Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review: Junction True

Junction True Junction True by Ray Fawkes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I received a free e-galley of this book from Netgalley.

I had no expectations going into "Junction True." I knew it was a comic, and I assumed it was sci-fi since I'd requested the galley, but it had been so long since I'd read the description that I no longer remembered anything about it.

So at least I wasn't disappointed. This is a fairly solid, middle-of-the-pack story about body modification and power. The main character, a woman named Teralyn, is telling the first several issues of the story to what appears to be her lover. She's telling the story of her largest, most significant body modification.

In this world, mods are common (in certain circles, called Neumods) but fairly dangerous. They're also generally not mechanical; they're organic, like aphid tears you can install in your tear ducts to cry psychedelic tears, or tapeworms you can eat to make yourself skinny, or small creatures you can put under your skin to make colorful patterns. Of course, being insects and parasites and bacteria and viruses, these things can do a lot of damage. Teralyn meets Dirk at a club and he instantly falls in love with her. She instantly sees how she can use him; she tells him she only wants a puppet, and he agrees to be that puppet. Together, they decide to undertake a dangerous, horrifying mod, one that has been done on few people because it's illegal: they will essentially install junctions into their bodies that will make Dirk's digestion dependent on Teralyn. He can't process nutrients except as she feeds them through their junction. If she takes drugs and connects to him, he will get high whether he wants to or not.

Dirk's journalist friend Naoko doesn't think this is a good idea. (Neither do I.) She documents the stories of people whose Neumods have gone horribly wrong, and we see those interviews throughout the story. Some believe the mods ruined their lives, others think that their deformities are just one of many possible outcomes of Neumods - they made an informed decision going in, and they'd make it again. But Dirk agrees to this true junction (so named because the junctions are true to one another; no other link can be formed with them) after knowing Teralyn only a little more than a week, and Naoko is concerned.

She's right to be. Teralyn has never exactly hidden her crazy from Dirk, but she insists that they only refer to themselves as "I" or "we," never "you," and only "Teralyn," not Dirk. Only Teralyn exists. It may not even be a week before she runs off, leaving him to starve.

At this point, Teralyn stops narrating her story, saying she doesn't know or care what happened to him. She assumes he's dead. But then, he and Naoko enter. Dirk is hooked up to a machine, his junction torn out, and asks to speak to Teralyn alone while a video records them. He tells her he only wants to be a part of her again, and then kills himself. His friends are not so kind - they forcibly remove her junction and connect her to Dirk's machine.

We see that the true narrator is Naoko; this is perhaps a book, or video-chronicle, of the story she is compiling. She feels guilt for what she did to Teralyn and spends the rest of her life caring for the now-invalid woman.

The story is haunting and dark. The dynamic between Teralyn and Dirk falls just short of disturbing because Dirk, to me, doesn't feel hopelessly in love, or like he wants to be controlled, or like he actually knows what he wants at all; he feels stupid. We don't get much depth from him and could do with more. I'm not a fan of 'love at first sight' or Romeo & Juliet stories, both of which this story works with, because they feel shallow. That's a good word to describe my general feelings toward the book: shallow. It wants to say a lot about power, sex, relationships, autonomy, but it doesn't have much to say about them, and it lays it all out on the page. The characters aren't substantial enough to make up for the the brief plot, either, so it's left feeling lacking.

The art is, at times, beautiful. It reminds me of certain issues of The Sandman, with its angular faces, blue-washed watercolors and populated backgrounds. But it's also visually dark, and while there's a good amount of detail, it gets lost in the darkness. There's a grimy feel to it, which is certainly intentional since this is a cyberpunk-y world, but it doesn't appeal to me very much.

A quick, solid read that certainly wasn't bad, but wasn't excellent.

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Review: Only Ever Yours

Only Ever Yours Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book at the suggestion of my friend Caroline, and with some hesitation because of its YA categorization. Young adult novels are not a disqualifier from my reading list, but I do tend to scrutinize them a little more prior to reading them. This was absolutely worth the risk. There are stretches where it's heavy on the YA feeling, but in the end it commits to the darkness within the story and the characters in a way that's more typical of classical dystopian literature than any YA novel I've read in the past 15 years.

A brief summary of the premise reads like a YA version of "The Handmaid's Tale" mixed with a morality tale about social media: In the future, some sort of ecological disaster has happened, the oceans have risen and separated the world into geographically and economically distinct 'zones', and female babies are no longer born naturally, but manufactured. They come off the production line with features like Perfect Green eyes, Ebony #2 hair, Flawless Pink skin on body template #607. The number of girls produced each year equals the number of men born that year in that zone, multiplied by three. This is because there are three roles a woman can fill: companion (the equivalent of wife), chastity (future teacher to young girls), and concubine (this one should be obvious). Until the age of 16, all girls are raised in a School where they learn all the things that women should learn to fill these roles, which, in this world, is mainly just how to be prettier, skinnier, and better than everyone else. They have no contact with the outside world (and, indeed, the novel never leaves the School, one of the many devices used to create a feeling of panic with no chance for escape), but are rated by the men of the zone based on weekly pictures, which determines their school rank and essentially their entire life.

I won't bother with a summary of the plot, because the standout of this novel is not plot but character. The main character, frieda (women's names and titles aren't capitalized here), has never been low in the ranks, but never been #1, either. That spot, from age 4 to 15, has gone to her best friend, isabel. But at the start of their final year, isabel suddenly withdraws from frieda and loses all interest in her ranking and physical appearance. frieda, unmoored from her emotional, psychological rock, slowly begins a slide into insanity. This is where the novel excels, wholeheartedly. frieda begins to crack under the constant pressure to be perfectly beautiful, her constant failure to do so, and the competing demands of what perfect entails (we're talking 'blonde or brunette?' here, not 'pretty or true to yourself'). It's a gut-wrenching, painful train wreck as we watch frieda try to navigate a social field she's never had to before, because she had one friend and that was enough. One of the understated messages of the book is the need for true human companionship; it's not just isabel's honesty or decentness or kindness that frieda desperately needs, but simply her presence, her interest in frieda. The presence of someone she can trust. When everyone treats you as an object, obstacle, or tool to leverage themselves, you have no context for 'self' beyond that, and frieda is not strong enough to create one from scratch. But their trust is broken, frieda can't bring herself to truly trust isabel again. There is a point where it seems like frieda might get the typical YA happy (or at least bittersweet) ending - she might land the hottest guy (who's nice, and into her as a person!) - but the novel grimly marches past that to the logical conclusion of frieda's personality and instability and what is allowed for her in this society. There are obvious comparisons to "The Handmaid's Tale" in terms of worldbuilding, but the most apt comparison for me in terms of how this novel felt was "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, or maybe "Woman at the Edge of Time" by Marge Piercy. Hell, throw in some "1984" for that ending. It's a tragedy in the classical sense, and an entertaining (if horrifying) spectacle to read.

There are some sizeable flaws in the story. Most notably, this world holds up to absolutely zero scrutiny. There are only 40 people born in a year in an entire Zone, and 30 of those are women with absolutely no skills, not even an idea of what 'math' is? And this place is somehow functional? No animals exist? It's not particularly solid storytelling in that respect.

The novel walks a fine line between 'satire or dystopia' and 'caricature,' and occasionally crosses that line. All of their high-tech sci-fi devices have names like ePad and MyFace - cutesy concatenations that seem like snide jokes, like what a middle-aged adult thinks things that teenagers like are called. Every Zone on the planet apparently functions in the same way and has the same culture (with strikingly Western values). Some of the world-building problems are a result of this effect, where something is so obviously exaggerated for effect that it couldn't possibly actually work. But this isn't always a problem. I don't think there's a single thing in this story that isn't just an exaggeration of what women experience in the real world on a regular basis. This world is clearly intended to be the real, gendered (Western) world with the contrast and saturation turned up to maximum.

I personally think there is a huge missed opportunity with this story in the relationship between frieda and isabel. The book is billed as a story of a deteriorating friendship between two girls; the title is "Only Ever Yours," referring to the girls' belonging to each other, not to these men. I was expecting something along the lines of Black Swan, maybe, but where the girls begin as true friends. But the novel begins at the end of their friendship, and while there are some moments of near-reconciliation, their relationship is not the story at all. A bigger focus on these two girls as friends, trying to be functional together but failing somehow, would've added a lot to the story (especially toward the middle, where it feels a bit repetitive).

Highly recommend this. I'm rating it 4 stars because of how powerfully the characters are written, but I suspect that after a few months I'll want to bump it down to 3 because it's not particularly complex or groundbreaking.

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Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: Descender, Vol. 1: Tin Stars

Descender, Vol. 1: Tin Stars Descender, Vol. 1: Tin Stars by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I received a free e-galley copy of this book from NetGalley.

When I initially saw "Descender" I was excited, but a little bit nervous. I read Lemire's "Trillium" over the summer, and while it was strikingly illustrated, I thought the story was incredibly lacking. My fears are alleviated, though! This comic seems much more plot-heavy, and the plot is more compelling.

Tim-21 is a robot. A very advanced robot that looks like a human boy, and is made to be a companion to human children as they grow. Tim-21 was created by Dr. Quon, the leading scientist in robotics. Almost as soon as the Tim series was created, though, giant robots larger than planets themselves appear next to each of the nine settled planets and begin to wreak havoc. Just as suddenly they disappeared. Ten years later, the UGC (the central governing body of the settled planets) tracks down Dr. Quon, because they think that the Tim series is somehow related to the appearance of the giant destructors.

Tim-21 wakes up after what he thinks is one night of 'sleep', only to find it's been ten years. After he was shut down for the night, a terrible virus killed all the human inhabitants of the mining colony where his 'family' lived. He and his dog-like pet robot are the only active beings on the moon - but not for long! The UGC is beaten there by a bunch of scrappers, who realize Tim-21's value and try to capture him, almost destroying him in the process. Tim-21 is saved by a driller robot (who yells "DRILLER IS KILLER. DRILL IS REAL KILLER" as he kills the scrappers) just in time for the UGC to come down and take them all off-planet.

And they're almost immediately captured by anti-UGC people and taken to a planet with a strong pro-robot faction. Dr. Quon is tortured and reveals that he didn't develop the technology behind Tim-21 on his own: his teacher found a super-advanced robot in an archaeological dig and Quon stole the credit, developing all his robots based on technology they don't even know the source of. So the theory that the Tim-series is somehow connected to the giant, planet-destroying robots is starting to look pretty good.

The story here feels like a wonderful space opera - lots of exciting reveals, strange worlds and weird aliens, mysterious technology. It's always about what's happening next, so at some points the story feels superficial, but there are also moments where it rises above, where it delves deeper and we see not just the comic's story but Tim-21's story. Either way, I'm always along for the ride.

Easily the best part of the comic is the artwork. It's full of beautifully vivid watercolor illustrations. The artist knows exactly when to use broad, saturated strokes, and when to focus on delicate detail. I was blown away by how stunning the art was, how easily I was taken into the world and how beautiful that world was.

Very much looking forward to the next volume of Descender!

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Review: Low, Vol. 2: Before the Dawn Burns Us

Low, Vol. 2: Before the Dawn Burns Us Low, Vol. 2: Before the Dawn Burns Us by Rick Remender
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I received a free e-galley copy of this book from Image Comics.

I have gushed about Low, Volume 1 previously, and here I am to gush about Volume 2. If the artwork was stunning last time, it's decadently astonishing this time. The colors (which tend toward blue/orange, like Volume 1, but add in some lovely red/green/yellow and purple/green locales as well) are rich and layered. The oppositional color schemes work without looking cheesy because while the blues and oranges are rich and deep and pure, they're also nuanced; the blue has streaks of green, the orange streaks of red, both have streaks of yellow intermixed. I also still love the connection between color and location. In such a visually busy comic (that, as I mentioned last time, tends to skimp on backgrounds), the colors are a clear and beautiful way to establish location, so that detailed backgrounds for each panel aren't necessary.

One of the many things I love about the world created here - a world where everyone is forced underwater due to the toxic radiation of the sun, where humans have lived under the ocean for centuries - is that it echoes a lot of concerns in the solarpunk movement. Solarpunk is generally about fiction that has an optimistic view of the world (like the one Remender tries to convey here) and focuses on ecologically and socially sustainable futures. In terms of the literal world here, where most of the underwater colonies are in disrepair and societal collapse, it's not quite solarpunk, but the importance of sustainability is definitely a strong theme here, and I like that a lot.

My problem with Volume 1 re: the nakedness of all the ladies and the not-nakedness of all the men is somewhat rectified here. There are fewer ladies and fewer men, so fewer chances for disparity. Though it still succeeds in showing us the boobs of almost every female character to grace its pages.

I wish the story had flowed a little bit better here. Coming from the first volume, everything is mostly fine (except for the first sequence with Della, where it's initially unclear who the characters are or where it's taking place), but the switch from Della's story to her mother's and back across three issues makes this volume on its own feel choppy or uneven, as if it's not sure what story to tell at first. By the end, though, things feel fine; the focus is unequivocally back on mom and her journey to the surface.

Della's story arc also seemed brief - I wanted to savor her anger, her conflict in this society, but it resolves so quickly that I'm not even sure where she is (though this might be because it's been a while since I read Volume 1). I could read a whole volume, at least, about her life in this place, maybe about her youth. That goes for all the characters and all the locales, too. I just want so much more about this world, because it's so rich and invites so many story opportunities. Leaving a reader wanting more is definitely not a bad thing, though. Just a thought if this story wraps up soon - we're all eager to read more stories in this world!

There are still some trite-ness issues in the writing for the optimistic characters. Even when Stel becomes briefly disillusioned with her optimism, she seems one-dimensional - just in the opposite direction than usual. It makes the characters seem immature, like they can only hold one very literal interpretation of the world in their heads at once. And again, I have problems with the idea that their thoughts can literally change the world around them, because it's a strange belief for a person to hold. And it's executed pretty poorly. The characters say superficial things, they aren't allowed nuance in their understanding. It's single-mindedness, and it's frustrating.

Still - this is a beautifully illustrated comic, an intriguing and expansive world, and an interesting story to follow. I would definitely recommend this to anyone trying to get into comics who isn't into superheroes or is into beauty. Review was initially 3 stars, and then I realized that despite the technical issues I simply love this story so much I had to bump it to 4.

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Review: Speak

Speak Speak by Louisa Hall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Speak" by Louisa Hall immediately calls to mind "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell. Like "Cloud Atlas," "Speak" is a novel told in parts by 6 different narrators throughout time. The earliest narrator here lives in the 1600s and the latest lives around 2050. Most of the narrators are involved in the creation of artificial intelligence - or at least an advanced chat-bot program - and the relationships between speech and true communication and intelligence are a major concern of the novel.

Our narrators are:
Eva, a discarded, highly-advanced robot with an exceptional conversational program based on the early chat-bot program called MARY. All of the other characters' stories are framed as texts that have been input into her program, part of her index that she references when communicating.

Mary, a young girl from the 1600s who is traveling from England to America with her parents, her dog, and her future husband. We read excerpts from her journal, written in the style of her favorite adventure writer.

Alan Turing, concerned over the health of his best friend but excited about the project they're working on: the early version of a computer. He writes to his best friend's mother throughout the course of their lives.

Karl Dettman, the computer scientist circa the 60s who programmed MARY, but refuses to give it the capacity for long-term memory despite his wife's insistence. We read his letter-like journal entries, addressed to his wife.

Ruth Dettman, wife of Karl Dettman, who studies Mary's journal and reads it to MARY. Like Karl, she is Jewish and from Germany, and narrowly avoided the Holocaust. We don't see her perspective until halfway through the book - it is much later in her life, and she is looking back on her time with Karl via letters (seemingly unsent) to him.

Stephen Chinn, creator of the babybots: realistic baby dolls equipped with his own special version of MARY and given to young girls, who become unhealthily attached to the dolls. He is in jail for his actions and writing a memoir, circa 2050.

Gaby and MARY2, a chat transcript (submitted as evidence in Chinn's trial) between one of the girls who was devastated by the confiscation of her babybot and subsequently afflicted with some sort of psychosomatic disease, and the chat-bot version of the program that ran the babybots' conversations.

Eva, who it appears is Gaby's former babybot, ties the novel together. She and the other confiscated babybots (so removed because they were deemed too humanlike and a danger to children's health) are being shipped off to warehouses to die, and she looks back on the voices programmed into her and the rest of the dolls, searching for words to describe her life, to communicate with someone - perhaps the other dolls, but since they all clamor at each other, all of them speaking and none listening, it seems like she's searching for someone to listen, as well. She says, many times, that she speaks but does not understand the words. This is something many characters, Karl Dettman, Stephen Chinn, and even the chat-bots themselves included, repeat about the various MARY/chat-bot incarnations: they can speak, but not understand. Dettman's refusal to program MARY with memory is ostensibly not because he worries she will eventually understand (though Ruth believes that he does fear it), but because the people who speak to her - including his wife - will be tricked, will think the bots understand. This fear is made manifest with the babybots; the young children who own them refer to themselves as parents, the babybots as their best friends.

The novel's greatest success is in hitting home how little (or how much) we can understand about other humans through their words and how perhaps, then, the way people in their daily lives define humanity or intelligence or communication is not by whether the speaker knows what they're saying, but how the words are perceived or understood. The problem with chat-bots and babybots becomes not when they don't mean what they say, but when they cannot provide meaning to what the humans say to them - when they can't truly understand.

Mary's best friend is a dog, and she claims he understands her the way no one else can, but he can't speak. Are we to say that emotional connection isn't real, that there isn't communication happening there? She is initially cold to her future husband but once she has reached a point where she's willing to listen to what he says from a generous, understanding perspective (because he has been saying kind things to her throughout and she continually rejects him out of hand), she begins to accept and love him. It's the meaning she takes from the words that matters, not the words he says, that makes her see him as a person.

Stephen Chinn creates an algorithm for dating based on conversational patterns that always works - until everyone uses it, and then it's not the words that matter, but the structure they take. He makes people into chat-bots, teaches them to fill in whatever response seems most appropriate without regard to the content. And his success in love comes when he breaks that mold, learns Spanish to talk to his cleaning lady, and tells her stories about himself. He wants her to understand him, so he breaks the language barrier and makes sure the content matters. Not all the stories are true, some are fanciful, but she understands the meaning behind them, and sees him as a person. And he creates the babybots for his daughter, who has grown up rather isolated and speaks her own idiosyncratic language, so she can have someone who understands her.

Karl and Ruth Dettman are the source of the most poignant emotional scenes of the novel. I cried several times at the emotional weight and complexity and beauty of their loss. Karl writes to Ruth that he knows he is losing her, that he wants her to open up to him, that he wishes he could remember their past the way she does, that he understands her needs but is failing to communicate it. He thinks she spends so much time with MARY and wants the program to have memory because he doesn't remember, and she wants the computer to fill that need. Ruth, in her old age, writes to him that she misses him, but never felt like he was listening to what she was saying. And then, in Ruth's final letter, she tells him she is still inputting text to Eva, and she inputs what, she says, she remembers him saying to her when he thought she was asleep, word-for-word. These are Karl's letters, the ones we read in the first half of the book. At this point, we are forced to ask: are those Karl's words? Is Ruth remembering, 20-30 years later, exactly what he said? Or is she telling herself-Eva-us what she wanted him to say, or what she thinks he would have said, if he had spoken? In the end, we can't know. But it is what Ruth thinks he said, or what she wanted him to have said, and what matters is that (whether he spoke or not) she understood him as trying to reach out, to understand, to communicate, but failing to speak. Their relationship's dissolution was not, as 'Karl's' letters indicate he thought, because he failed to remember their traumatic history or understand Ruth's feelings, but because he failed to speak to her about it. This casts Ruth's relationship with MARY in a different light - she spoke with MARY not because she hoped MARY (unlike Karl) would remember, but because MARY (unlike Karl) spoke to her. Here, the speech act itself is what's necessary for communication, not the intention behind it - Ruth understands Karl though he doesn't speak to her, but she needs him to try to speak to her at all, like MARY does. (Ruth doesn't seem to send her letters to Karl in the end; instead, having written out all 'his' letters, she returns home, finally at peace with her life, so perhaps she is merely writing to communicate to herself why she has been unhappy.)

Gaby and MARY2 provide the sterling example of why computers and chat-bots ultimately, occasionally, may fail to truly communicate, and it's when they are on the receptive end of the communication. Gaby sees the ocean for the first time and tells MARY2 in Gaby's only expansive, descriptive block of text. It's a fully sensorial experience, something MARY2 can't understand in a deep, meaningful way, since she has no senses. This brings to mind the classic philosophical thought experiment about Mary and the black and white room: Mary is a scientist who studies color. She knows everything there is to know, factually, about the color red, but has lived all her life in a black-and-white room and has never seen the color red. If Mary finally steps out of the room and sees a red apple, has she learned something new about the color red? It seems in this novel, she has, and that the chat-bots with no sensorial experience cannot truly understand Gaby's moving letter. This leaves open the question, though, of the realm of emotional experience, and of the baby-bots who appear to have sensory receptors. I don't think the novel answers conclusively whether the babybots have understanding, or whether chat-bots can understand emotions. Eva, it appears, searches for words to describe her feelings, and though she falls back on the words of others, those feelings exist.

Even the format of the novel contributes to this theme: each of these are written (or, in Eva's case, spoken) accounts of lives. Mary is constantly unsure who she is writing to, writing for. God? Her dog? But it seems she is writing to understand herself; she chooses her writing style to imitate her favorite adventure novelist, because she wants to see herself as an adventurer on her trip to America. Chinn is writing so the world understands why he did what he did. The Dettmans' letters are attempts to make the other understand, or at least Ruth's attempts. But they are all fictional. They only exist as the reader (or, within the text, as Eva) parses them. All Eva has is the words of others, the words of the people in this novel. If the reader is supposed to read these select words, selected from her entire database, as conveying Eva's feelings, then perhaps Eva does understand. Either way, both Eva and the texts themselves convey to the reader an understanding; the reader finds meaning in the words, the reader creates these (fictional) people to correspond to the words, the reader understands.

The novel has one large narrative flaw: everything is written in first-person retrospective. All the characters are looking back on incidents that have already occurred (and often refer to past events in other characters' tales). This takes a lot of the momentum from the story. I'll admit I was often bored. There is no mystery, no narrative tension. The reader knows or can easily deduce what happens for every character fairly quickly, with one remarkable exception, mentioned above. Most of the stories lack their own exposition-rising action-climax-falling action and are simply flat re-tellings of life events. Hall's prose saves the novel, but this could go from 'pretty good' to 'amazing' with some kind of narrative structure spanning more of the individual stories or a substantial arc tying the stories together. Turing could (and I'd say should) have easily been cut from the novel, as his contributions to the creation of computers are peripheral to the AI discussion, because his story is almost entirely biographical, because all dramatic tension in his story ends in his second or third letter, and because his story contributes little to the themes of the novel. And because three of the threads of this story are about old male computer scientists who are unlucky in love and his, as written, is the least compelling. Gaby's conversations with MARY2 are especially flat, existing just to give more information about the world in 2050, but at least provide an emotional climax that is essential to the novel's thesis on speech.

I feel parts of my argument here are a bit muddled, and welcome any contributions.

And one final opinion: no one should ever be allowed to name a female robot (especially one of the first female robots in whatever world) Eve or Eva or any variation on that again. It's tired. It was tired decades ago.

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Saturday, December 26, 2015

Review: Tank Girl, Vol. 1

Tank Girl, Vol. 1 Tank Girl, Vol. 1 by Jamie Hewlett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tank Girl should have been in my life probably from birth, but somehow I didn't see the movie until about a year ago, and just got around to making my way through the comics. It's a post-apocalypse tale in the style of Mad Max: lots of loosely-connected tales with an 80s punk aesthetic about zooming around the Australian wilderness in a trademark vehicle with few connections to others, giving zero fucks. They could even be in the same universe. Tank Girl, though, is spastic, spontaneous, and thoughtless where Max is deliberate and methodical, always with one eye toward the future. Tank Girl is also much more lighthearted; whether it's a warehouse full of beer, Tank Girl's life, or the whole world at stake, you know that somehow she'll pull through. It makes both the movie and the comics incredibly fun to experience.

Tank Girl, Volume 1 is a collection of the first several runs of Tank Girl, accompanied by commentary from the authors that frame Tank Girl's origins and development. I'm probably in the minority on this, but sometimes I wish all books came with a retrospective letter from the author (or an informed editor) that give some context or history for the work. In this case, the foreward gave me notice of the various inspirations for Tank Girl, told me how the character developed to the point where she got her own story, and discussed the styles of each of the creators, which allowed me to trace various artists' and writers' contributions.

For the most part in Volume 1, each issue was its own, self-contained story. Tank Girl fucks up a rare mission from what I presume is the post-apocalyptic Australian government in the first story, liberates a warehouse where some cronies are stockpiling her favorite brand of beer in another, and (possibly my favorite) teams up with her best friends Jet Girl and Sub Girl for a birthday bash in yet another. We see a lot of Booga, her on-and-off fuckbuddy/boyfriend. One of the most striking stories is one that has little Tank Girl in it at all; she appears at the end, as a mythic figure of liberation. And another (again, maybe my favorite) where her teddy bear is ruined and they have to retrieve another from the store.

The artwork develops throughout, since these are the first several issues, but from start to finish it's a blast. There isn't an inch of wasted space on the page, everything is full of in-your-face bold colors or fantastic world-building detail. I'm a sucker for comics that flesh out their world by paying close attention to their scenery and details - adding in tiny elements that don't just add visual interest but convey something about the world, about the characters. And that's something the artists do here wonderfully.

I also just love Tank Girl. I love her kickass style. I love her foul language. I love the design of Tank Girl, unabashedly female and not here for the male gaze; there were very few moments where I was uncomfortable with the physical portrayal of the female body, which is rare for comics of any era. She's sexual, voraciously and scarily. I love that in some scenes her face reminds me so strikingly of my sister that I do a double-take. I love her combat boots and her stupidly awesome hair.

The world-building and storytelling here is interesting to me, as someone who came from the movie first. In the film, it's clearly a post-apocalyptic scenario. Here, amidst all the chaos of Tank Girl's life, it's hard to tell exactly what is happening. A gang can control the production and release of a brand of beer, but Tank Girl clearly gets orders from someone military. There's still media and government. But I love that things are left unclear; the patchwork nature of the story here, where you get bits and pieces of sometimes clearly contradictory information as-needed for whatever story is happening, is something quintessentially Tank Girl. It's as if we're seeing the world through Tank Girl's eyes, regardless of how the world actually is, she only pays attention to what is relevant at that moment.

I'm eager to read the rest in this set - hopefully, they're all as rewarding and entertaining a read as this.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy, Snow, Bird Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I did it! I finally read something that isn't just science fiction or fantasy! Thanks to my friend Clair for the recommendation!

I'm not sure how I feel about this at all. On one hand, I liked the characters and the prose and the skill with which Oyeyemi can write a relationship and the racialized 1950s take on Snow White. On the other, the story faltered about halfway through, I was never given compelling reasons or resolutions for the way certain relationships and storylines turned out , there was a distinct lack of consistency and unity across the storylines, the whole thing was unsubtle yet muddled about its themes, and I'm very conflicted about Frank.

Plot summary (including spoilers):
The story begins from the perspective of Boy Novak, a girl who has never known her mother, only her abusive father, Frank. She runs away to the idyllic town of Flax Hills and begins life anew doing odd jobs and living at a women's boardinghouse. She makes several friends and goes on lots of dates, and even begins to connect with one of the men she dates. Her two close friends give her two models for the ideal woman's life of the time: Webster marries quickly and happily and settles down into marital bliss, while Mia, a spunky journalist, turns fluffy women's pieces into undercover investigative journalism. Boy is clearly haunted by her past, though; she feels she doesn't know how to properly love. Even as she starts a relationship, she remembers Charlie, the boy she loved at home, and thinks that she can't have someone who truly loves her that way because she doesn't know how to be like that. She finds herself staring into reflective surfaces but actually looking at them. In one alarming incident, her reflection takes on a life of its own.

Eventually, she finds a permanent job at a bookstore and makes friends with the black children who skip school to read in the safe haven of the shelves. She marries her new man, who has a daughter named Snow. Snow is beautiful, with pale skin and dark hair. Everyone adores her, and while she seems older than her age it's not caused by worry, but just a natural strange maturity. Snow's mother, also much adored, is dead, but both of Snow's grandmothers dote on her to a degree that, to Boy who was never loved as a child, seems excessive and spoiling. But Boy loves her just the same. And then Boy's daughter, Bird, is born: Bird is clearly black, and Boy, who is possibly the fairest-skinned of all, has a major conversation with her husband about his background, where it's revealed that he, his dead wife, Snow, and all of Snow's grandparents and family are all light-skinned black people who pass for white.

Snow's grandmothers gently suggest that Bird be sent off with Clara, Snow's dark-skinned aunt who was also sent away in her youth to keep up the family's appearances. Boy refuses. After a while, though, she sees that Snow and Bird (though they get along splendidly) cannot live in the same place without the differences in their treatment doing serious damage to one or both of them. The grandmothers snub Bird and continue to dote on Snow. Everyone in town whispers about Bird but adores Snow. So Boy does send a child to Clara, but she sends Snow. It's partly because of everyone else, but also because she can also see that her resentment of Snow - that she has the love Boy never had and she's taking away Bird's chance for that love - will eventually hurt Snow, as well.

At this point - slightly more than halfway through - the book switches to Bird's perspective. Bird is thirteen; she knows she has a half-sister but has never contacted her. Her father visits Snow a few times a month and occasionally brings back gifts from one girl to the other, but they haven't spoken in more than ten years. She has a close friend named Louis Chen, who she might be in love with and with whom she deals with racist remarks along regular childhood challenges. She's remarkably mature. She decides to contact Snow and the two bond quickly through letters, though there is a brief point of contention. Bird confides in Snow that, sometimes, she doesn't appear in mirrors. Snow responds saying that, if she means it literally, that's a dangerous thing to say - something she knows from personal experience as Snow also is sometimes absent from mirrors. Bird thinks Snow is teasing her, and they drop the subject. Boy, who has been a loving if somewhat distant mother, always willing to do exactly what Bird asks at the drop of a hat, says to be wary of Snow because her sweetness is deceptive. Snow comes to visit for Thanksgiving, causing a huge uproar in the town as everyone wants to see the beautiful young girl who left and has now returned. It seems Bird and Snow get along rather well. Bird is then briefly kidnapped by an old man who takes her to a restaurant, where he tells her he is Frank, Boy's mother. He tells her Boy is evil, among other things. Bird calls Mia, her mother's friend, to get some perspective. (Boy, who hears about it later, kind of agrees with Frank - she thinks she is evil, because she lets bad things happen to people when she could have prevented them.)

After what feels like very little plot happening, the perspective switches back to Boy, who is, predictably, still resentful of Snow. She approaches the girl and tells her that in order for them to ever get along, Snow has to beat her up, like kids did back in New York when Boy grew up. With some prompting, Snow agrees, and then everything is okay. Mia, investigative journalist, contacts Boy and tells her that Mia was the one who let Frank know where Boy lived, and that Mia has been doing some digging to find Boy's mother. And what she's found is that Boy's mother, Frances, was a top research student in a time when women were barely allowed into school, until she was raped, at which point she disappeared. Mia has learned that since her disappearance, Frances has been living as Frank; the loving mother Boy never let herself wish for was the abusive father she lived with. Boy immediately gathers Bird and Snow and Mia and tells them they're going to New York to find Boy's mother. The end.

Now, I feel like several of my problems with the story are pretty clear. I feel like the switch to Bird's perspective and back didn't work. If we'd gotten more time with Bird, if we'd gotten some time with Snow, if it hadn't switched to Bird at all and just stayed from Boy's perspective - any of those would have worked better, in my opinion. I'm not sure why the story focused so much on Bird at all, because the most interesting relationship (and the one we hear the least about) is between Snow and Boy. Is Snow really so perfect that she only has mild feelings about Boy? We don't know.

The ending is abrupt; everything is wrapped up and this family goes on a jolly quest to NYC to find Boy's mother (which will, supposedly, solve all of her issues regarding love and motherhood) in a way that implies all of their issues are essentially worked out, despite the fact that as Boy is gathering them all Bird is emotionally torturing Snow by mimicking her dead mother's singing voice. Boy is still emotionally distant and feels little remorse about Snow; she doesn't seem to have grown or changed since the beginning of the novel, except that now she wants to meet her mother (and any restorative or destructive impact that may have is left off-page). And can we talk about their end goal in New York: finding Boy's mother? Because I'm still not sure how I feel about that. Frances experienced trauma, and that trauma triggered her life as Frank. But prior to the trauma she had an academic history in sexuality, and it seems like she was increasingly masculine throughout her life. It's hard to tell if Frank is a transgender man or if Frances is suffering through trauma, and the novel doesn't seem to address that nuance. It merely validates Boy's blind faith that Frances can be "found" and returned to her by using that as the unifying send-off of the characters.

The prose is beautiful, and the novel has a lot of lovely things to say about the tricky and complicated nature of relationships, love, and motherhood. Boy's fierce but disaffected mothering of Bird shows how someone who doesn't know how to love can find a way to approximate it if they try hard enough, and maybe that's all that matters. But often, the prose was unsubtle, blunt to the point of slapping you in the face with the metaphors and subtext. Bird writes that maybe she doesn't see herself in certain mirrors (like one in her grandmother's house) because those are places Snow occupies. Like, wow. Way to tell us exactly what that previously strange and intriguing phenomenon means in the context of the story, 13-year-old child. Thanks. The novel is slightly more delicate with its treatment of race, though one fairly obvious moment of foreshadowing (Boy's thoughts wandering toward the black children at her bookstore when eating with Snow's family) is essentially described as such later in the novel, when Boy thinks "hmm, could I have foreseen this? Maybe I did, when I thought about those children during that meal." At the same time, though, there's little consistency in any message throughout the novel, no building to a larger meaning. Several scenes seemed to exist only to convey a smaller story with a particular moral, and then had no impact on the larger plot, especially in Bird's section. A generous reading would say that it's because relationships are unique, and even the two people involved can have very different views of the relationship, so one grand message about family/race/love/motherhood/trauma isn't going to work. But it felt to me like Oyeyemi simply didn't weave together these threads well enough to make a patchwork but complete picture of the complicated dynamics at work. Instead, we're left with beautiful, separate patches.

One nitpicky comment - there seem to be a lot of anachronisms in the early portion of the book. Even the tone made it difficult to place when Boy was living; she has the voice of a modern young woman, which I suppose isn't all that different from a woman in the early 1950s, but it felt out of place. Boy's future husband goes jogging regularly - an activity that wasn't common and a name that was not used for that activity until the early 60s and not popularized in America until several years later. The early section of the novel comes across as a kind of achronological "early 1900s America" that takes place in no time but all of them at once (until it needs to take place at specific times, at which point the achronology becomes confusing).

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Review: Barbarella

Barbarella Barbarella by Jean-Claude Forest
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Barbarella is one of my favorite movies. After reading the comic, I realize it's pretty similar in tone and aesthetic to its source material, and lifts heavily from this volume to create its plot. The comic stands well on its own, too. The book takes the form of four or five chapters, each detailing a series of somewhat connected events and generally telling a self-contained story. Its lovely artwork - lots of stylized shots of the alien world, and each chapter using only black and one jewel-tone color - pops right off the page. Jane Fonda is the spitting image of the illustrated Barbarella, which is neat. Like the movie, there's lots of sex, and the abruptness with which it starts and ends is played for laughs (a feeling I get at the beginning and end of each chapter, too). The comic shows us a little more of the world, but the movie definitely uses the most compelling parts of the comic. All in all, it's a pretty, fun classic, and while the characters and stories are rather bare-bones, the artwork and humor make up for it.

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Review: A Planet for Rent

A Planet for Rent A Planet for Rent by Yoss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After the huuuuge disappointment of "A Legend of the Future" - another Cuban SF translation, by the same translator and from the same publishing house, that near unreadable due to both awkward translation and poor formatting choices - I took a risk with "A Planet for Rent." But it paid off - this is easily one of the best pieces of fiction I've read all year.

The book is a compilation of stories - about eight of them, from what I remember - that all take place in the same universe, with an equal number of short interludes that give more information about that universe. It's a world in which Earth has met aliens, and was immediately threatened, colonized, and exploited. Aliens visit Earth, whose only industry is now tourism, but humans rarely leave - the ones who do must do so in the custody of (usually owned by) an alien, or have some wonderfully rare skill or talent. Even in those cases, their memories are usually blocked or wiped if they are allowed to return to Earth. This keeps Earth in perpetual economic deference to the rest of the world; they can produce no technology, nothing that they can sell or trade or use to leverage their way into equality.

Many of the stories are struggles for freedom, attempts to escape the financial, physical, and mental prison humans are now in. These struggles are intensely personal; this is the first piece of literature in a long time that has, in its exploration of the caverns of human emotion, unveiled a sensitive place inside me that I previously hadn't discovered. I cried. I gasped. I was alarmed. It was a viscerally emotional experience at points. I don't want to go into details at this point in the review (though I will write some about each story below, for my own reference), because any description of my own would cheapen the effect of the book itself. Yoss has created a world where death in many senses has little meaning - cloning exists, as do mind back-ups - and instead of writing tragedies where the stakes are life or death, his stories are about people who must make choices between miserable, safe lives or glamorous, short ones; between lives of servitude among family and friends or freedom among the stars; between their own, personal happiness and a slim chance for Earth to gain back some power.

So yes, a lot of the meat of the book is haunting (which is a good thing in itself, since it's done well!), but Yoss does a tremendous job weaving in moments of hope and humor to keep the spirits up. Some of the most horrifying parts simultaneously have a dry, dark humor. Some alien interactions are intentionally hilarious. One story follows a group of humans who play the interstellar equivalent of soccer (and while it's probably the lightest of the stories in terms of subject matter, it still has its wrenching moments).

Yoss does characters so well. His world is not very complex, but incredibly well thought out, and each character feels born into the world, shaped and formed by the forces and systems Yoss has laid out. Even in what I feel is the weakest story, mostly told as a didactic lesson from an older agent of the Planetary Tourism force to a younger one, is elevated by the clear voice of the character (and I must note here that some considerable credit should go to the translator, because character nuances are one of the first things lost in a translation, from previous translated stories I've read - they can easily be dropped entirely or turned into caricature).

I can't say enough good things about this book. I hope that Restless Books' future translated works are on this level, and not like the other one I read. And hopefully we'll soon get some more Yoss!

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Review: Binti

Binti Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first book I've purchased from a real bookstore in quite some time (and I managed to find it in one of my favorite bookstores, called Hole in the Wall Books in Falls Church, VA - which seems to specialize in sci-fi, fantasy, and comics). I've been itching to get my hands on it since it was announced, because I've been following Okorafor's work closely since I read "Who Fears Death?" earlier this year. It's a novella, so it's fairly short and the physical book was slight, but totally worth it. It was released through Tor.com, which publishes many short stories on their website, and has recently started publishing longer short fiction as ebooks and physical books. Tor and Tor.com have a great track record for solid SF/F, and do some of the best work, in my opinion.

Anyway, onto the story. The world feels near-future in some ways - the physicality of Earth is very similar, as are tensions between different groups of humans, and there's a general sense of used-ness to the world - but drastically different in others. Humans have made contact with aliens; there is technology whose uses have been long ago forgotten but seem to be far beyond understanding for anyone alive now; while inter-species tensions exist, the various human factions are not quite the same. Binti is one of the Himba people. Water is scarce where they live, so they bathe and coat themselves in otjize, a special mixture of clay. Binti is the first Himba to be accepted to Oomza Uni, a university for all species in a distant solar system. Her gift for mathematics is important for the family business (making astrolabes - beautiful detail of technology that seem to function as a kind of personalized catch-all tech device, phone and computer and medical analyzer all at once, that only responds to the person it's tuned to) but Binti knows she can do more, so she leaves. (SPOILERS FOLLOW.) On the ship out of the solar system, she begins to make friends - until the ship is attacked by aliens who kill everyone on the ship but Binti, who appears to be saved by her good-luck charm, one of those pieces of forgotten tech. The aliens intend to hijack the ship and ride it to the University, where a stolen body part of their leader is on display. Binti, with the help of her device, negotiates with the aliens and offers to speak peacefully with the University for the return of the body part, realizing that it is essentially a suicide mission for the aliens. It's nice to read a story that could have gone the fighting, violent route but instead resolves peacefully and logically. She also discovers that the clay she wears has healing properties for the aliens and trades some of it for her safety and to create a stronger relationship with them. When they get to Oomza University, she successfully negotiates with the leadership. We get to see a bit of her first days at the University, as well, where she reconciles her alien-ness on the world, her distance from her homeland, and the personal importance of the traditions that variously mark her as outcast and important.

I am absolutely astounded by the level of detail in the world-building. In several of Okorafor's previous works, there are certain elements that have always intrigued me - the lost technology, the sense that some great disaster happened long ago - and Binti takes those elements and bring them into the foreground so they shine on their own. (I suspect that Binti takes place in the same world as Who Fears Death? and Book of Phoenix, but perhaps at a different time.) The world feels lived-in, and every piece of tech or culture or alien species has been fully thought out and you can see subtle (or not-so-subtle) effects of the implications of those details throughout the story. For a short story, it's absolutely gorgeous in its complexity.

The length was good for the story told, but I feel that this could have been full novel - and I want it to be a series in the "fantastical university" tradition, where we follow Binti through her adventures as she learns about the world she's thrust into. The story glosses over the elements that belong to that story (with some very good reasons - (SPOILER) the introductions to other students are brief, but that's because they all die right away, and her arrival at the University is the end of the story), and it feels like perhaps a previous or future incarnation of Binti's story could follow that path.

I appreciated the nuance of Binti's character development and the tension she feels between the importance of her culture and the sense that her culture might hamper her integration into the world she wants to join. The thought of foregoing the clay she wears only happens once (that I recall) toward the end of the story, after she has learned that what marks her as different is useful and she has already been officially accepted as part of the community, when she worries that she will still face personal discrimination. There's a beautiful scene where she washes it off in the shower for one of the first times in her life - the last of the clay she brought with her, the last of her homeland - and re-applies with new otjize she made from clay on the Oomza Uni planet. It's smart symbolism for staying connected to home while accepting a new world, and a wonderfully written scene.

Overall, definitely one of the best stories I've read in a while, and worth the $5 (or $3 for the ebook).

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Review: Y: The Last Man - The Deluxe Edition Book One

Y: The Last Man - The Deluxe Edition Book One Y: The Last Man - The Deluxe Edition Book One by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Brian K. Vaughan is incredibly prolific right now. With Saga being one of the most talked-about comics running, the special edition of Private Eye releasing, a new online-only comic dropping with Marcos Martin, and Y: The Last Man getting a TV adaptation, he's certainly got some buzz. (And that's only the stuff *I'm* familiar with, and I'm only just dipping my toes into the comic world waters.)

So, I read this because Saga was great and because it's a dystopian world where all the men are dead and it's getting an adaptation. Those aren't all necessarily great reasons to read a comic - I prefer to be drawn in by the art, the world-building, the writing - but Vaughan is clearly talented and I like gender-focused dystopias. I wasn't disappointed at all. The characters are well-rounded, the story is complex but clear and easy to follow, and the art is pretty good (though not particularly interesting or compelling). There are moments where the story evokes real emotion, but it often feels kind of flat. I think it's because the story favors action over emotion in general, and that's not necessarily a problem. I do want to continue the series, but it's to see how the various story threads play out, not because I'm invested in the characters.

The first issue begins with all the men on Earth dying, then immediately jumps back in time to maybe an hour before to give us some background on our main story threads. We have Yorick (the soon-to-be titular Last Man) and his monkey, conversing with his girlfriend in Australia. We see Yorick's mom, a Congresswoman, talking to a rather rude and sexist Senator. We see an Israeli soldier, a woman, dealing with some street crime. We see a scientist giving birth to a clone. We see a US secret agent trying (and failing) to protect a woman who has an amulet that cannot be taken from her country or, according to legend, something drastically bad will happen. The amulet is immediately taken from the country by the agent (Agent 355) and all the men die. It's not clear if this is a causal relationship, at least not at this point.

Yorick sets off to find his girlfriend (maybe fiancee? he asked her to marry him but we didn't quite get the answer) and stops by D.C. to see his mom. The White House is under attack by the widows of conservative congressmen who believe they should be allowed to take over their husbands' seats. Agent 355 shows up with the new President (the former Secretary of Agriculture, I think?) who was the first woman in the chain of succession who is still alive. Yorick's mom sends him off with Agent 355 to find the scientist who specializes in cloning, though he still just wants to find his fiancee. The pair is pursued by Amazonians, women who believe that the death of men was a liberation for women, and who want to ensure that this Last Man, their last oppressor, is killed. They're led by an insidious, abusive woman who fits the 'cult leader' stereotype pretty well, and the one tasked with finding Yorick (though she doesn't know it's him 'til later) happens to be his sister, Hero.

Yorick and 355 join up with the scientist (Allison Mann) and her lab is promptly destroyed by the Israeli soldier. Dr. Mann, whose clone-baby died (it was going to be her nephew) and who believes that the death of all men was because of her experiment. They have to travel to California, where Dr. Mann's backup samples are. On the way there, they find a town that is still somehow functioning, while everyone else is still struggling to get electricity and plumbing working. Yorick starts to crush on a young woman in the town - and then she tells him that they're all from the women's prison down the road, and they're so successful because they're used to existing without men. The Amazons show up and Hero kills Yorick's lady, and Yorick nearly kills Hero in return. The Amazons are then taken into custody by the former prisoners, but Hero escapes - and that's where the story leaves off.

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Review: A Thousand Words for Stranger

A Thousand Words for Stranger A Thousand Words for Stranger by Julie E. Czerneda
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was not really what I expected. I expected a space opera in an SF world, I expected a little bit of cheesiness, and I expected a focus on characters over story - and I got all of that. I didn't expect, however, the fantasy elements, the incredible amount of cheesiness, and the excessive explanation of every character's motivations that contribute to one of the most convoluted plotlines I've ever read. I expected to love it, and I just didn't. I did get sucked in, I was invested in the story, cared about the characters, wanted to know how things would end up. But there were very noticeable rough patches that made it hard to get through.

There was a lot about this book that was frustrating. The pacing is first and foremost. So many goddamn things happen, and every moment is treated as if it's Incredibly Important and Crucial, which made the whole thing feel melodramatic and made it hard to tell when something ACTUALLY important was happening. There was a point where I thought the story was almost over - and then realized I was exactly halfway through and still had SO MUCH MORE to get through. There were too many villains, too many unnecessary journeys (why did they even need to stop on that planet where Morgan had a delivery? Nothing narratively important happened there that didn't happen elsewhere, too).

There was also the narrative devices - half the story, all of the "chapters," are first-person from Sira's perspective. The other half is made of "interludes" from an omniscient narrator from various characters' perspectives. I feel like in this case, less would have been more. We know way too much to keep the story interesting, while Sira knows too little. We're supposed to be invested in Sira finding out about her life and history but we already know all of the (very obvious) answers, so it doesn't really work. In general, I feel like we got all kinds of information way too many times; there was no subtlety. We get an explanation of Choosing several times, we get incessant descriptions of how Morgan and Sira feel for each other, we get long descriptions of how particular characters feel about things every time we visit those characters. Everything is overdone.

The relationship between Sira and Jason Morgan was inexplicable and overdramatic. I mean, I guess the eventual plot twist of the story explains why it happened so quickly, but there was no chemistry between them. Talking excessively about how it feels to touch hands or to see each other or to be around each other sounded super forced and not romantic at all - otherwise their relationship would have been right at home in a romance novel, because of the sappiness and artificiality of their interactions. And the rest of the characters were pale, underdeveloped shams.

Despite all that, I did kind of enjoy the plot. And the world-building was pretty good - I liked some of the details of the worlds, like the giant space station that's a mall, and there's at least an attempt at some sort of culture-building as well.

I will attempt to go through the plot, step by step, but I'm probably going to leave out a lot because so much happened.

The novel starts with the perspective of Terk, a non-human whose body seems to be chicken-like. He's a Trade Pact Enforcer, which deals with all off-world crime involving member species of the Trade Pact, and he's following two members of the Clan. Clan members look human, but have extraordinary telepathic ability - while some humans have telepathy, it's much rarer and much less strong than Clan telepathy. The Clan members are attacked; one gets away, the other is severely injured and Terk takes him into custody.

The one who got away is Sira, though she doesn't know it. Blocks have been put on her memories during travel to keep her safe. From what? We don't know yet. The one in custody is a relative of hers, Barac, who was her escort. Sira hears compelling voices in her head telling her to find a ship and get off the planet. She runs into a human, Captain Morgan (lol) who initially refuses to take her on. Barac pays Morgan a visit, as they happen to be friends, and tells him that he's looking for Sira. Sira, meanwhile, gets captured by a slaver named Roraqk and after some disorienting hijinks she escapes.

When Sira approaches Morgan again, he agrees to let her work as temporary crew until they get to another planet. He doesn't tell her what he knows about her - he suggests she goes by Sira, but doesn't tell her it's her own name, and she thinks she's human and he doesn't correct her. So Morgan and Sira leave the planet, but Barac - working begrudgingly with the Trade Pact Enforcers - follows. Oh, and Barac has also contacted Sira's sister, Rael, who is also there. Sira begins to learn how to be a crewperson on a ship, and very suddenly falls in love with Morgan, who gently rejects her advances. This is important, because Barac keeps talking about Choice, which is when female Clan choose their male partner - and apparently, if the female is much stronger than the male, he will die.

So anyone. Sira and Morgan land on a planet where Morgan is delivering technology parts to some local important guy. En route, though, Morgan gets a message from the lead Enforcer telling him to give Sira to said local important guy so the Enforcers/Barac can pick her up. I'm a little fuzzy on why he agrees to do this, since he's clearly very reluctant to give her up and wants to protect her. He get in trouble with some local priests, and Sira can somehow sense his danger, and she goes and rescues him - even after realizing he was going to turn her over. Then they discover that when they touch, Sira can kind of partially enter her head. Sira, who doesn't remember anything about anything, especially that telepathy exists, is very freaked out by this. Morgan kind of explains telepathy to her a little bit. I think this is the point where Rael kind of appears as a ghost and gives them a little more information, but I'm not sure. Morgan also reveals to Sira that he knows her memory has been blocked, and he knew all along that she was telepathic, and also that he was working with her family. But he doesn't tell her she's not human, apparently - I didn't even realize that until she later finds out and throws a fit about it. Anyway, he removes some of the blocks on her memory, so she starts remembering more, but gradually.

Then they go to a giant space mall, I think. Sira plans to leave him behind at some point because she's just a danger to him. Oh, also, they're kind of definitely in love at this point and consider each other family. He realizes she's going to leave and convinces her not to. Instead, they crash with his lobster-like friend at his restaurant for a few days. Then Sira decides to run away and promptly gets caught by Roraqk - that slaver who captured her like 150 pages before. He's discovered who she is and that there's a bounty on her from a bad guy whose name I cannot remember. At this point, I thought I was at the climax of the story - and then realized I was literally only halfway through. Morgan and lobster friend find Roraqk's ship (and Sira) and then Roraqk launches from the space mall station and takes off for the bad guy's planet. The Enforcers and Sira's family follow.

Morgan, Sira, and lobster manage to take over the ship and kill Roraqk - but one of the crew is taken over by the bad guy - who is, like Sira, a Clan member - sets the ship on course to the bad guy's planet, and destroys the control panels. Sira is rapidly getting better at telepathy. She calls on her sister and tells her the bad guy's name, and the sister freaks out because he's Clan and he's supposed to be dead and also very bad. Morgan, Sira, and Lobster decide to take escape pods down to the planet so they don't end up exactly where the bad guy expects. They don't quite land all together - Sira and Morgan are separated from Lobster. Then the bad guy kidnaps Morgan and Sira and Lobster rescue him, but that gets Sira trapped in the process. Then she escapes. Then she gets captured again, and finds out he means to make her Choose him - and if she doesn't, he'll just take her mind over and wipe it with his mind and use her body to make babies, because apparently Sira is the most powerful telepath ever produced by the Clan's selective breeding program.

Morgan teams up with Barac and everyone helps save Sira - and Sira, who was supposed to be in a state of Choosing, has suspended her Choice, which is something no one has ever done. She is not Chooser or Chosen (it doesn't make sense the women that have made their selections are called Chosen but w/e) so she has no Clan rights. She has to go back to the Clan now. So she does, and meets her father, who explains to her that she was the one who wanted her memory blocked, because she WANTED to go off and marry Jason Morgan, because the Clan Choosers were getting too powerful and would never find a suitable match that they wouldn't destroy. Why would it help to pair with humans who are a lot weaker? NO clue. At this point, Morgan has been sent off-planet but he turned right around to go rescue Sira (even though there was no indication she needed rescuing). Anyway, it turns out that the father, who was supposed to be on Sira's side, really just wants the same thing the bad guy wanted: he agrees with the council that if she can't find a match, they'll just wipe her and use her body to breed stronger people.

So Morgan shows up, I think Sira Chooses him, and they leave together. The end.

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Review: The Sandman: Overture

The Sandman: Overture The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I received a free e-galley copy of this book from Edelweiss (though I supplemented it with my local library's hardcover copy to get the full experience).

Gaiman's return to Sandman is a splended, fantastical journey on a cosmic scale, and Williams' art masters the galactic scope and still manages to create powerful, intimate moments. Reading this truly felt like walking through a dream.

The story takes place immediately prior to Dream's capture at the beginning of the first Sandman. An aspect of Dream has died, and all the aspects of him - who also all *are* him - gather to determine what needs to be done. Seeing the various Dreams all talk together was beautiful and playful, despite the serious danger the universe is in. Because something Dream did (or failed to do) in the past has put the entire universe at risk. We hear that a star has gone insane.

Dream goes to see the Fates (though I'm not sure why, since he doesn't take any of their advice, and their comment that 'if we were nice, we'd tell him not to look under the bed' seems to foreshadow Hope being bad for Dream, which is the opposite of what happens). Then, he looks under a bed and meets Hope - a young girl whose father was just killed in front of her. Hope is the worst part of this book, mostly because her raison d'être is painfully obvious: she is there to tug on heartstrings and provide hope. I think it's fairly heavy-handed and unsophisticated for Gaiman, using a small child named "Hope Lost Beautiful Nebula" to represent - you guessed it! - hope in a world that seems to have none. She holds his hand and Dream is ~moved~. It's all a bit groan-worthy and cloyingly saccharine - not to mention that sometimes Hope speaks in pretty standard English and sometimes she speaks in dramatic African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). He's hitting the tropes of 'innocent child sees hope in hopeless world' and 'magical POC' pretty hard here. In general, Hope's character is probably the weakest point in the story. She's obvious and unsubtle in a world that is generally nuanced, and she's grating and trope-y in a story where most of the characters are surprising and deep.

Dream - accompanied by Hope and by the aspect of Dream that rules over cats - is trying to visit the city of stars, so that he can help the star that has gone insane. Prior to his visit, though, he goes to see his dad: Father Time. The art in this section is beautiful art deco/art nouveau style, and Father Time is appropriately unconcerned with his son's dilemma. He is briefly interested when Dream offers to talk to his mother on his father's behalf, but ultimately leaves Dream and the world to their fates (mostly because Dream didn't return the saeculum he borrowed). Only Dream is allowed into the city of stars, and he discovers that the mad star seems to have infected the rest of the stars with its madness, as it now rules over the city. The universe falls into war and chaos and destruction, and Dream is cast into a black hole. But never fear! That was his intention all along - now, he gets to see his mother, Darkness. She


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Review: Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements

Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements by Walidah Imarisha
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Usually, it's pretty easy for me to write thousands of words about terrible books. I don't even want to put the effort in for this one. I desperately wanted to love this; by all rights, I should have loved it. Octavia Butler is my favorite author, and a book of stories inspired by her rooted in modern social justice movements sounds like a great idea, and something I would totally adore! I even love the cover! But most of these stories are written by activists, not writers, and it shows BIG time. There are about 2 stories, plus the essays that finish the collection off, that are readable. A few more have interesting premises but fail in execution. Everything else is full of hackneyed, over-the-top premises, way too many adjectives, unconvincing characters, and generally dreadful prose. I can't believe I even finished it. It was probably an interesting exercise for those involved, but it never should have been published. Don't spend your time reading this.

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Review: Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It's been quite a while since I've read an essay collection the whole way through. Story anthologies tend to be uneven, and that was what I was expecting here, but instead I got a pretty consistent collection - consistently pretty good, never bad but never great. The essays are generally themed on the intersection of pop culture and gender/race issues, with a few detailing the author's background and her relationship with feminism.

My main problem with a large number of the essays is their focus: so many started out on one topic and ended on another. Generally there was an evident connection between the two halves of the essay, but the second half was never tied back to the beginning to make the essay feel cohesive. One started as a discussion of "bad feminism" on a personal level, continued on to briefly talk about several high-powered women and their feminism (or lack thereof), and then ended with a long dissection of "Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg - and then ended, very abruptly, without tying in that initial theme of "bad feminism." Obviously, these parts are connected. Meandering through related points is not a flaw in itself, but the lack of cohesion and repeated failure to eventually connect the initial THEME of the essay to its subject was disappointing. Often, this leads to the essays feeling unfinished.

Related to the above, Gay addresses a lot of tough issues - but rarely does she give them complex enough treatment. I felt like there was often an obvious next step in her argument or discussion and I was surprised it was left off. Perhaps this is because these essays were originally for wider audiences and not necessarily for a feminist essay collection, or because she is having a more a raw, passionate discussion than an academic one. Still, I was disappointed again there.

There were also three essays, right after another, that discussed race and media. I don't have any problems with the point of these essays - that movies (usually written/directed/produced by white people) like to fetishize black pain and slavery and use it to sell tickets, instead of telling any other kind of story about black people - but they were all essentially the same essay. Passages from each one felt re-hashed from others, especially because the movies discussed in-depth in one essay were often referenced more briefly in another. This is not a flaw of the individual essays, but a flaw of collection. They could have been adapted and combined, but one after another they are repetitive.

On the upside, though, there was a lot to enjoy about this. The prose was easy and enjoyable to read. You get a sense for the author's passions and personality in the early autobiographical essay, and her voice comes through consistently throughout. She brings up many tough issues, and usually gives them a pretty decent treatment. The occasional lack of cohesiveness is not a fatal flaw, because it feels like she is sitting there talking to you about things she cares about.

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Review: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I saw the Ghost in the Shell movie a while back, but don't remember much of it because my memory for media is terrible (hence my obsessive book reviewing). What I remember is actually pretty true to the final story arc in this book, and to the general tone of the manga. There were a lot of vivid, easy-to-follow action scenes, and Major Kusanagi is a fun, realized character. It's a cool, cyberpunk world full of cyborgs and robots and neural nets and body-tech integration, which gives it a lot of opportunity for exploring the nature of personhood and humanity. And it tries to make use of that opportunity, but it ultimately fails to say anything interesting or groundbreaking.

The highlights of this book are Marjo Kusanagi and the technology. Kusanagi is fun, but doesn't take any shit. She fights for her country but is willing to bend the rules to do what's right - she's the quintessential action hero with a little more spunk. And the sci-fi tech aspects are loads of fun as well, providing a lot of creative mission opportunities.

Those highlights were dragged down, though, by the incomprehensibility of huge parts of the story. On a basic plot-and-character-development level it's often unclear what is happening and to whom, and this really makes the other characters struggle to be consistent or notable. I generally followed the gist of the plot, but details got lost or muddled frequently. There's a scene where someone tells Kusanagi 'this cyborg is basically the same model you are' - but soon after, the director of the team says 'there are no cyborgs on my team.' Maybe he's lying, maybe I misunderstood the first scene - but it was never ever made clear. Things like that permeated the story and made it hard to get fully into the world.

And all of those opportunities for exploring the nature of personhood and humanity? Squandered, completely. The climax of the story - the last three chapters, I believe - is essentially the plot of the movie, and involves the ghosts/spirits/minds of characters interacting, and attempting to explain the philosophy of mind of the world. But any time the "ghosts" or spirits or souls were mentioned, the entire context was absolute nonsense. Combinations of words that didn't make sense together. When there was some semantic coherence, it was either too brief to provide context for the rest of the rambling or it didn't make logical sense. Shirow obviously ascribes to some sort of dualism - the mind/spirit/ghost is separate from the body - but he also has some kind of complex and nonsensical architecture of the mind (or of the digital mind? not even sure). The edition I read had a host of footnotes in the back and all they revealed to me was that he didn't understand 1) what was interesting about his world, 2) what people might want clarification on, or 3) how to integrate important information into the story. There are paragraphs of footnotes detailing how particular weapons that appear in one scene work, but those aren't questionsI ever wanted answered. Many explain the structure of the government - something that probably should've gotten better treatment in-story, because it is relevant to Kusanagi's actions. But there is no clarification at all of what happens in the final chapter of the book, which is a shame, because that should have been the most interesting and powerful part of the story, but instead reads like gobbledygook to anyone with even a cursory understanding of biology.

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Review: Ancillary Mercy

Ancillary Mercy Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Easily the best in the trilogy. I say that as someone who loved the first, and enjoyed the second but felt it dragged a bit. Ancillary Mercy delivered a tightly-paced, skillfully woven final installment with a satisfying but surprising ending to Breq's tale.

In the previous books, I occasionally felt lost in the number of foreign names and places with strange pronunciations. But despite it being over a year since I finished Ancillary Sword, I was quickly able to re-establish the events of the past two novels and felt on more fully grounded in the world and the cast than ever before. Perhaps that's because after two books I just am more familiar, but I feel like Leckie did a great job of reminding us of the role of each character without over-explaining. A brief character list follows:

Breq, the last remaining ancillary from the ship Justice of Toren
Tisarwat, a woman whose body was taken over by Anaander Mianaai for a while and is now trying to create a new life that integrates the people she used to be
Seivarden, a recovering addict and soldier who is close with Breq and is suffering from several emotional problems
Ship, the AI ship that Breq commands
Station, the AI in charge of Atheok station
Anaander Mianaai, the many-bodied emperor of the Radch who is quite mad at Breq currently
Two new characters are also introduced: a Presger translator and an ancillary representing a long-lost ship, perhaps even older than Breq

In general, the book feels much more focused. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Gardens and much of the Undergarden, Atheok Station is attempting to recover from the damage and one of Breq's concerns is housing for the (lower-class) citizens left homeless by the damage. Leckie, through Breq, always focuses on the personal, the relationship between the individual and the community. In a sprawling, interstellar tale of war and conflict, telling this intimate story of Breq and the people Breq defends is an inspired decision. The story unfolds and resolves in precisely the way it does because of Breq's empathy and caring, even toward people who don't consider Breq a real person. And that's where Leckie excels: creating intentional, empathetic characters with specific personalities and building a story around how those characters would react to a world of power imbalances. The characters, who are flawed in ways that could destroy them but (due to Breq's intervention or the different values of the world of the Radch) also allow them to build themselves stronger. Seivarden is cripplingly emotionally distressed throughout much of the book. Breq and the Medic, instead of blaming or punishing Seivarden, insist on medical rest and emotional care until Seivarden is ready to handle leadership again. Seivarden's weakness, and mental illness in general, is not dealt with as a disqualification for a role or a permanent flaw. It's treated like an illness, and one that needs time and treatment to recover. Seeing mental illness handled this way is wonderful and refreshing and makes me rather jealous, actually. And Breq's focus on the well-being of those she can help is pervasive, story-directing, and the most compelling part of the novel.

The addition of two characters alternately delighted and frustrated me. A Presger translator and a new ancillary are added to the cast. The Presger was delightful (if occasionally cheesy) in her unusual desires and requests. I often found myself laughing out loud, sometimes groaning at the silliness, but almost always enjoying it. I feel the ancillary character fell a little flat - there were clearly attempts at humor there, but they seemed tacked-on and never quite compelling, like the character's presence was needed eventually but there was nothing to do with them in the meantime.

The relationships that Breq forges with other characters are essential to the resolution of the story. The trust that Presger translator has with her, Seivarden's fierce loyalty, Tisarwat's skills, and the complicated reciprocity with which Breq deals with the AI systems all come together to solve Breq's final problem. Some might criticize this as being too convenient - kind of like the opposite of a deus ex machina, everything in the story flows into this perfect resolution. For me, the elegance of the solution and the subtlety with which all the cogs fall into place outweigh any negative feelings. There's never a sense that I know what's going to happen next - but I was always eager to find out what it was. I love this story because it emphasizes that the right choice is to try to understand how other people work, and to show empathy toward them and work with them, instead of raising everyone to arms regardless of their abilities or desires. Solutions through teamwork and creativity and outwitting your opponent, rather than out-fighting them! Yay!

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Review: Arzach

Arzach Arzach by Mœbius
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Arzach is an interesting experiment with the comic book form. There is no dialogue, only images. It works, to a degree, because the stories are short and relatively simple. The lack of dialogue is doubly limiting, because you can't have the complex interactions that are facilitated by conversation, but also because some dialogue is usually necessary to give context to the images; the illustrations themselves are limited by their word-free context. They're beautiful, of course, because it's Moebius and indulging in otherworldly landscapes and eccentric characters is his element. Several of the stories have a bit of a Mad Max feel, as Arzach is a lone, taciturn warrior in the wilderness who sometimes saves the day but mostly keeps to himself. Overall, a very quick 'read' and enjoyable, but not particularly engaging.

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Review: Icaro, Vol. 1

Icaro, Vol. 1 Icaro, Vol. 1 by Mœbius
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This review applies to both Icaro Volume 1 and Volume 2.

I love Moebius's work, but Icaro really disappointed me. There was so little story, and the artwork was not particularly interesting or beautiful. We're supposed to be invested in Icaro's relationship with one of the scientists studying him, but I don't think it comes across at all. And when that relationship becomes the focus of the story I lose all investment in the story, as well. The translation into English is also absolutely awful. Overall, some pretty frames, but generally uninteresting artwork and story.

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Review: Nowhere Men, Vol. 1: Fates Worse Than Death

Nowhere Men, Vol. 1: Fates Worse Than Death Nowhere Men, Vol. 1: Fates Worse Than Death by Eric Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Nowhere Men" surprised me with how good it was, especially since I knew very little about it. It feels like a very smart sci-fi deconstruction of the traditional superhero book - a bunch of people on a space station fall ill with a variety of bizarre effects, effectively giving them superpowers, but the focus is on the technology, culture, and socio-corporate mega-factions that impact the world.

The people on the aforementioned space station all work for Emerson Strange, who in the 70s was part of a group of four men (Dade Ellis, Emerson Strange, Simon Grimshaw, and Thomas Walker) who led a company (and apparently the world) in technological advancement. Their group efforts, which come across as a kind of fusion of the Beatles with early 90s tech start-ups, made science the equivalent of rock and roll. (The authors have said that they were directly inspired by both the Beatles and the story of Apple's origin.) Scientists are profiled in pop magazines, there are groups of punk science enthusiasts roaming the world, and peoples' pop heroes are scientists. One of those four men, Thomas Walker is now missing, considered dead. Dade Ellis is sick, cared for in secret by Strange, and both Strange and Grimshaw are pursuing their own secret projects. Grimshaw might be a little bit evil - he definitely seems like a sociopath.

Given the many threads of the story that follow different groups of people at different time periods, I'm surprised that 1) it was generally clear when and who we were seeing, and 2) there is so much story covered in one volume, and they don't sacrifice setting or character to do it. While I can't remember a single character's name without looking it up, that's just my brain's fault, and I have a very distinct idea of each character's physical characteristics, personality, and relationships. I absolutely adore the fake advertisements and the use of newspaper/magazine article/book excerpt formats to convey both story and world-building elements. So much fun to read, and I can't wait to read more.

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