistic, particularly when working with group scenes.

Overall the characterization has improved, you get a good sense of the different characters insecurities and their progression to dealing with changing circumstances. The characters each have their journeys. Eland has grown so much, and Vin has managed to transition out of her angsty teenage phase, but they still feel a little lackluster. Of particular positive note in this story are Sazed, Spook, and TenSoon’s character progressions, they all carry their parts of the story very well.

Ultimately this book does an excellent job of concluding all the threads in the series and providing an epic showdown of humanity in the face of apocalypse. But it still manages to not live up to the first book. All of the characters are shown with heavy doubts, which weigh them down as they face their all-powerful foe, but they lack the will and charisma that Kelsier had while he stared certain death in the face, laughed and carried on his a plan to survive anyway. It is understandable that Kelsier is worshipped in this world, but it is sad that his direct followers spend most of their time wallowing in self-doubt and following the plans of those that came before them to try to fix the world. They are interesting characters, and it is to their credit that they keep fighting even in the face of their doubts, but it just lacks the spark of will that Kelsier carried.

It was sad to say goodbye to this world on such a final note, but that sorrow is much alleviated by the existence of Alloy of Law and the continuation of the Mistborn world in the second era novels that follow after it which are excellent in their own right and benefit immensely from being grounded in the lore established in this trilogy.

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MaddAddam (MaddAddam, #3)MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oryx and Crake, the first book in the Maddaddam Trilogy, isolated it’s protagonist Jimmy with his experiences, guilt, regrets and memories. The Year of the Flood also isolated it’s protagonists with their wounds and consequences. MaddAddam brings them all together and they need each other to survive. This novel is about relationships and healing. About synthesis bringing disparate elements together in the face of external threat to meet shared goals. Jimmy alone is sick and weak and unable to take care of himself, he needs help from others to survive. Toby is strong and capable but she still needs others to lean on to pull herself out of depression and inaction. Ren and Amanda need others around them to hold up to the pressures of the world and put themselves back together after their traumatic experiences. And most of all the genetically engineered and naive Crakers need some of the knowledge and interpretation of the apocalypse that destroyed humanity to survive.

Even now after the apocalypse in the ashes of society humanity has survived. Not just the God’s Gardeners, MaddAddamites, Jimmy and the Crakers. Some of the worst of humanity have survived are criminals convicted of horrible crimes and forced to participate in the televised death-sport called Painball where they were encouraged to live in savagery and violence for the entertainment of others. Evil still exists and so in the Garden of Eden Crake created by killing the vast majority of the world the period of childhood for the Crakers is ended, bringing pain and suffering and confusion to their world. Can they encompass the changes in mindset to allow them to live in this world? Can they conceptualize evil and how will they react to it?

In the earlier books a numb acceptance of the debauchery of the world suffuses most of the world before the flood. People exist merely to survive amidst the corporate greed, hedonistic excess and rampant consumerism of the corporate controlled world with little to no eye on morality. There are no consequences before the flood for rapists, murderers, abusers and child molesters. Those that try to stand up to the weight of the direction of the world are beaten down and ridiculed, forced to segregate themselves and try to live unaffected by the world around them, but that isn’t tenable and everyone is tainted by the excess of the world. Zeb, Toby, Ren, Amanda. None of them are unaffected by the world around them. They are changed and broken by it but they take action to rise above.

MaddAddam also gives us more backstory about the world before the “waterless flood”, we learn more about Adam One and Zeb. The way everything is tied together with Zeb’s story being told to Toby as they grow an intimate relationship and her relaying parts of that story to the Crakers who integrate it into their nascent mythology is intricate and heartfelt. The petrobaptist megachurch/corporation is amusingly conceived if hyperbolic. Zeb and his comparison to Adam One is interesting and the parallels they go through in their development from beginning to end. The depiction of humanity at its most base, with Painball punishment, greedy religious leaders serving corporate interests and perverse sexual abuse enabled by technology is wearing. The parts of the old world that we are shown it is easy to see the desire to wipe it clean. The chance to make it right.

And Toby is given that chance through the Crakers as they come to her to continue the storytelling tradition that Jimmy established. Through this tradition we are given a glimpse into the power of storytelling as Toby realizes the effects that she is having on the innocent Crakers. She re-frames the story of their creation and the destruction of humanity to try to help them understand while also sheltering them from ideas that she thinks could corrupt them. She adds stories about Zeb to their mythology and uses the stories as a way to explain things the Crakers can’t conceptualize on their own. She gives them the gift of written language to help them remember the stories of the past.

I was a little conflicted by the coincidence that everyone that survived the epidemic was related to Jimmy’s past life. It made the story tightly woven and delightfully self-referential at times. But the implausibility shrank the scope of the world and weakened the impact of the disaster. If all these people survived just because they at one point dated Jimmy then it seems probable that large numbers of people who haven’t dated Jimmy have also survived and just not made it to the tiny geographic bounds explored in the novel.

In reading the other reviews on Goodreads for MaddAddam I found that many of them fell into two camps: those that worship Atwood unquestioningly and gave the book 5 stars with little thought to the why (frequently mentioning her as a pioneer of feminist literature) and others who also praised her for her feminism but criticized this book as a disappointment because it showed Toby, Ren and Amanda in weaker positions, Toby particularly is criticized as fawning over Zeb like a besotted schoolgirl. But these criticisms and praise seem to me to miss the central point of the story and the skill that Atwood has displayed in weaving characters and story together about so much more than just women being equal to men.

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The Well of Ascension (Mistborn, #2)The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

*Spoilers Mistborn: the Final Empire*

In this second book of the Mistborn trilogy Kelsier’s crew of thieves and con-men have to figure out how to deal with success after deposing their totalitarian god-king. Now they have to rule in his place without his god-like powers or the stability granted by a thousand years of legitimacy. The empire is gone, fractured overnight into a collection of warring kingdoms and several of the most powerful warlords set out to conquer Luthadel, the capital city where Kelsier’s crew have set up their own attempt at government.

The tight pacing and plan-focused narrative drive of the first novel is replaced by a more reactionary plot as the characters adapt to roles in the fledgling government. The novel suffers some as the characters become less archetypal and more confused in their roles. It works from a plot perspective, and the characters need to be unsure of themselves as they try to adapt from being revolutionaries to ruling. But the transitions character arcs mean that we are stuck in transition with some awkwardly presented characterization as they try to change to their new situation.

The siege of Luthadel as the neighboring kings come to claim the wealth of the empire and compete for the legitimacy of holding the old capital city. This siege is a central point of the plot but it hangs over the story without urgency and the effects are rarely felt as the characters work on resolving internal conflicts. The same lack of urgency plagues the mystery presented by evidence that a shape-shifting Kandra has infiltrated the group. The effort to address either of these issues is sporadic and drawn out with long gaps between attempts to deal with these issues as other character points become more pressing. Both conflicts are played as plot points and feel artificially paced to resolve at the end of the story and are drawn out in time to allow the other events to occur. Instead of the characters having a clear goal that they are working towards with a plan which is challenged the plot hinges around characters trying to meet the demands of their situation from one state of mind and needing to move to a state of mind where they can take actions to change the situation.

That said. The mysteries that are revealed as the plot unfolds are very interesting and the book manages to transition the arc of the whole trilogy from the setting establishing work of the Final Empire to the events of Hero of Ages, moving to a completely different phase of the world with impressive escalation of urgency and scope. I really enjoyed Vin’s interactions with the Kandra OreSeur as she takes over his contract and works with him. And Sazed is solid in this story as he holds the group together with his conviction and faith in the individual members of the crew and the goal that they are trying to accomplish. His knowledge of religions and the exploration into the background of the Lord Ruler and the ancient religion of Terris are some of the best parts of the book tying into the mystery and depth of the setting in unexpected and satisfying ways.

One of the themes that comes up frequently in Sanderson’s books is the reflection on what it means to be a leader and how to handle the responsibility of ruling. This is often a secondary theme to the explorations about the process of deification and the conversation is sometimes a little confused by his mixing of the two. Deification and the qualities needed to rule rightly are not always granted to the same people in his body of work: we are definitely shown gods who do not have the qualities that make a good ruler and we are shown simple men who learn how to rule at least with a modicum of wisdom, but those same simple men are frequently rewarded in the text by the gift of godlike powers as a consequence which can cheapen the qualities that made them good rulers or lead them to make decisions that prove them to be not ready to rule at that level.

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I didn’t understand comic books for the longest time. They weren’t present in my childhood. I never went down to the local comic store or followed new issues. I don’t even know that I was ever given comics that I can recall. Sure I was aware of the genre but as with many things I didn’t experience as a child (Power-Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Elvis) I thought of them as childish, artless expressions of simple ideas that must not be worth engaging with simply because they weren’t part of my world. Around the time that I went to college I started to think more deeply about art and story and in the process came to realize that if I wanted people to set aside their prejudices about genres and media that I enjoyed I should make an effort to explore and understand the value of media that I thought of as ‘beneath me’. So I did some research on what works were considered the best works in comics and came up with Watchmen by Alan Moore and the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman. I got my hands on them and read them. In short order I was blown away. Those works caused me to rethink my position on comics entirely. Thankfully my distrust of the value of power-rangers and ninja turtles was not similarly affected by the experience.

Watchmen was a brutally adult take on the super-hero concept. Wrapped in layers of depth in storytelling, steeped in awareness of genre tropes and the realities of humanity and the ethos of the cold war it masterfully told a story like nothing I had experienced before. The short chapter-sized issue chunks of story were tightly wound with personal arcs interwoven with text notes that laid groundwork for the past of the world and a whole parallel story of a boy sitting in a city street reading a comic that seems to be completely unrelated until everything is pulled together at the end. It was amazing. The characters felt real, the struggles were harsh, and the art was used to tell this story in a way that other media would struggle with. If you have seen the movie based on this graphic novel it fails to capture the depth of the impact by losing the Black Freighter mini story and the interstitial in-world notes between chapters which couldn’t be incorporated due to length as well as by losing the humanity of the characters by ignoring the fact that none of the characters other than Doctor Manhattan have any sort of superpowers and choosing to show the characters as hyper-competent fighters able to take super-human abuse which detracts from how frail they are as people.

Sandman was my introduction to Neil Gaiman, and to the DC comics universe, both of which I thank it for completely. It is a fantastically mythic journey through the world of Dream. It starts out presenting itself as a serial collection of horror comics with the immortal personification of Dream as the connection linking the stories together but as it comes together it becomes a timeless tale of humanity through myth and story. The first volume of stories collected in Sandman Vol 1: Fables & Nocturnes bring in other DC heroes like Constantine and Martian Manhunter as well as Cain and Abel who were hosts of pulp era DC Horror variety comics, but as the story evolves it leaves the DC universe and involves itself in much deeper mythologies. In full attendance are gods and myths from all around the world, presented side by side in wonderfully imaginative, disturbing and human stories. We have ancient deities, DC comic heros, Mark Twain, Shakespeare and G.K. Chesterton all entering stories involving Dream and the rest of his Endless family of personified concepts. It is expansive and mythic in scope encompassing a wide variety of experiences. I was completely hooked on comics as a genre and Neil Gaiman as a fantasist in one fell swoop.

After these experiences I sat in the metaphoric room of my mind feeling my perception of the world fall apart around me. The form was definitely valid as art and a means of storytelling. I would later go on to perform the same feat of prejudice smashing with superhero comics, anime, manga, tabletop roleplaying games and did similar analysis of horror which I still fail to see the value in and rap which I find quite amazing as a form, but have had a much more difficult time of finding examples that I could enjoy due to either content or personal taste.  

Since my initial foray into comics I have read a variety of other comics of varying degrees of quality. There are always examples of a genre done poorly that can be confused with the quality of the genre or form that it is presented in by those outside the genre. I would like to explain some of the ways that I think comic content has value. What it does well can be described with the trite cliche that “a picture is worth a thousand words” even if you may not appreciate the comic book aesthetic, but there is a wide variety of art styles available to the genre though the need to draw so many pictures to tell a story will always lend to a more simple and “cartoonish” style. But the ability to use character posture and expressions combined with the background, lighting and color scheme to portray meaning and emotion even without any text is powerful. When combined skillfully with dialog and narrative description it can become an impressive synthesis. Giving a very flexible and inexpensive framework to present imaginative scenarios that would be costly, inefficient, or impossible to present in other media.  

The same value proposition that makes it cheaper to produce than a film and easier to consume than a novel allows for rapid iteration and consumption of ideas. Though it does also lend itself to formula. It combines the power of exploring new ideas of a short story with the ability to string shorter stories together into longer arcs that can be followed throughout. Comics experiment a lot, the storytelling style has changed a lot from the early days of the golden age of comics just as popular fiction has changed since the days of pulp. There certainly are awful comics that don’t leverage their strengths or childish stories meant to drive sales to people who have less desire for quality or consistency in their consumption but there are also awful and childish novels and movies or whatever your favorite genre of storytelling is.   

One last point that I would like to make about the genre is the distinction between comics and graphic novels. Comics are a serial format consisting of issues of generally 20-40 page each issue telling a single story, frequently these individual issues have come to be part of larger stories told in sequence progressing in larger collections of 5-12 issues analogous to a single novel in a series which could then be part of a larger continuing arc of connected stories. Graphic novel was a term specifically referring to a longer whole work intended to be self-contained and not serialized, but it has come to also refer to the collected volumes published containing a single storyline or part of a storyline from a serially released comic as well.

Comics are a valuable genre and there are many different kinds of stories being told in the form. Don’t let prejudice or a narrow experience of a small part of the medium turn you off. There is definitely worthy art to be found in the comic form.

Reviews

The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam, #2)The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Year of the Flood is the second book in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam post-apocalyptic trilogy. Set parallel to the events of the first book Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood gives us a different cast of characters and perspectives on the events leading up to the ‘Waterless Flood’ that wipes out most of humanity. Where Oryx and Crake gives a masculine viewpoint of power and agency, showing us the lives of two boys growing up in the Corporately controlled compounds where the wealthy, employed, scientifically and financially useful people of this pre-apocalypse dystopian society retreat, this book shows us the entwined lives of two women caught in the anarchic world of the overpopulated, under policed and dangerous world of the “pleeblands” outside the protected compounds.

Oryx and Crake showed us a world where humanity has been all but destroyed and a new breed of engineered beings have been given room to flourish. It is a tightly woven masterpiece that takes different storylines and weaves them together to the inevitable ending that we saw from the very beginning. Scenes from the main character Jimmy’s life after the apocalypse as he watches over the genetically engineered Crakers are interwoven with his childhood and life before the end of the world where he meets the boy who will take on the name Crake. Jimmy’s relationships with Crake (and Oryx) are slowly revealed alongside the mythologies that the Crakers have been creating around them. We get to watch as the hopelessness and danger of the old world is revealed to us, the horrible human excesses of greed and lust build at the same time as the danger and immediate needs of Jimmy in the future.

Oryx and Crake tells us the story of the apocalypse. The Year of the Flood uses that story as the basis to get us invested in the lives of survivors who are not directly related to the cause of the ‘Flood’ as we are given a similarly masterful interweaving of characters and timelines that builds on each other and the knowledge we have from the first book to take us deeper into how the apocalypse happens.

The second book took me longer to get into than Oryx and Crake, the hook of the mystery “how did this disaster happen” had already been explained and I was able to predict from the past narrative structure that I would have to wait till the very end of the book to get the answer to “what happens after the last scene of book one”. But I think the larger problem was that I had an easier time associating with the more familiar viewpoint of Jimmy than with the female protagonists of book two. This was a problem with myself and once I was able to acknowledge it I was able to more firmly immerse myself in the story. I was hooked throughout by Atwood’s excellent writing, her ability to craft beautiful prose is a wonder to watch. But after the initial struggle to get into the story what kept my interest was the different perspectives: the pleebland slum life vs the wealthy corps compounds from book one, the environmentalist cult compared to the technocracy and the female perspective compared to the male.

In both books the characters are passive observers to the world gone to hell and to the clinical madness and intensity of Crake and the fiery anger of Zeb and the calm collected preparations of Adam One. Jimmy was used but always had options open to him. But Tobey and Ren, the main viewpoints of the Year of the Flood are dragged around by forces outside their control as they try to maintain a level of safety and identity. The viewpoints are whole and vibrant, motivated by past fears and present worries, broken people trying to make the best of the world they are in while being trapped in their own cycles of action and inaction.

There is, as in the first book a strong current of sexual abuse running through the story. In the first book Jimmy and Crake watch porn and fantasize about one of the victimized children, Jimmy casually uses women for sex and then discards them by refusing them emotional engagement. Oryx herself is almost entirely created from Jimmy and Crake’s fantasies to serve them. In the Year of the Flood sexual violence, rape and threat of death force Tobey to join the Gardener’s, and is implicit in Ren’s work as a exotic dancer. This more refined level of sexual threat and danger is then washed away by the flood and the surviving women face the prospect of navigating a more brutal world where physically stronger men hunt them for entertainment.

Notable amount of detail and energy in this book goes into the doctrines and teachings of the environmentalist cult that Tobey and Ren find themselves involved in. The God’s Gardeners are a strange collection of transcendental thought, buddhist and christian theology and postmodern environmentalism. From the way they are treated in the story I am not sure if they are supposed to be respected or ridiculed. But they are certainly interesting.

It might be easy to discount this novel as a weaker entry than Oryx and Crake with its more passive actors, the lack of mystery and involvement in the actions that caused the apocalypse. To discount it for these things however would be to miss the power it has in showing the underside of this world. We see other perspectives that make us rethink things we have already seen: we are shown Jimmy’s misuse of women from the perspective of several of his girlfriends, we are shown a more respectful take on Amanda’s art and the God’s Gardeners than Jimmy’s narrow-minded dismissal. The marginalized voices once drowned in the noise of power and money can be heard after the old structures of the world are washed away.

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Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Set in a world dominated by ash-falls from volcanic eruptions Mistborn: the Final Empire takes place a thousand years after the evil emperor established his oppressive dictatorial regime. In this heavy-handed feudal society a band of thieves and con-men come together and arrange a heist to steal the treasury of the immortal Lord Ruler and take down the empire.

Staged as heist story the premise is delightful by itself and could be entertaining on its own with solid execution, a suitable plan and entertaining characters, which this book has. But Mistborn doesn’t content itself to leave the story there; it goes farther, wrapping mysteries of world, religion and cosmology around the clever magic mechanics, con-artistry, political manipulations, and clever sleight-of-hand heist planning. The execution of the plan sets off a cascade of events that leads to an escalating sense of urgency and raised stakes that builds throughout the novel culminating in a carefully balanced explosion of success and failure and satisfyingly inevitable plot-turns.

This novel shows Sanderson growing in his ability to develop characters. The characters are larger than life, with extreme manifestations of loyalty, courage and ego, but they are personally motivated in ways that the characters in Elantris were not. Kelsier is one of my favorite Sanderson characters, motivated by past trauma and proceeding to action with his particular mix of suicidally ambitious planning, determination and a rock hard core of anger. Vin’s character progression is grounded by her change in situation and while the transition is probably too easy we want to believe that she can overcome her deep-seated distrust of neglect and betrayal because she is made of heroic stuff. Her scars are never ignored throughout, nor are Kelsier’s, they motivate tension with others and the world around them that they react and respond to with varying levels of heroic success and failure. They are not the deepest or most realistic characters, but they are heroic, grounded in their personal stories and motivated to action.

Sanderson is not a flowery writer. I enjoy the works of a masterful prose-crafter from time to time, but I generally prefer an unobtrusive style that gets out of the way. In this book Sanderson does that well: the writing is simple; the language is clear. It doesn’t dazzle, but it certainly doesn’t get in the way.

What this novel does particularly well is set up an imaginative and detailed world with deeply thought out magic with ecological, sociological, political and religious consequences and excellently pacing the introduction to the world and to the magic system. Everything hangs together and in the end the history of the world, the character motivation and action, the mechanics of the magic system and the cosmology all come together for a very satisfying conclusion.

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The Heart Goes LastThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Heart Goes Last is a dystopian science fiction novel set after the financial system has crashed and left the whole of the east coast of the United States in a deep economic depression. The main characters Charmine and Stan were average middle Americans with decent lives that seemed to be going somewhere before the collapse. Now they are living in their car and trying to make ends meet with one bartending job between them. They are vulnerable and adrift, so it is no surprise that they seek any way to gain a semblance of order. When offered they take an offer from a company called Positron, a pilot facility for a proposed re-structuring of the prison system: a closed city and prison complex where the inhabitants spend half their times in nice middle class suburban life and half their time as inmates in the prison, sharing home and cell with other individuals turn in and out on an alternating schedule.

The premise of the proposed corrective system that works this way is ridiculous, but the framework serves to criticize the misaligned incentives and power dynamic between corporations, government and individuals in need of assistance. In this structure everyone is presumed to be guilty and freedom is sacrificed in the name of ‘safety’. And as the story progresses the experiment falls into all the corruption and problems that you would expect. It serves its purpose and I feel like it is answered sufficiently by the text. It thematically ties to the rest of the story and amplifies the disaffected personal lives of the main characters, but otherwise the action could have taken place without the necessity of this setup.

Something I thought the novel did particularly well is showing us a marriage from both sides. It is one of the better fictional representations I have seen of a marriage as a collaboration of two individuals with different needs and goals that do not line up completely. In this case it is a broken marriage, but aren’t all marriages in some form or another.

After the somewhat slow setup of the world and the initial situation the novel makes a sudden descent into a rapidly unfurling sequence of surreal psychological thriller. The initial setup collapses into a bed of infidelity, betrayal, intrigue and blackmail as the structure of capitalism and the prison start devouring their respective populations. Biotechnology and neurotechnology are introduced, and identity becomes a central point of question as the plot deepens. Margaret Atwood is as always excellent at weaving a complex web of different narratives and voices together with characters that feel real in their vibrant brokenness and tying everything together around a philosophical exploration of difficult questions.

In some ways the conclusion leaves these questions unanswered, it asks the reader to make their own choice about the nobility or despicability of the characters actions, desires and intentions at the end. Are we culpable for our actions if we are coerced or overcome with passion? Is our love valuable if it is routine or without passion? Where in a relationship (between lovers, between employer and employee, between citizen and government) is manipulation and force okay? Is marriage a prison? Where is the line between give and take?

There are no heroes in this story. Most of the characters end up doing despicable things because of their circumstances, some to manipulate others and some because they are themselves being manipulated. The novel is brutal in its depiction, and tore at my heart in its portrayal of brokenness. It does not shy away from depicting broken sex and is woven throughout with adult themes. It is a surreal and dark comedy that cuts to close to home to laugh at. Even dressed up as it is with gay Elviss, knitted blue teddy-bears and over-the-top corporate greed.

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