Samuel R. Delany – Babel-17 (1966) | Book Review

Samuel R. Delany Babel-17Samuel R. Delany is the perfect example of a writer’s writer. Although he won two Hugo Awards, his fame stems mostly from the respect of his fellow science fiction and fantasy writers, as evidenced by his winning four Nebula Awards, including one for this novel, Babel-17.

The novel follows a poet, linguist, polyglot, and code breaker named Rydra Wong, who is tasked with translating Babel-17, thought of previously as a code before Wong discovers that it is actually a language. Not long after the story begins, she gets a crew together with the intention of traveling into space to find the origin of the language in an effort to complete her translation.

Among science fiction heroines, Rydra Wong really is on the top of the pack. She’s perfectly written, with brilliance and real depth that speaks to the quality of Samuel R. Delany’s writing ability. Babel-17 isn’t an action centric novel, but Wong seems always capable of solving every problem using her intellect. To make things more interesting, her work as a poet has made her an intergalactic celebrity, so she is treated differently in the novel than other characters on the strength of her artistic work. It is clear very quickly that she is a lot more than a good poet.

Babel-17 as a novel is a linguistic wonder, as Delany plays with language in a story about interpreting language, in a wonderfully created piece that, despite some occasional pacing issues, is the kind of novel that writers read and think “I wish I had written this.” Getting a digital copy of the novel is nearly impossible without illicit means, but it is well worth finding it in print. One should stop sort of saying that it is one of the all-time classics of the genre, as the plot doesn’t really do much and the narrative is more of a vessel for creative investigation into the nature of linguistics. Babel-17 isn’t really about the story; it’s about the way stories are told. Definitely a worthy, clever read that was deserving of its previous accolades.

Rating: 4 stars (of 5)

Most of Samuel R. Delany‘s work is still available in physical form from Amazon, including Babel-17. Unfortunately, the ebooks are hard to come by outside of the U.K. (where they are released mostly under the SF Masterworks label).

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Lindsay Buroker – Hunted (2011) | Book Review

Lindsay Buroker - Hunted Flash Gold ChroniclesHunted, the second entry in self-publishing superstar Lindsay Buroker‘s Flash Gold Chronicles, is a steampunk adventure novel that picks up right where Flash Gold left off. Although Flash Gold was enjoyable, it was ultimately forgettable. Hunted improves on every aspect of the original, including stronger character development, even better prose, and dialogue that is vastly improved.

The heroes of the story are the same as the first; Kali McAllister is still trying to avoid being killed for the recipe to her father’s invention of flash gold, an energy source used for fantastical machinery. Her partner in crime is a grizzled mercenary slash bodyguard called Cedar, although that isn’t his real name. They are both well-developed characters with real, nuanced personalities that lend a surprisingly realistic feel to a clearly science fiction piece.

In Hunted, Kali is being stalked by a mysterious villain who apparently has a serious bone to pick. Meanwhile, she is invited to a mine by her ex-fiancee, a jackass named Sebastian. Without spoiling the actual plot of the novella, there is a lot of action and Kali and Cedar end up facing off with a villain that feels straight out of a Silver Age comic book—in a good way.

With strong female characters being so hard to come by in science fiction, the series as a whole is a big breath of fresh air. Kali is an instantly likable heroine, with great depth of character considering the brevity of the first two novellas and the extraordinarily high amount of action in each. Hunted is definitely worthwhile reading, and shows how talented Lindsay Buroker really is.

Rating: 4.5 stars (of 5)

Hunted is available for less than two dollars on Amazon and Smashwords. Be sure to check out her website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

Michael R. Underwood – Geekomancy (2012) | Book Review

There seems to be a new trend in modernist urban fantasy to try to squeeze in as many pop cultural references as humanly possible. Some readers seem to get a kick out of reading a book that uses the word “frak” so that they can think to themselves, “I know that reference.” Not really sure why that is appealing, but these sorts of novels seem to be selling pretty well. Michael R. Underwood‘s Geekomancy is definitely that sort of book.

The primary basis for the world is that there is a large underground group of people who are able to channel nerdy pop culture things into temporary magical powers. Ree is a struggling screenwriter working a crummy day job who is drawn into this world when a crazed man wanders into her store, purchases a copy of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, and runs away. The next time she sees him, he is battling a troll straight out of classic fantasy, and she becomes one of the lucky ones that is actually able to remember the fantastical things she sees instead of going through a convenient amnesia following any supernatural incidents.

Roughly the first half or so of the book is spent introducing Ree and the reader into the world, as well as filling just about every page with a reference of some kind. Eastwood, the teacher who Ree originally meets buying the classic graphic novel, is an unlikable jerk who teaces Ree how to take power from the geeky things she likes; the stronger the user’s connection is, the better the results. The remainder of the half sets up the basic elements of what will become the actual plot, and breaks it up with so much useless dialogue that if the comedy style isn’t to your liking it is hard not to skip ahead pages at a time.

Once things start to get serious and the first of two significant twists comes, the plot becomes a focus of the novel rather than an afterthought. Ree and Eastwood are essentially trying to stop a chain of cosmically connected suicides, a surprisingly heavy idea considering that the book spends the majority of its time as a fluff piece. At the very least, Ree is an extremely likable character who shines when the plot starts to roll, and Underwood is actually a good writer with solid, believable dialogue and prose that does its job without being distracting.

Although this kind of novel will absolutely not age well, it will be enjoyable for some right now. It lacks any kind of real depth and definitely feels like the candy bar equivalent of urban fantasy, but it is still enjoyable if one is able to adequately suspend his or her disbelief and take the book on face value. Appreciated on its own merits, Geekomancy is an enjoyable romp that is easily forgotten when the last page is read. Comparing it to other works of urban fantasy that have managed to be similar entertaining while also accomplishing more in terms of literary significance is a mistake. Geekomancy can only be enjoyed if you simply go along for the ride and appreciate the nostalgia.

Rating: 3 stars (of 5)

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Drowned Cities (2012) | Book Review

Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl was the best debut novel of just about anyone, maybe ever. It was fresh and brilliant with wonderful characters (despite almost all of them being unlikable) and a world unlike anything seen in science fiction. It won the Hugo Award, and Bacigalupi managed to follow that up with a National Book Award nominee and Michael L. Printz Award winner in Ship Breaker, which told the story of a young boy forced to scavenge from derelict ships in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by global warming. The Drowned Cities is that novel’s successor, in that it shares the world and one major character. It is the best work Bacigalupi has ever done.

The Drowned Cities centers around Mahlia, a part-Chinese war orphan living in the D.C. area who had one hand removed by soldiers. Despite her handicap, she works as the assistant for the doctor of her small town, in a region that is constantly ravaged by always changing regimes of violence. The current occupiers are the UPF, but it is hard to believe that one could tell the difference between them and the Army of God or any of the other potential military dictatorships. Life is miserable, and soldiers come through from time to time just to rape and murder for the hell of it. Mahlia is a remarkably strong and wonderful character, who believes that she can escape the horrors of her world despite everything around her being so miserable and so dire that hope is in short supply.

The plot really begins when Mahlia and her best friend Mouse discover an unconscious half-wolf man called Tool. Thinking him to be dead, they try to cut into him to salvage what they can for meat or otherwise, but he awakes and takes Mouse hostage. Mahlia pleads for Tool not to kill her friend, and in exchange promises to go steal antibiotics and other medication from the doctor to help the half-man recover from injuries sustained in a prison break. To go any further would be to spoil, but it is an absolutely amazing story that is sometimes hard to read because of gore and the pure sorrow in every aspect of Mahlia’s situation.

Bacigalupi’s quality of writing is astounding. Both his prose and dialogue are just about perfect, and there are so many moments through the novel that beg the reader to stop and re-read. There’s just so much here and so much power in every part that it gives one the strong urge to run around telling every single person about it. The book may not be for everyone; it is often so depressing that it can be hard to return to. But this novel is so good, so perfect, that it would be a crime if it were not to win just about every award for the genre. Paolo Bacigalupi is absolutely the best writer working today.

Rating: 5 stars (of 5)

Comic Review: Catwoman – The Game (2012)

CatwomanThe Game (2012)
Written by Judd Winick, Art by Guillem March

Rating: B+

Judd Winick was the recipient of a lot of unfair criticism during his run on Green Arrow. He had the longest tenure as writer of that series since Mike Grell’s epic run that lasted pretty much the entirety of the 1990s. Winick spent his entire time writing the Emerald Archer being compared to short spurts by film writer Kevin Smith and Brad Meltzer. Although both Smith and Meltzer made important impacts on the Green Arrow mythos, Winick made Green Arrow feel current and important for the first time since the Denny O’Neill/Neal Adams years, and for that reason, he vastly under appreciated. Grell wrote stories that were strong but ultimately forgettable and unimportant; Winick made his mark on Green Arrow, and now has his chance to make his mark on Catwoman.

Although best known as a supporting character in the Batman mythology, Catwoman has actually had her own book for quite some time. The recent relaunch of DC Comics makes it the perfect time to jump on with any of the books, and Catwoman is an absolutely pleasant surprise. Selina Kyle may be best known for being an incredibly sexy character (and she is), but she is also brilliant, extraordinarily talented as a fighter and a thief, and so sassy that it is impossible not to like her. Winick understands this and it shows in the way he writes the character.

Over the course of the very well-drawn story arc that makes up The Game, Winick pulls out a few of really amazing cliffhangers, and manages to put Catwoman in enough duress that her fight to get out of a series of sticky situations is enthralling. New characters are introduced and made memorable just as quickly as they are taken away, something that Winick has done before and does so well. Readers who don’t like any of Winick’s previous work will probably not find anything in The Game that will change their mind, but for someone who thinks Winick is generally an underrated writer, The Game was a really enjoyable book that makes one look forward to the release of the second volume.

Feminism & the Portrayal of Women in Comics – Part 2

I am extraordinarily pleased to see that our article about feminism and comic books continues to be one of our most read pieces, as feminism is something near and dear to my heart personally that will always be important to Android Dreamer as a website. That being said, the conclusions drawn in the article were called into questions by some readers who brought up very important points in the general discussion of the portrayal of women in comics that are absolutely worth addressing. Although it is hard to argue that comic books are inherently pro-women, I still believe that super hero comics as a medium are neither inherently feminist nor sexist; it is really a matter of the individual creators.

The first point brought up is that although it is true that women and men are both portrayed as near impossible standards, that these portrayals are specifically a male ideal of what women and men should be. Batman may be unrealistically portrayed as a Mr. Universe contestant, but that is because it is what men want to look like rather than what women want men to look like. Although the idea of what is attractive and what isn’t is definitely subjective, it is worth examination. Without the finances to conduct an official survey of what women find physically attractive in men, a quick Google search doesn’t really give the information required to give a real answer. Generally recurring answers to the questions of who the most attractive men are include people like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, when it comes to lists of all people living and dead, and men like Brad Pitt and Robert Pattinson in talking about the hottest men of today. You are no more likely to find Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti on the hot men list than you are to find Kathy Bates and Queen Latifah on a list of the most attractive women. This isn’t because they aren’t extraordinarily talented people in their fields, but because both men and women when talking about averages of the entire population prefer people who are physically very fit when it comes to attractiveness on a completely superficial level. This holds up in the portrayal of both genders in the comic books, as both the men and women are portrayed as exaggeratedly fit. There are individual artists that may go a step too far in the way they draw their women, but on a pure eye candy level there is generally a level playing field.

Another point mentioned that frankly shouldn’t have been missed is that it is equally if not more important that women in super hero comics are written well rather than how they are portrayed physically. The first example of an extraordinarily strong female character that springs to mind is Barbara Gordon, the first Batgirl who later became Oracle after being shot through the spine and left in a wheel chair by Joker. As Batgirl, she was an asset to Batman, and was successful operating on her own. As Oracle, she has proven that physical fitness and martial arts were not the only tools in her repetoire, as she is indisputably one of the most intelligent characters in the DC Universe. Despite her handicap, she used computer technology to communicate remotely with Batman and other heroes to feed them information. If Batman was in a public building, Oracle is there with the maps. If there’s a security system that needs breaking into, Oracle can hack through it before Batman even has to ask. Oracle is a wonderful character who ought to be a role model, and is proof that extraordinarily strong female characters exist in comics. It is only one example (Wonder Woman and Black Canary could also both be discussed) but she is at least proof that the genre is capable of feminist leanings.

It would be impossible to form an argument that pleases everyone when it comes to the topic, but it is worth continuing to discuss. We still don’t think that super hero comics are inherently sexist, but that writers and artists who portray women poorly ought to be called out for it. Characters like Starfire, a sexual liberated and gorgeous alien from a culture that doesn’t understand humanity’s hang-ups about sex, walk a very fine line between feminist and sexist, and it is important that the creators of these books are kept in check.