Friday, 24 April 2009

Showcase Presents: Supergirl, Vol. 1, Jerry Siegel, Curt Swan and others

Showcase Presents: Supergirl, Vol. 1An enjoyable book but not really a remarkable one. Some elements quickly became very repetitive (the robot who fills in as Linda Lee while Supergirl is on adventures, the would-be adoptive parents who must be put off, and so on), but the stories improved as they went on. A few things struck me as interesting…

For one, it seems strange that Supergirl wears a black wig all day long, then takes it off when in costume, even though no one ever sees her (during this period Superman insists on her acting secretly, so that he can keep her in reserve as a secret weapon). For that matter, why does she even wear a bright costume if she doesn’t want to be seen?

The silliest wig-wearing is in the imaginary story “Ma and Pa Kent Adopt Supergirl”, in which the Kents make the poor girl wear a black wig from the age of five (or so), just to lay the groundwork for an adult secret identity! Maybe wigs don’t bother Supergirl: her head is invulnerable, so perhaps it doesn’t get all hot and itchy. But then that would imply that she can’t feel any sensations of hot or cold at all, and I’m pretty sure that she can.

Another story of interest was “Supergirl’s Busiest Day”, in which, just to protect her secret identity, she sucks all the air out of a room to render her fellow orphans unconscious. She exits at super-speed, thinking to herself, “I opened and shut the door so quickly, more oxygen didn’t have time to enter the room! I’ll be back in a flash!” Good job she didn’t get delayed… It’s just another example of the way that rules are above all the most important things in Super-stories of this period.

“Supergirl in Smallville” raised some interesting questions. She travels back to the Smallville of Superman’s youth, in a bid to show him that she could successfully conceal her secret identity while living with a family. So she stays with the Kents, introducing herself to the teenage Clark as an out-of-town cousin. But she is still wearing her Supergirl costume under her clothes… So the whole plot depends upon Clark not using his x-ray vision to look under girls’ clothes. Now I’m not casting aspersions upon Clark’s morality; if there’s one teenage boy in the world who wouldn’t, it’s him (though he did check out Lois’s underwear in the first movie). But it’s sort of funny for the whole story to rely on it.

But how many of the writers of these stories would have expected anyone to still be reading them and picking them apart forty years later? They were designed to be read once by an eager child…

Showcase Presents: Supergirl, Vol. 1, Jerry Siegel, Curt Swan and others, DC Comics, tpb, 528pp.

Showcase Presents: Legion of Super-Heroes, Vol. 2, Jerry Siegel et al

Showcase Presents: Legion of Super-Heroes, Vol. 2The last time I checked in with the Legion it seemed to be in a complete mess. Towards the end of the original Legion saga things went wrong with the introduction of the Legionnaires (teenage versions of the adult heroes, who were either clones or the original heroes rescued from suspended animation), and things went pretty badly for Earth. Following Zero Hour the whole story was rebooted, and since then I get the impression that it’s been rebooted one or two times more, though I haven’t kept up to date. Reading these stories makes you wonder how DC got into such a mess.

Of all super-hero stories, the Legion is the easiest to keep perpetually new – rotate the older heroes out, and bring in new members to replace them. It’s been part of the premise from the very beginning. Why on Earth anyone thought introducing a bunch of clones or rebooting the entire saga was a better idea is beyond me. So while the ongoing saga of the JSA grows ever weightier, the Legion has become nothing more than a series of fuzzier and fuzzier photocopies of itself. Would Doctor Who have been better off if both the TV movie and the new series had kicked off with Ian and Barbara wondering why one of their pupils is so preternaturally clever? Clearly not.

Never mind: at some point I’m sure someone who cares enough will reveal the years since Zero Hour to have been a plot of the Time Trapper, the Legion will find a way to put the broken pieces of Earth back together, and a bunch of brand new teenagers will be invited to join the team. Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not one of the people who always want the originals reinstated. What I want is for stories to continue and develop.

In this book, though, you see everything going right, everything that was so good about the Legion. The stories follow on from one issue to the next. Towards the end there is a series of multi-part sagas, but even before that decisions in one issue will have ramifications explored in future stories. Characters die, lose limbs, leave and join the team, and, best of all, start to develop personalities. When reading “Computo the Conqueror” I gave a little cheer to see Brainiac 5 getting grumpy for the first time. “What is this–” he shouted via the tele-monitor, “a private lab or Grand Central Spaceport? Can’t you read, Chameleon Boy? Shove off!”

Lots of notable issues here, but for now the most memorable is “The Legionnaire Who Killed”, mainly for the panel where Invisible Kid yells to Star Boy, “Come on and join us, Star Boy… We’re having the big computer decide who’d have the most fun kissing whom! It’s a riot!” Chameleon Boy can be seen snogging away with Light Lass. Star Boy declines, leading Invisible Kid to note, “Funny… Star Boy never seems to have time for romance!” Seems like Invisible Kid is carrying a torch!

There’s lots of similarly enjoyable daffiness in these pages, and if the actual enemies tend too often to lameness, that’s forgivable when the heroes are so interesting and varied.

Showcase Presents: Legion of Super-Heroes, Vol. 2, Jerry Siegel et al, DC Comics, tpb, 528pp.

The Time Traders, Andre Norton

Time TradersThere are two novels in this volume. In the first, The Time Traders, time travellers go back to ancient Britain and find aliens there – or are they future humans? Exciting at times, but a little uninspired.

In the second, Galactic Derelict, the time travellers recover a spaceship from ten thousand years in the past, only for its pre-programmed flight to be launched once they return to the present day. It’s a fascinating idea – the worlds the ship takes them to are now long-abandoned, the buildings in ruins, the people reduced to living like animals.

It’s odd, though, that the time travellers say things like “We may never know the reason or answer to any questions about them”, clearly forgetting that they possess time travel technology that could be brought out to these abandoned worlds one day. But there are more books in the series – maybe that thought occurs to them later.

Like the first novel, Galactic Derelict has exciting moments, but suffers at times from a slight dullness.

Note that this entire book is available to download from the Baen Books free library.

The Time Traders, Andre Norton, Baen, pb, 448pp.

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale, Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook

An absolutely brilliant book. Doctor Who’s been blessed with a wonderful range of non-fiction works over the years, not least among them Benjamin Cook’s book on the audio adventures, but this tops them all.

You get to see what goes through the mind of the man presiding over what’s arguably the greatest triumph of modern British television. There are dozens of surprises in here. Sometimes it’s how early some things happened (Steven Moffat had written the first pages of episode 5.1 – to be broadcast in 2010 – by 13 January 2008), and sometimes how late they were left (Russell Davies is still writing 4.13 on 18 February 2008 – only a few months before broadcast).

You learn about scenes that weren’t filmed, scenes that were but went unused, companions who missed their chance, and all sorts of other things. Don’t show your face on the Outpost Gallifrey forums without having read this from cover to cover: you’ll seem hopelessly uninformed.

And once you’ve read it, hopefully you won’t post on there without considering the effect that a needlessly cruel comment can have on the people putting in sixteen-hour days to make this programme…

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale, Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook, Random House, hb, 512pp.

The Airlords of Han, by Philip Francis Nowlan

I read this as a palate-cleanser, so it’s ironic that the very first page left a sour taste in the mouth – the airlords are “fierce Mongolians, who, as scientists now contend, had in their blood a taint not of the earth”.

Apart from two extremely dull chapters – essentially essays describing the technology of each side – most of the book is the usual meticulously-described Antony Rogers derring-do.

By the end, though, you realise that Rogers is leading a war of genocide – his purpose is to eradicate every man, woman and child of the Han from the face of the Earth, destroying their cities, burying them beneath rock, murdering them mercilessly.

The narrator acknowledges this awful bloodthirstiness, but explains it to be warranted by the evil, alien, subhuman nature of the Hans. Norman Spinrad wrote a book, called The Iron Dream, as if by a Hitler who found his way to America and science fiction. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s hard to imagine it sticks more closely to Hitler’s ethos of annihilation than this book does.

I’m not one for praising science fiction for predicting the future – when it happens it’s nice, but when it doesn’t people take it to be a failing of the genre, and either way writers are often just popularising scientists’ ideas – but Nowlan’s description of the Hans at work at home, before their computer screens, ordering their new trousers with a button press, seems remarkably prescient of the internet age.

The Airlords of Han, by Philip Francis Nowlan, Feedbooks.

The Kill Crew, Joseph D’Lacey

After the apocalypse, a couple of hundred survivors hole up in a ring of barricaded buildings and fight off the zombiefied commuters that attack every night. But is the greatest threat from without, or within?

The setup of The Kill Crew is far from original – we’ve seen much the same thing before in Day of the Triffids, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, Dawn of the Dead, and so on. In the early pages, especially, this book felt like a grab-bag of random elements from films – a mysterious mist, zombies, cars not working, etc – and they didn’t seem to fit together all that well. The zombies, in particular, seemed rather underwhelming, and zombies isn’t really the right word: they’re people in office clothes who wander around crying. They aren’t undead, and they don’t eat people.

With an author I’d read before, I’d probably have been more trusting, but in those early pages I felt very much as if D’Lacey had put the cart before the horses: he’d come up with the (rather worrying) image of people blasting commuters with shotguns, but struggled to come up with an actual reason for it happening. It felt a bit too contrived. But as it turns out, the book saves its originality for its second half. By the end the commuters have become extremely alarming antagonists, and the book’s various elements come together very well.

Still, it was never quite clear why The Kill Crew – a team of monster slayers sent out to battle the commuters every night – (a) went out at night when the commuters were active, instead of hunting for them while they slept, and (b) went out at all, since the commuters were hardly bothering their community any more. It seemed like a really bad way to go about things – but then the book makes the point that these aren’t soldiers, they’re just everyday people struggling to cope. Perhaps it’s just the human desire to “do something” asserting itself at a very bad time. Or maybe it’s survivor’s guilt, a deathwish. And the book would have been much duller if they hadn’t left the compound: the sequences where The Kill Crew has to high-tail it back to the Station were exceptionally thrilling.

There are a couple of editing glitches, but those minor things (some of which may well have been fixed by the time of final publication) weren’t enough to spoil a very exciting and at times very frightening book.

What’s most interesting and impressive about The Kill Crew is the way it skips the actual apocalypse to focus on what it’s like to be cooped up in an enclave fighting for survival. The book conveys brilliantly a sense of how thoroughly depressing that would be, of how such a life would wear a person down. Many post-apocalyptic books are about rebuilding, about beginning a new cycle, but this one is about attrition, about an apocalypse that won’t give up until it has utterly destroyed us. And if it doesn’t destroy us physically, it’ll erode our humanity until we have no reason left to live.

It may not be the most original book ever written, but it’s very well done, psychologically very rich, and extremely efficient in its eighty pages. Anyone who enjoys survival horror will find this very satisfying.

The Kill Crew, Joseph D’Lacey, StoneGarden, hb, 80pp

The Forbidden Tower, Marion Zimmer Bradley

Andrew Carr of Earth and Damon Ridenow of Darkover fall in love with two twins of noble birth, Ellemir and Callista, but the world’s against them!

I started this about twelve years ago and got a couple of hundred pages in. This month I’ve been trying to read one book at a time and to finish ones I’ve already started, so I picked up from where I’d left off. I was determined to finish this book, if only to rescue the bookmark that it had held captive all those years.

My initial impression was that it was awful. In some ways it seemed very much like a feminine counterpart to the Gor series. Gor is a world where Earthwomen learn to love sexual subjugation; Darkover is a world where Earthmen learn to love intimacy, talking about their feelings and – ugh! – cuddling. Not quite as reprehensible as Gor, but still not really my cup of tea. I like my heroes to be Ian Chestertons, guys who don’t even think about romance until the adventure is over!

Much of the book (or at least the second half – I don’t remember anything of the first half) is taken up with the bromance between Andrew and Damon. I’ve no issue with stories about the love between two men, of course. I’ve watched all the Lethal Weapon movies, and every episode of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys! In general, though, I’d rather see such bonds form in battle. The budding relationship between Andrew and Damon comes into full flower when the latter starts crying in a bedchamber after someone is a bit testy with him in a meeting.

More seriously (and quite Gor-ishly), the scenes where Andrew objected to being fondled by Damon during group sex irked me a bit, in that he’s portrayed as a prude who has committed a huge faux pas. Afterwards he feels “awkward, still scared at the immensity of what he had done to Damon”. One wonders if the author’s take would have been the same if Damon had groped a girl instead of a boy.

But as the book wore on I did enjoy it more, and the cloying romantic scenes between all parties proved crucial to the plot’s development. The council intrigues were interesting, and the book’s overall message of love and tolerance is one that’s always relevant. But thank goodness it’s over. Now fly free, little bookmark, fly free!

The Forbidden Tower, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Legend, pb, 416pp.

The Babylonian Trilogy, by Sebastien Doubinsky

The first part of this trilogy of novellas is The Birth of Television According to Buddha. Though not overtly science-fictional, it reminded me a bit of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan in tone and subject matter, and in its attempts to make sense of – or at least catalogue – a world that’s utterly confusing. I loved the short chapters, which broke what could have been quite a difficult book up into nicely manageable pieces.

It was interesting to read this on the Sony Reader (the publishers sent a review pdf), because it did show up one flaw of the device: if I wasn’t paying attention when new characters were introduced (there are lots in this first part), I couldn’t just flick my eyes back up the page to get my bearings. On the other hand, I suppose that means the Sony Reader will encourage me to read more carefully.

I took a bit of a break before reading the second part, Yellow Bull. The problem for me with this novella, about a detective assigned unenthusiastically to a serial killer case, despite how well written and engaging it was, was that I kept forgetting which book I was reading: was it Yellow Bull, or the Chabon book (I’m getting sick of hearing myself mention it) or The City in These Pages? But maybe that’s a problem with me, not the book: I’ve only read a very few crime novels before. Someone new to science fiction might see little difference between Robert Heinlein and E.E. “Doc” Smith. The similarities stick out more than the differences.

Next: the third part, The Gardens of Babylon. This was the first part with a noticeable fantastical slant, in that among other things it’s about the misadventures of a government-licensed assassin and an author guilty of illegal publication (though I suppose both have real world equivalents). After the straightforward, linear narrative of the second part, this is back to a fractured narrative from multiple viewpoints, but again it’s in easy-to-digest bite-sized chunks.

Overall, a well-written, exciting and thought-provoking book. It’s a book I suspect I won’t really understand until I read what other people have to say about it, but that wasn’t a barrier to enjoying it, and the sense that it will repay further consideration is a good thing: a book that you know you’ve probably misunderstood is much better than one that leaves you thinking, glad I’m done with that!

The Babylonian Trilogy, Sebastien Doubinsky, PS Publishing, hb, 286pp.

Gunpowder, by Joe Hill

I read a lot of horror in my early teens, when I was still dependent for reading material on the adults around me and the library. So that meant lots of James Herbert and Stephen King, and unfortunately some Shaun Hutson. Once I got to the point that I could buy more books for myself than I could possibly read, horror fell to the wayside – I’d enjoyed Herbert and King, but my favourites were Vance, Moorcock, Asimov, Farmer, Dick. More recently I do most of my reading at bedtime: not the best time to read horror.

Which is all by way of explanation for why this was the first book I’d read by Joe Hill. I’d taken Heart-Shaped Box and 20th Century Ghosts out from the library, but never got around to reading them.

But now science fiction fans can find out what all the fuss is about. This superb novella took hold of my attention from the very first page and never released it. If I didn’t read it in a single sitting, I’ve no memory of what else I was doing that day! It’s a familiar scenario – gifted kids and the military that wants to exploit them – but the writing is so wonderful, the character touches so exquisite, the narrative so brilliantly focused.

The story starts out small – the relationships between the boys and their handler/mother – but opens out to so much more. I won’t say what, because it should all come as a surprise – but it’s all cool stuff. It’s tragic, moving, epic and glorious, and all in a mere eighty pages.

It may still take me a while to read Joe Hill’s horror works, but if he continues to write science fiction he’ll very quickly become one of my favourite authors. If Stephen King had been an out-and-out science fiction writer, would he have been writing sf as wonderful as this for the last twenty years? It doesn’t bear thinking about… Let’s just hope Joe Hill produces more in this line over the next twenty years.

Gunpowder, Joe Hill, PS Publishing, hb, 88pp.

The Witnesses Are Gone by Joel Lane, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Martin Swann finds a videotape of an old French film in his new house. He doesn’t really enjoy it – it’s depressing, miserable and repetitive – but he can’t stop thinking about it. When he tries to discover more about the director, Jean Rien, he finds only dead ends. He makes the mistake of persisting.

Before saying how wonderful this book was, it’s worth saying first that instead of spending hours searching for old magazines, Martin might have had more luck in his quest if he’d begun by looking Jean Rien up on the IMDB… We can guess what would have happened if he had, of course: he’d have got a page loading error, or at best a page of tantalising titles whose links did not work. But it would have been worth mentioning it: you can’t help feeling that Martin is ignoring the obvious way to find the answers he needs.

Anyway, now that’s off my chest: this is a brilliant book. It combines perfectly certain English, American and Japanese traditions of horror, as exemplified by M.R. James, Lovecraft and Hideo Nakata. But this isn’t a Frankenstein monster of influences sewn together; somehow Lane makes it seem as if they were all part of the same tradition in the first place.

It shares with Lovecraft a moral outrage at the horror: these events are not just horrible or frightening, they are wrong; they should not happen; the world should not allow it. With Nakata it shares an interest in the paradox of film; that it seems more real and substantial than reality. With James (I think, at least – I confess I’ve only seen the BBC adaptations) it shares the idea that there are things in the world best ignored for the sake of your own happiness.

It’s grounded in everyday detail (Martin watches DVDs of Angel with his girlfriend), which makes the strange things that happen even more anomalous. Most of the time Martin’s life is normal, mundane. When the supernatural (if that’s what it is) intrudes, the reader is knocked off the rails all over again. While the tone is unsettling throughout, two or three sequences are utterly terrifying.

Perhaps the book’s biggest achievement is that you’re left wanting to see the films described, despite the inevitable consequences for your sanity… This was a superb book, one that I read in a single sitting; I refused to let myself sleep until I’d reached the end. And once I’d reached the end, I could not sleep.

The Witnesses Are Gone, Joel Lane, PS Publishing, hb, 80pp.

The Oz Suite, by Gerard Houarner

Three separate novellas linked by their references to The Wizard of Oz (the film). Broadly speaking they can be taken as science fiction, fantasy and horror.

The first, “No We Love No One”, tells of pod people who fall to Earth, one child for every adult. “Bring Me the Head of That Little Girl Dorothy” wonders if Oz was the invention of the Wicked Witch, rather than Dorothy. “The Wizard Will See You Now” is about a child who survives a knife attack by his father.

I was a little disappointed that the Oz references are only to the films, rather than the books. It’s only in the films, for example, that Oz is implied to be something Dorothy cooks up in her own head. I think the books make it clear that she really does go there.

The author says in an afterword that he only got through a couple of the books. They can be pretty silly at times, but taken as a whole they present a much richer world than that of the films. It makes sense that the characters in these stories would be more aware of the films than the books, but I felt a bit cheated. It felt ever so slightly disrepectful. Imagine how a sequel to Pride and Prejudice would be received if the author admitted to having watched only the movie…

Like the other Eibonvale books, The Oz Suite suffers from a couple of odd typesetting quirks – two spaces after full stops and gigantic indents of each first line.

The stories themselves are pretty good, and held my interest well. Their main strength was in characterisation rather than plot – none of the stories really went anywhere, but all three painted careful portraits of their damaged protagonists.

The Oz Suite, Gerard Houarner, Eibonvale Press, pb, 152pp.