Category Archives: literature

1491

ebvutoeok4gabapevcysIf you haven’t read Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus yet, you should. Written in 2005, 1491 is a fascinatingly deep survey into turn-of-the-millennium American anthropology. The Americas were more populous, more densely populated, and more technologically advanced than we were ever taught — or so the literature says.

But what makes 1491 particularly important — not just in terms of Mann’s light, easily-readable style (he’ll suck you in and won’t let go) — is the amount of rigor he has put into the work. Take a look at the notes and bibliography: the latter takes up a huge chunk of the back of the book, while the former delves even deeper into a topic that clearly fascinates Mann than the main narrative does.

Moreso, Mann has given all the voices their fair share. While it is clear that he is more persuaded by the more recent literature, as he weaves his tale together he makes sure to give very staunchly critical voices — such as the Smithsonian’s Betty Meggers —  room to breathe. This is a level of rigor Mann never needed to put into what is, at the end of the day, a popular work — and a survey, at that; nothing too in-depth on any specific subject — and it is perhaps why 1491 is so deeply and richly successful.

Anybody who is interested in American anthropology needs to have this book on their shelves. Not only does it present an early-2000s snapshot of the discipline, but it also yields up a legendarium’s worth of tales — not just of the conquistas, but also of the rise of the Aztec and Inca empires, of the wars that rended the Maya poleis. It also gives a much more jaundiced view of the Puritans’ meeting with the Wampanoag, and shows that Mixtec and Zapotec history go deeper than previously believed.

Any time I try doing a worldbuild centered on the Americas, 1491 is my primary source. Can there by any higher honor?

The Expanse

Based on James S.A. Corey’s hard sci-fi series, The Expanse is perhaps Syfy’s best new show in some time. In it, interplanetary travel is common; Earth is run by the UN, Mars is independent, and the asteroid belt and Jovian moons have been colonized. A major colony, perhaps the largest, is Ceres, whose water was stripped away as the asteroid was turned into a shipping hub linking the inner and outer planets.

Meanwhile, far away near Saturn, an ice hauler, the Canterbury, works to deliver ice to Ceres — ice that will be converted into potable water, fuel, and a host of other necessities. It responds to a distress signal from a freighter, the Scopuli, kicking off the plot.

On Ceres, a detective (kept on because of his useful incompetence) is handed the file of a missing person, the wealthiest bachelorette in the system. As his infatuation and obsession with her grows, the only five people who know what happened when the Canterbury answered the Scopuli‘s distress call make their way inward, first via a Martian battlecruiser and then doing contract work for the OPA, an organization whose goal is independence for the Belt and beyond.

And then there is this mysterious blue gunk — which may or may not have been engineered — and which is swallowing people whole.

It’s hard to talk about The Expanse without massive spoilers, but that’s part of the beauty of the show. It has a singular arc, a novel (Leviathan Wakes) turned into a season, and the show is paced like a ten-hour-long … novel. Characters come alive as we follow their interactions, the spacecraft feel realistic for what we would see 200 years from now, and the tension — as it becomes increasingly clear somebody wants to start a war between Earth and Mars — keeps rising, right up to the end of the season when Eros’s fate’s revealed.

Fortunately, Leviathan Wakes is not the only Expanse novel. The next, Caliban’s War, is almost certainly the next season’s framework. That will air early 2017 — better get your popcorn ready!

Ronin

Alongside Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller is credited with redefining what comic books were capable of, and inventing the subgenre of “graphic novels”.

Ronin shows why.

A relatively short, highly readable work, Ronin starts by setting up a samurai in a magical-realist medieval Japan. As the story then goes, his lord master gets seduced by the wiles of his nemesis, a demon, shape-shifted into a beautiful woman, and left leaderless, becomes ronin — a dishonored samurai. He then undertakes a quest to destroy the demon who took his master’s life, in the end succeeding only in trapping both of their souls in his blade.

A millennium later, scientists find the blade and accidentally release both the spirits of the ronin and his nemesis, the demon Agat. They then migrate to a post-apocalyptic New York, starkly divided between a lawless gangland strongly divided along racial lines, and the Aquarius Complex, run by the sentient AI Virgo, a being that first appears to do her masters’ bidding but rapidly shows herself far more resourceful than anybody realizes. The ronin’s spirit is attracted to Billy Chalas, an autistic, limbless telekinesis prodigy being used as a lab rat in cybernetics experimentation, and Virgo blows herself, releasing the spirit on New York.

The opening act feels like a superhero’s origin story, but as the story gains momentum it begins to transition into its closing drama. Aquarius’ head is possessed by Agat, as its chief of security,Casey McKenna, searches for the ronin spirit inhabiting Chalas’ body; the ronin has cybernetic limbs from the experimentation. And it becomes increasingly clear that Virgo is the villain in the story, manipulating events and using Chalas’ telekinesis to maintain the ronin vision in order to develop the military technology that will push mankind from cyberpunk dystopia into extinction. Casey has Chalas, in his ronin visage, commit seppuku, Japanese ritual sacrifice, in a desperate attempt to break the connection between him and Virgo, but even this ends with a string dangling — !

Ronin is most clever as a character drama, and the way it brings together its kitchen-sink stew is quite convincing. Given its ’80s heritage, one could perhaps forgive Billy Chalas’ mental issues being due to autism, a genetic issue, when much of his characterization appears to also show personality disorders stemming from a broken family and domestic abuse. (Then again, historically, this was truth in television; autistic children were, and still are, often shut away from the world and taken advantage of.) Casey McKenna and Aquarius’ COO, Mr. Learnid, are the real protagonists of the story, having to struggle between their loyalties and the growing realization that Virgo is evil; in the end, Billy’s fate is the destruction of his personality.

That said, it is also “of its time” and it shows. The Escape from New York aesthetic, relevant and hard-hitting in its day, feels increasingly at a remove from the gentrified realities of modern-day Manhattan, where New York is more a playground of the rich than anything else. One does wonder what the Millennial vision of dystopia will look like — a green hell of lawn grass and Stepford smilers, perhaps? Being of its time does not make it any less enjoyable, but as time passes, it makes it an increasibgly challenging piece. Not that that’s a bad thing!

4.75/5. Buy. 

Identity Crisis

I picked it up while browsing the shelves at Barnes & Noble and read it through. I was surprised: the superhero genre is not one I usually read, and a quick readthrough of another book on the feature display (Superman & Wonder Woman: Power Couple) quickly reminded me why. Superhero comics are not often characterized by character development; in fact — outside the ’90s dork age when they went and killed off Superman etc. — the fact that superheroes have to hew to archetypes that in traditional mythology was the exclusive provenance of the divine and semi-divine pretty much kills character development dead. Even so, I’d heard of it, and heard that it was pretty good.

What makes it good is that it shunts the Big Three — Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — off to the side, and instead focuses on the D.C. Universe’s secondary and tertiary heroes: the Flash and Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, Elongated Man, Green Arrow, Zatanna, and … someone else who I have no clue whose name is.

The plot revolves around a killer stalking the Justice League’s loved ones: the Elongated Man’s wife, Sue; the Atom’s ex-wife, Jean; Superman’s wife, Lois*; the current Robin’s father. As the story unfolds, our protagonists exhibit a sort of herd mentality, initially suspecting Dr. Light of killing Sue due to his raping her a long time before; Robin’s father is killed by another washed-up two-bit villain, Captain Boomerang. But all these leads are red herrings — indeed, we get to hear chatter on the other side, and the villains have no clue who’s behind the killings.

The writer, Brad Meltzer, proves why he’s a suspense writer, offering us a whole hand of possible villains even as our heroes get hurt where it hurts. One can almost sense them losing their edges due to their emotions and pasts buried deep; despite their boasts to the contrary, there’s a definite subparness about their tactics and investigations, a focus less on justice and more on vengeance. Even with all that, there’s also a sense that he was constrained in his writing — he couldn’t make the Atom the villain, even when all the clues pointed to him, and because of this, the novel — much like its heroes — loses its edge and begins to unravel just when focus and taut storytelling is needed the most.

Generally, I don’t much care for the superhero genre. I find the characters rather unrealistic and unlikely — and not because of the characterizations, either! I like multidimensional, complex characters and the usual approaches to the genre leave a certain flatness. What I found most appealing about Identity Crisis is the believability of the characters — except one.

I keep fixating on Jean Loring, because Jean Loring’s really everything that’s wrong with the novel. I simply find her break from sanity hard to believe. It’s something that had to be explored further, and yet it’s just — glossed over.

Honestly, I’m not sure where I would have gone with the story. At a certain level, I suspect that Mr. Meltzer wrote himself into a corner. Jean Loring was an ass shove — I found the idea of a character who had written a tell-all about her superhero ex resorting to the drastic measure of harming Sue to get him back somewhat confused, at the very least. While the idea was that she’d gone insane, it was a poor rendering of mental instability; frankly, it was kind of off-putting. She was also barely explored as a character; it almost felt as if “insanity” was a don’t-need-to-worry wink, when in reality exploring her mental instability — mood disorder? attachment disorder? addressed or no?; if so, why the manipulation when she could have talked it out with her therapist? — would be a fascinating work in and of itself.

So. Interesting character exploration of heroes, but relatively clichéd plot and underdevelopment of the most fascinating character. It’s definitely better than most superhero comics … but it also showcases the genre’s structural weaknesses.

3/5. Borrow from the library. (Or just read at Barnes & Noble.)

Notes: I really, really, really don’t give a rat’s ass about inconsistencies in their powers or how their personalities deviate from canon. I’m not a superhero genre reader and I never will be. That isn’t my technical focus, either as a writer or as a critic. Also, the most interesting story here is hardly the heroes’; it’s Jean Loring’s descent into madness, much too brusquely depicted and wholly unrealistic to anyone who actually deals with issues such as mood disorders.

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*Wait, what?

From Hell

To be honest, I’ve only recently gotten into the graphic novel format, and as such have only read a tiny handful of what’s available. Trinity was a beautiful historical novel; I have titles like LogicomixFall of CthulhuThe Killing JokeIdentity CrisisSandman, and so forth on my to-read pile now; and From Hell is only the fourth major graphic novel I have read from end. (The first was Trinity, which is easily readable in an hour, and excellent enough to deserve its own review.)

Anyway, the other two, Watchmen and V for Vendetta, are Alan Moore’s two best-known works, in part due to the Wossname Brothers’ (or was it somebody else?) film adaptations, both of which were slavish to their sources instead of using the new media type to explore other angles. Watchmen in particular has been hailed as one of the best novels, period, of the past century.

All of which is an excessively long-winded way of saying that Alan Moore’s works will probably be in my kids’ (assuming I have them) college English classes.

Moore is best known for his characterization and From Hell does him justice. He uses Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper scenario but imagines it with a twist:

WARNING! MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

Continue reading From Hell