Weblog 7 May 2017

I have to nod in agreement to Sarah Gailey’s fictional essay on why you can’t trust Batman:

“We live our lives, and he lives his life,” he says. “He throws parties, and we work. He sleeps with whatever new lady catches his fancy, we clean up rubble.” He shrugs, continues cutting in a sharp edge of paint near the ceiling. “He’s never had a job, kid. What he gets up to is nothing that we’ll ever be a part of.”

 

Why is this billionaire playboy still a billionaire? It doesn’t seem right to you. Doesn’t seem fair. He funded your orphanage… but when you think about it, it’s pretty weird that the city needs such a large orphanage.

People typically respond to this sort of thing with something like, But if that was the case we wouldn’t have a story. (Or the story would be a dull political drama.) Yes. So? That doesn’t mean we can’t point out problems with the mechanisms used to set the story in motion. We tend to be defensive when it concerns something we enjoy, but we’re quick to criticise a problematic premise when we’re also critical of the story that follows.

I think this alternative perspective of Batman is really interesting. We consider him a hero and enjoy his heroics. We can’t help but cheer for someone who fights and kills people we know are bad because we all have (or think we have) these types of people affecting our daily lives. We know most of them are going to get away with it. The police, the courts and the politicians can’t or won’t do the right thing the way Batman can.

But yeah, a billionaire … The very fact that billionaires can exist is an injustice. And It’s not like Batman is helping society in the only way he can. He has enough resources to provide affordable quality education and healthcare, alleviate poverty, empower law enforcement, etc. Instead, he spends his time training and uses his money to enable him to do the major crime fighting himself. He’s not so much a hero as he is a control freak who can’t see beyond his own wealth.

The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett

the-liminal-peopleTitle: The Liminal People
Series: Liminal #1
Author:
Ayize Jama-Everett
Publisher: 
Small Beer Press
Published:
 January 2012
Genre:
 science fiction, fantasy, thriller, superheroes
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
8/10

It’s a rare pleasure to read something without knowing anything about it (and if you want to do the same, I’ll just tell you now that I recommend this very highly). The Liminal People came in a Small Beer Press Humble Books Bundle I bought a while back and I read it because it I was looking for something fresh and well-crafted but relatively short. I trusted Small Beer to provide both quirk and class and I got exactly what I didn’t know I needed: a pacey sff thriller with edgy writing I want to read all day and some very cool ideas.

Taggert calls himself a healer, but although that word captures the core of the person he considers himself to be, it doesn’t accurately describe the extent of his powers.

I read bodies the way pretentious, East Coast Americans read the New Yorker. With a little focus, I can manipulate my body and others’ on a molecular level. With a lot of focus, I can push organs and whole biological systems around.

What this means is that when Taggert is in close proximity to someone, he can gauge their psychological state (happy, anxious, finger-on-the-trigger) by reading things like heart rate, muscle tension, body chemistry, etc. He can see what medical problems they’ve had, have or might develop, and what kind of physical state they’re in (“The veins are tight, lots of blood coursing through them. She’s been working out.”). He can hack bodies and heal them, but those same abilities allow him to cause insane levels of damage and pain. He can instantly turn hereditary defects into immediate suffering or force the body to turn on itself in the most excruciating ways. Or he could just make snipers take a nap and help an anxious kid stay calm.

Taggert can also transform his own body, even changing his melanin count:

I need to be less black to pull this off, so I focus until I can tell that I probably look mulatto. I close off my hair follicles and pull the thick mats that I have out and flush them down the toilet. Then I focus on slick black hair, coated in oil. I let it grow until I can fix a small rubber band at the base of my neck. Since I’m at a toilet I vomit up sixty-five pounds, making sure to check my discharge for too much stomach acids. I just need to lose the pounds, not my voice. When I step out I look like a sexy young intern that works too hard.

He’s a very useful person to have around, which is why his boss, Nordeen, keeps him on a very short but comfortable leash. Nordeen has some kind of mysterious power that Taggert cannot figure out, claiming only that he can’t be lied to.

It’s enough to keep Taggert in check and he’s ok with being a crime lord’s pawn largely because he’s a self-reflective man who wants to understand his power, and Nordeen was the first person to mentor him, a kind of terrifying father-figure:

If you can understand why I stayed with Nordeen, then you can understand me a little better. I’m not a sycophant. I don’t crave power, nor do I have a desire to be under anyone who does. Nordeen’s description of the power inside of me was perfect: “the thing that decided to take up residence inside of me.” On rough days, it made me feel like an alien beast or, as Yasmine would say, like a freak. But on good days, when I exercised my power in right relation to the world, I felt nearly unstoppable. I grew with power. Living a bipolar life, rocketing between freak and human, made me long for some stability. And despite the bowel-spilling terror Nordeen invoked, he offered that. I knew that under his protection and guidance I would learn more about myself.

Taggert’s stability is disrupted when his ex-girlfriend uses an untraceable, one-time-only phone number to call him for help. Yasmine was – is – the love of Taggert’s life, despite the fact that she called him a freak, something he never really got over. He’s still angry, but he loves her without requiring anything in return, and of course he’s harbouring all sorts of hopes about what her desperate call for help might mean for their relationship. More importantly though, when he promised to come if she ever needed him, he meant it. So he gives Nordeen as little of the truth as he can and escapes Morocco for London, where Yasmine’s daughter has gone missing. Searching for her brings Taggert into contact with an underground exisitence of other powers like him and, as Nordeen has warned him, ‘People like us tend to stay away from each other for good reason’. However, it’s not clear if that’s true or if Nordeen is just manipulating him.

I’ve mentioned before that the current glut of superhero movies – ranging from decent to Jesus Christ how could it possibly be this shit – have given me superhero fatigue. Right now, it’s a genre defined by mildly entertaining mediocrity, but maybe I should be looking at superhero novels, if The Liminal People is anything to go by. It has so much more nuance and style that it has me rethinking the potential of the superhero. We tend to exploit them for sfx orgies but these days they almost completely fail to satisfy my (now dwindling) desire for big-budget spectacle. Taggert, however, is more impressive than any superhero I’ve seen in a long time; why is that?

Firstly, it’s great to have a black superhero and a diverse cast of characters for a change, not only as a matter of authenticity but because it’s more interesting than the bland norm of the white western male. An added bonus is that racial identity is significant, and not only in comparison to whiteness. Taggert is not a character who happens to be black but could be white with a few simple tweaks. He sees his identity as being rooted in blackness, but this doesn’t mean his life is consumed by racial oppression. This is about who he is, who he chooses to be, and the stories he involves himself in. I’m not dismissing stories about racism, but they’re heavy as fuck, so it’s cool to read a book about a black dude that isn’t all about what white people have done to him.

Secondly, I like the way Taggert has mastered his abilities. Many superheroes seem to look inward: it’s all about understanding their own mechanisms and learning to use them with greater precision or potency. Taggert’s approach is different: he fine tunes his skills but he also educates himself. He studies physiology, neurology, psychology, genetics, etc. because his talents would be crude if he didn’t understand all the complex systems her was working with. The following character analysis he does on a teenage girl is a good example of how he rings together his powers, education, intuition and life experience:

One day she’ll be fat and bloated, like her mother; I can already feel a slower metabolism than normal. Which is why she smokes, so she doesn’t have to eat and so she doesn’t have to work off those calories.

Taggert is one of the most intelligent, highly educated superheroes out there, but without being the kind of cliché troubled genius we see in Tony Stark or Dr Strange. Part of his appeal is also philosophical: Taggert is constantly reflecting his past, his morals, his relationships (with his brother, Nordeen, Yasmine). He wants to figure out what it means to have powers, and to exist in a world with others like him.

The novel occasionally falls prey to the common pitfalls of superhero stories though. There’s some overdone posturing and a floppy one-liner or two. Taggert can be too slick at times, and I got tired of the way he oversexualises Yasmine, especially when he describes her breasts as “heaving and falling quicker than California tectonic plates”. Tectonic plates? Really? I get that he’s intensely attracted to her and his feelings are exacerbated by an obsessive longing that’s stayed strong for almost two decades, but I’m not exactly moved when I see this expressed as tits-and-ass lust.

I can let that slide though, because I love pretty much everything else about this book. It’s helping save the superhero.

Notes on Doctor Strange

doctor-strange-poster

A disclaimer: I didn’t read the comics and I don’t plan to, so these are just thoughts on the movie as an isolated entity. I’m rapidly losing interest in superhero movies as they become increasingly disappointing, so I didn’t follow the film’s development, except to read an article or two when a friend mentioned the whitewashing of The Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton. Still, I hold out hope that these movies will at least be fun to watch, and Marvel has been doing far better than DC in this regard.

A visually beautiful, trippy movie. No complaints there. It seems I can still be swayed by aesthetically pleasing action.

Oh cool, a white dude travels to the East to learn some esoterical shit and shortly after he has to to save the world because none of the POC characters who have been training for years – particularly Mordo, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – are as special as him. You can just smell how fresh this plot is.

heading-east But I won’t lie – I like Benedict Cumberbatch. That voice. Those eyes. That snooty sarcastic genius typecast he’s fallen into. I don’t care that his face is weirdly long. I’m only human; I have my weaknesses okay.

On Christine, the ER surgeon and ex-lover played by Rachel McAdams: one of only two women in this Bechdel-test fail, Christine exists purely for Stephen’s sake. At the beginning, she directs his attention to a dying patient with a unique injury so we can see what an awesome neurosurgeon he is. During the course of the movie, she always happens to be at the hospital (but unoccupied) when Stephen rocks up needing her help. The only time we see her anywhere else is during Stephen’s recovery, when she delivers food to his home and informs the audience that he’s gone broke trying to fix his ruined hands. Christine has no life or personality outside of the functions she serves for Stephen Strange. The fact that she’s a surgeon is not enough to make her a strong female character. She hardly has any character.

supporting-character

Supporting character

Tilda Swinton’s action scenes are the best. I found her stereotypical guru persona banal (blah blah blah mystical wisdom blah) but I loved watching her mind-bend architecture with signature elegance.

The villains suck. Their multidimensional plot is a one-dimensional scheme of bland evil with the usual small-minded goal of becoming uber-powerful and taking over the world, causing spectacular destruction in the process. I barely know what Mads Mikkelsen was on about when he explained the reasoning for this in that one scene (where, for some reason, he just couldn’t kill Strange, despite him being a total noob), but it didn’t seem to matter. All you need to know is that the baddies are going to destroy the world, and must be stopped. By Strange, who is the only one smart enough to figure out how, obviously.

Dr Strange’s red cloak is a more enjoyable character than Mads Mikkelsen’s. This is one of the main reasons I’m getting sick of superhero movies: the characters are so flat I don’t actually care what happens to them, and the spectacular action scenes are rendered meaningless. This isn’t quite the case in Doctor Strange, which has just enough charm to get by.

There are quite a few funny moments. This movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. That said, I’m slightly discomfited by the way Wong (played by Benedict Wong) mostly seems to be there so Stephen can make fun of him for our amusement.

 Entertaining, but I wouldn’t watch it again.

Review of Westlake Soul by Rio Youers

Title: Westlake Soul
Author: Rio Youers
Published: 10 April 2012
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Genre: science fantasy, drama
Source: review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Westlake Soul used to be a surfing champion. He was tanned, toned and gorgeous. He and his beautiful girlfriend were in love. And then a surfing accident left him with crippling brain damage and for two years he’s been in a vegetative state, with his once athletic body turned to skin and bone.

On the positive side, the accident also turned him into a genius with remarkable mental abilities. Westlake can’t move his own limbs, but he can astral project, sending his soul out wherever he wants to go. He can explore his own psyche as he would a landscape, he can read minds, and exert minor mental influence on others. With all these abilities, he’s like a superhero.

However, none of his powers can give him the human interaction he longs for. He watches over his family like a ghost. He cannot hug his heartbroken parents or comfort his sister. He can’t move a muscle to give his girlfriend some sign that he’s still in there somewhere. He can’t show his caregivers how much he appreciates what they do for him. He can’t tell anyone that he feels and hears everything, even though the doctors said that this is impossible. The only creature Westlake is able to speak to is Hub, the family dog.

And if Westlake thinks of himself as a superhero, he certainly has a supervillian to fight – Dr Quietus, an incarnation of death. Westlake frequently battles him in short, violent confrontations, and so far he’s managed to cling to life. But everyone loses to Dr Quietus eventually, and if Westlake’s parents decide to remove his feeding tube and end his life, the battles will become infinitely harder and soon he will lose.

Westlake Soul is an ambitious project for a writer – a novel about a person who is unable to move or speak. It’s written in first person, from Westlake’s perspective, so the entire story rests on his fragile shoulders. The challenge, I’d say, is to make something interesting out of this limited position. I have to say kudos to author Rio Youers, because for the most part, I think he did a good job.

Westlake Soul has is often a very touching novel. The story sounds like it would be boring, but it’s driven by the emotional urgency that Westlake’s condition creates, both for him and his family, and even for the dog Hub, who cares deeply for them. Westlake’s soul often watches them around the house, and thus we get glimpses of their lives and feelings. There are many scenes depicting the pain that his parents and sister are suffering as a result of his condition, but also the love that they have for him. At first they were all optimistic that he would recover, despite what the doctors said. After two years of having to care for him while he wastes away, they’re losing hope, and feel horribly guilty for it.

Of course, there’s a great deal about Westlake’s suffering as well. He’s well aware of how disturbing it can be for friends and family to even look at him, and how caring for him can be disgusting. The novel doesn’t shy away from describing the gross realities of Westlake’s body. His very situation is a nightmare – he used to tame the waves, and now he’s totally paralysed and unable to communicate, while possessing a brilliant mind and the ability to feel, see and hear everything around him. Ironically, he’s observed doctors tell his parents that his brain is effectively dead, he can’t perceive anything at all, and that there’s no hope for his recovery. It’s a disturbing concept.

Fortunately, Youers has avoided making this a dreary book. Despite his struggles, Westlake has a casual, upbeat way of speaking, full of slang and pop culture references. The serious moments are balanced out by happiness and humour. This tone does a lot to keep you reading; if it were more sombre I think it would be a depressing slog.

I like the science fantasy/superhero/supervillain thing, although it’s not quite what’s suggested by the blurb, and I think Youers could have done more with it. There’s a touch of science, such as the idea that the accident shut down the 10% of Westlake’s brain that allowed him to function as a normal human being, but awakened the 90% that most people never use, thereby giving him superpowers. The superhero thing, however, is more like a way of perceiving himself and his battle to stay alive. Since he cannot manipulate anything in the physical world and has only a tiny amount of mental influence over others (sort of like giving their minds a push) he can’t do anything you’d consider heroic. He claims that he’s not interested in saving the world anyway; he just wants to surf again. His fights with Dr Quietus, are only to save himself – he doesn’t stop anyone else from dying. Dr Quietus himself gets very little time on the page, and he has almost no lines.

I would have liked it if Youers gave Quietus more of a presence in the novel. There are some philosophical and spiritual musings, and Westlake and Quietus could have engaged in similar discussions. The battles between the two of them aren’t all that exciting and they feel out of place. Westlake and Quietus fight in locations like the skies over Tokyo or an abandoned factory. It feels like these scenes came straight out of an action movie. On the other hand, it makes sense that Westlake might see himself as a superhero fighting action-packed battles with a supervillain – after all he is a 23-year-old surfer. I just wish Youers had handled the concept differently.

This brings me to some of the other issues I had with the novel. I don’t think it was a good idea to make Westlake a genius. He doesn’t seem like a genius. He just seems like a guy with some amazing mental abilities. Although he’s more knowledgeable, he doesn’t show signs of being especially smart. You’d think that such a phenomenal change in intelligence would change the way Westlake thinks about the world, but his psychology seems to be pretty much what you’d expect from a 23-year old guy in this situation.

Then there’s the language. Like I said, the tone is essential to keeping the reader engaged, but Westlake’s speech is full of weird, dated slang and references. Like “too cool for school”. The novel is set in 2011 and there’s plenty of contemporary stuff about Facebook or the latest music, but there are also times when it sounds like Westlake is from the 60s or 70s. It’s weird.

Nevertheless these are flaws in what is, on the whole, a solid execution of a difficult idea. It’s not great, especially with Dr Quietus’s character being wasted, but it’s good. Youers keeps the story well-paced right up to the end, which is something many writers fail to do. The ending itself was nicely done. I’m not really sure who to recommend this to though. I think that anyone wwith a friend or relative in the same state as Westlake would find it extremely painful, especially with regards to the question of switching off life support. This story essentially describes a situation in which the doctors are almost completely wrong about the patient’s condition, most notably about his ability to feel pain or hear what’s being said about him. The very idea is something that I’m sure would cause torment to those who’ve been in the same situation as Westlake’s family. I still think it’s an interesting concept to read and write about though, and there’s a great deal in this novel that’s beautiful and heartwarming, so I’d say read it if you think it sounds intriguing, but perhaps not if it’s too close to home.

Buy a copy of Westlake Soul at The Book Depository

Review of Empire State by Adam Christopher

Title: Empire State
Author: Adam Christopher
Published: 27 December 2011 (USA/Canada); 05 January 2012 (Rest of the World)
Publisher:  Angry Robot Books
Genre:  detective noir, steampunk, science fiction
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 5/10

It’s prohibition-era New York, and Rex Braybury, a small-time, no-scruples bootlegger, watches the city’s two rocket-boosted superheroes fight an epic battle in the sky. Once friends, now mortal enemies, the Skyguard and the Science Pirate end their final fight in an explosion that alters reality. Very few know about it, but the catastrophe spawns an alternative version of NYC:  the Empire State, “The City That Sleeps”.

Rex and the superheroes disappear for a while as the narrative crosses to the Empire State, a place that’s clearly a copied from NYC but at the same time is nothing like it. In this dreary city, Rad Bradley, the Empire State version of Rex, is a private detective down on his luck. He finds money and trouble when a beautiful dame in a red dress comes into his crappy little office anxiously asking Rad  to find her lover, a woman named Sam Saturn. Rad doesn’t hesitate to take the case, but it quickly gets him involved in something much bigger and more dangerous than tracking down a missing person. NYC and the Empire State are linked, not just by a tear in the fabric of reality but by a few people who have somehow crossed over. Among those people are Rad’s double Rex and Sam Saturn. But the rift between the worlds might close, and if it does it could destroy both cities. Rad suddenly finds himself having to deal with conspiracies, mysterious and dangerous people, fascinating steampunk technology, and an event that defies what anyone knows about physics, not mention the realisation that his home and his entire existence is just a flimsy copy of something else.

When reading this, I wondered how the book would work without a blurb or plot summary. It’s very seldom that you dive into a book without knowing what it’s about first, so can the blurb actually function as a necessary introduction? I wondered this because, after a few chapters from Rex’s perspective in NYC, you jump straight into the Empire State with Rad and it’s not until much later that it’s explicitly stated that this city was created by the superheroes’ fight (although this is implied). I wasn’t disorientated, because I already knew this from the blurb and plot summaries I’d read, but what if I hadn’t? Would I have felt very lost, wondering what this weird city was and why it was in the book?

Speculation aside though, The Empire State is an interesting place. It’s a mirrored impression of NYC, so that the two cities share similarities but are nevertheless vastly different. The Empire State is quiet, constantly shrouded in fog and almost always drenched in rain. It’s going through ‘Wartime’, fighting against ‘the Enemy’, which everyone just accepts even though it doesn’t make a shred of sense since no one ever leaves the Empire State. Such a thing is inconceivable because there simply isn’t anywhere else. But something about the Empire State simply prevents its citizens from thinking about all the contradictions of their existence. It completely lacks NYC’s energy, to the extent that the dreariness is almost palpable.

As in NYC, it’s the prohibition era of the Empire State, but the latter is more like a fascist state. It’s ruled by the City Commissioners, and any dissent will probably find you in an early grave. Not only is alcohol banned but cigarettes are forbidden too, and most food and drink are rationed (a tragedy for the traditional private dick who practically survives on coffee and booze).

Every person in the Empire State is a double of someone in NYC, although you won’t get to see many of them, just the few who play a role in the plot. In terms of tech, the Empire State is a steampunk world featuring massive iron ships (ironclads) and robots that are used for war, airships and automatons.

It’s an intriguing world, but the more you read the less impressive it becomes because Christopher’s world-building gets increasingly flawed and unstable in an unfortunate parallel with his end-of-the-world plot. Rather than getting a better grasp on what the Empire State is and how it works, everything seems to unravel leaving gaping plot holes and important questions unanswered. At one point we’re told that the Empire State and NYC “cannot co-exist, for they are the same place” and yet it’s very clear that they’re not the same place and they’ve obviously been co-existing for some time. Nevertheless we’re then told that the Fissure that links the two worlds might either be closing or opening wider, or that someone is planning to destroy it, but whatever the case, it’s BAD NEWS and Rad has to put a stop to it, whatever ‘it’ turns out to be. If he doesn’t then the Empire State will be destroyed, or possibly the Empire State and New York or maybe even the Empire State, New York and the world. Some people are trying to travel from the Empire State to NYC, either because they somehow got stuck in the wrong universe or because NYC is simply a better place. This may or may not work, and may or may not destroy the Empire State and possibly New York, who knows? There are clearly other methods of crossing over but these don’t seem to be an option. Key figures are hatching plots based on what they think they know but frankly no one really has a handle on the physics, me least of all. I’m not a fan of hard sci fi, but I’d really appreciate that kind of rigor here. The novel certainly claims to be sci fi rather than fantasy, but it’s really not trying very hard.

Perhaps the most frustrating plot point is when an archvillain is revealed to have set this whole thing in motion, but the book doesn’t tell you how his whole role in this in even possible. It’s INFURIATING.  Then there’s the matter of the doubles – every person in the Empire State has a double in NYC. However, there’s no consistency in the nature of the doubles. Rad is a private detective, the opposite of Rex who is a criminal. On the other hand another pair of doubles are so similar that they actually share memories and knowledge, which seems to contradict the way the two worlds work. Two pairs of doubles differ in age. Another pair looks dissimilar enough that no one realises they are doubles, whereas every other double is a splitting image of their counterparts. These inconsistencies suit the plot but weaken the structure of the whole.

Christopher is also guilty of the heinous crime of artificially maintaining the mystery by constantly varying Rad’s level of curiosity. This is one of my pet hates. Rad is a detective, a person who makes a living by noticing oddities and asking questions. And yet when he encounters things like Byron, a 7-foot tall automaton manservant in a brass helmet and boots, Rad decides it’s best not to ask about this kind of weirdness, only to make a mental note at the end of the novel that he must find out more. It drives me fucking loopy.

Perhaps I’m too fussy a reader for this book. It was released in the USA and Canada on 27 December and is being released worldwide today, and most of the reviews I’ve seen so far are positive. The novel does have a kind of pulpy appeal, especially for noir and steampunk fans. It also has some good ideas at its core and it’s well-written. There’s also a possibility that some of the gaps and inconsistencies in the plot were left there to give more creative space to the Worldbuilder project in which Christopher and publishers Angry Robot allow fan artists, writers and musicians to create their own works within the Empire State universe. Not that that’s a good excuse for a sloppy book, since it still has to stand on its own two feet. As a debut novel though, I’d say that even though Empire State doesn’t work for me, Christopher undoubtedly shows a lot of potential in terms of writing and ideas, so if he can tighten up the structure of his creations he could produce something really cool.

Buy a copy of Empire State at The Book Depository