Friday, January 2, 2009

Watchmen in Thirty Seconds

The Invincible Super-Blog's anniversary has rolled around again and once more he has invited any comic fan with no shame to quickly recap a comic story. Last year I did the entire history of the DC Universe. This year I thought I would go for it: the sacred cow of comic books, Watchmen.

And why shouldn't I? Works considered to be classic literature are far from immune to parody (Shakespearean parodies alone could keep an infinite number of monkeys tied up for a bit) and Watchmen is one of two comics that fall directly under my mission of reading all of the award winning fantasy and SF.

Of course Chris over at The Invincible Super-Blog beat me to it.

Still I think there's enough room in this world for two people having a bit of fun with Watchmen.

(Click on the pictures to make them nice and readable...)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Review - Our Lady of Darkness

Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber
1978 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

It's funny how something can fly under your radar. I had heard of Our Lady of Darkness and I knew that it was a well respected horror novel in the mold of H. P. Lovecraft. Still it never occurred to me to pick it up. Leiber is an author who from experience I prefer his pulpy fantasy efforts (really that should have told me something right there). A modern horror novel from him was something I just ignored.

I was very wrong to do that. Our Lady of Darkness is an extremely good work only marred slightly by a weak ending.

Franz Weston is the author of cheap paperback horror novel and a recovering alcoholic. While in a drunken stupor years before he purchased two books from a forgotten shop: a guide detailing the mystical geometries in large cities and the diary of pulp fantasy and horror author Clark Ashton Smith who apparently visited with the guru who authored the first book.

One day while scanning a distant hilltop park through binoculars from his apartment window Weston spots a brown robed figured dancing. The figure stops and appears to wave at him before vanishing. Inspired by the books he purchased before Weston travels out to the site on a lark and looks back at his own apartment where he can see the same figure waving to him from his window. And so begins a terrifying journey where Weston is stalked by the eldritch forces of the city itself.

The concept of the geometry of cities having their own magic has become more common as the popularity of urban fantasy waxed. Still I cannot think of anyone who did it before Leiber and none that have done it so well. His magic comes from an insane guru trying to obfuscate meaning and so it reads much like the works of other magic gurus from the early twentieth century.

The novel is very coy about what is really happening. The events could be the result of a recovering drunk with an overactive imagination triggered by some strange books or it could be that a decades old scheme to harness San Francisco to a madman's will is come to fruition. There are those within the circle of strange and mystic which will claim one and those in the rational world who would claim the other.

It helps that the novel is focused on an interesting character who is just as lost in the strange situation as the reader. Our viewpoint novelist is torn apart by conflict with his past and the reality of the present. He knows intellectually how things could be but every scrap he uncovers pushes him closer to madness in the mold of the ideal Lovecraftian character.

In my view the strongest aspect of the novel, the portion that ties everything good in it together so well, is the pacing. Our Lady of Darkness is a relatively short book and there is little wasted space. Leiber carefully hands our spooky occurrence and strange revelation leading the reader on along with the novel's protagonist.

I had only two real problems with the book. First and foremost, the ending was not as strong as I would like. Although it is foreshadowed well in the book it is still abrupt and anticlimactic. Given how well paced the novel had been up to that point with it's gentle hints and slow revelations to have things just slam to a stop is annoying.

The other problem is the book is firmly stuck in the mid-70's. This wasn't a problem for me, it's antecedents after all are very much the product of their own time, but to have the book dance around homosexuality in mid-seventies San Francisco feels awkward to a modern reader. Perhaps in another twenty years it will feel more like a period piece.

Still even with those reservations I enjoyed Our Lady of Darkness quite a bit and recommend it. It is right up my ally when it comes to horror: creepy, carefully developing, and sinister. It is cut from the same mold as Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft without depending on the crutches of strange monsters that so many of their imatators do. I just wish I had found it sooner.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Review - Doctor Rat

Doctor Rat
by William Kotzwinkle
1977 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

I've spun this review a dozen different ways in my head and none of them have worked quite the way I wanted to so I'm just going to plunge ahead with the task. I will start with the conclusion: despite some clever portions I found Doctor Rat to be a bad novel featuring the worst kind of authorial political ranting. It is impossible to separate the book from its politics and it argues for its politics very poorly. Consequently it is a book you can only enjoy if you already agree with the author's basic position.

At a university research lab one of the white mice has become a quisling, a captive who believes himself one of the scientists, and taken the name for himself of Doctor Rat. He encourages all of the other cute animals in the lab (who all are anthropomorphized, naturally) to endure their suffering for the sake of science. A group mind of all the animals in the world fed up with how humanity has treated them rises up and begins lashing out and this effect spreads to the lab where the eponymous mouse tries to contain the rebellion of experiment subjects.

The nicest thing that I can say about this book is that it has a clever premise and I was interesting in the character of Doctor Rat. The idea of a lab mouse attempting to force experiments to continue is unique and gives a distinctive voice to the issue of animal testing. Kotzwinkle tells the sections of the novel in the laboratory from his mad perspective as he rants about imaginary papers and publications and as the rebellion grows his delusions become grander.

Also when it comes to raw prose Kotzwinkle does very well; the unique voices of the different animals with their own filtered perspectives is handled better than the vast majority of anthropomorphic animal stories that I have read.

The problem, as I mentioned, is the politics and it is impossible to filter them out of this book. The position Kotzwinkle argues for is from the farthest end of the animal rights spectrum and rather than lay out arguments and examine the issue the book reads more as a rant than an discussion. Humans (except for animal rights activists) are all horrible monsters who want to kill any animal they encounter. Animals (other than Doctor Rat) are all proud, noble intelligent beings who live in harmony with one another and are only turned to evil by humanity. A human being will going out of their way to be exceptionally cruel to an animal rather than even merely thoughtless.

There are no positive aspects of humanity's use of animals in Doctor Rat. There are no moral questions presented. There is no dealing with the complications that the author's espoused position would create. It is simply an emotional argument that using animals is bad and tortures tiny versions of ourselves.

That is the difference between an intriguing politically themed story and a frustrating political screed. One recognized the complications inherent in any absolutist view regarding its issue and the other embraces the absolutist view. If a reader disagrees with the author's position one of those leaves that reader with a better understanding of the arguments and the other leaves the reader with the desire to shout back at the author. And if you are a blind follower of the same position as the author then the screed is something "Everyone must read" (see Ayn Rand for an example of this from a very different place).

And so I have to say don't read Doctor Rat unless you think that all animal testing is wrong. It won't convince anyone to change their mind, it will just annoy you if you appreciate the benefits that animal testing has brought to modern society.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review - "Meeting With Medusa" and "When It Changed"

Since I've been ordering a lot of used books on Amazon in the past few years (I'd guess that less than two percent of what I've purchased for these projects have been in print) I've been developing a new pet peeve: Amazon sellers who are dishonest about the books. I can't tell you how many times I've found that a "Good" condition book with the description "Former library book with the usual markings" translates to "Run over by a truck repeatedly until the spine is broken and the binding isn't holding." And then there's ones like the listings under the hard cover edition of the 1987 World Fantasy Award Winner Perfume. While I have to say it's good that so many sellers on that page mention the copy they're selling is a paperback the fact that at least six sellers seem to think that someone who explicitly looks for the hardcover edition will suddenly change their mind when they see their listing is rather pitiful.

I mention this because that's what happened with my first copy of Nebula Award Stories Eight. When you buy as many books as I do then when a problem occurs it really gets on your nerves.

Still, I suppose it could have been worse; they could have sent me a copy of a Terry Brooks novel.

"Meeting With Medusa"
by Arthur C. Clarke
1972 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

It has come up in the past that I am not a big fan of Arthur C. Clarke's stories. I've found in many of them that he's got the big concepts down but I'm bothered when they're implemented into plots. So I wasn't expecting much when I read "Meeting With Medusa" even though it is regarded as one of his classic stories. As it turns out I was pleasantly surprised when it was a pretty good story.

An engineer who barely survived the crash of a luxury blimp he built takes on a new goal to keep him moving: he will be the first person "on" Jupiter. The plan is to create a new blimp which he will fly into the atmosphere and orbit the gas giant. Once there he finds many strange things about our largest planetary neighbor.

It's a travelogue much in the style of Ringworld which was published a few years before, but it's a travelogue of a gas giant which is a very distinctive idea. In addition there's a gradual revelation regarding the nature of the main character which provides a strong character arc that I have found lacking in many of Clarke's other works. The story is still distinctly Clarke's, it's about the big concepts rather than the developing story, but it's tempered by other elements which helped me enjoy it. As a result I have to recommend reading it.

"When It Changed"
by Joanna Russ
1972 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

I'm going to drift off topic a bit here and talk about authorial screeds for just a moment. Due to its nature speculative fiction has a high tendency for this going all the way back to its earliest ancestors in the Greek philosophers. Done well and the point is made without choking out the story; done poorly and the reader gets the impression of a shrill voice screaming in their ear and that's not a way to win friends and influence people.

I bring this up because "When It Changed" is a feminist screed from the height of the feminist movement. On a planet where all men died out centuries before the women managed to make due and create their own civilization. Eventually this lost colony of humanity is found again and men return.

I've had problems with other of Russ's works where the heavy handed preaching has gotten on my nerves but that aspect of "When It Changed" didn't bother me. Yes it is horribly out of date and built on the sexual politics of the 1970's but Russ doesn't get bogged down in a "Women are perfect paragons of virtue and beauty while all men are vile, lust driven rapists determined to oppress them" rant that many works with similar themes use. The men might not be pleasent but the women are little better. It puts the story more on the ground of alien invaders than gender disparity which actually makes its theme stronger.

I still think the story is as out of date as Burrough's vision of Mars and shifting cultural and political realities harm a story more than shifting science. Still "When It Changed" holds up remarkably well and is a good story that marks a distinctive portion of recent history. For that reason it is worth seeking out.