Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ultimate Doomsday - Book Discusion

This being a discussion of Ultimate Doomsday written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Rafa Sandoval, I will SPOIL with the assumption one has read the book. Though I provide barebones details for any to tag along.

After reading Ultimate Doomsday, I found that I deeply related and was sympathetic to young Reed Richards. “Found myself” is accurate because it was surprising. Richards, as anyone familiar or not with comics can vouch, is an unlikeable dork. He’s there to be whiny most of them time, until the writer has him solve all problems with either 1) few key strokes, or 2) stupid looking machine. Apparently, all the character of Richards needs to be of any worth is the addition of motivation to accomplish a goal (he just invents in a wandering sort of way normally) and removal of his childish sense of morality. He’s a villain now. The new Doctor Doom.

Both Richards and I have a problem with the expectations and goal imposed-upon us by society. Worth or value of anything is directly related to monetary value. It’s so ingrained that that last sentence was borderline stupid. Anything and everything a person does must make money. Money is needed to breath. It seems to me that I must look at all my hobbies or interest for some angle, some way to transform them, into a potential career or additional source of revenue. That’s hyperbole for the average day-to-day life but if I were to be of immense success, a personal fully engaged with this world, I’d be making money all day. But I can’t go full into an argument about the role of money else I will be unable to discuss a thing else. The important bit is for the recognition that money is important, perhaps central, to life in this country in this year. Should that premise bother you (you) then what follows will be silly at best. But it’s where I come from when reading Doomsday.

The scene that resonated the most with me had Sue Storm (Richard’s ever love interest) and Richards talking over a picnic. Sue asks where Reed’s head is it as he’s doing his typical “staring off into space, inventing things” pose. Reed bluntly states that he doesn’t much like the present world he lives in. He puts to Sue that they both could leave at any point they wanted to. Full stop there. How indescribably wonderful is it that Reed can act on any and all of his desires? To say, yes all humankind possess freewill, but for all their thoughts and dreams, how many are able (physically) to accomplish them? Who else may make a pleasing thought into reality? (That’s a very interesting superpower: freewill and the ability to use it). Sue brushes Reed off, wondering or not if he is serious outwardly, but Sue’s smart and knows Reed doesn’t (ever) joke, so she’s really stalling as the answer upsets her or she doesn’t have one.

Right there is a beautiful moment. As the perpetually bullied (one could argue even the super villain’s continue the trend) dork announces he has had enough of this entire planet - everyone in it too. To be ready to throw the whole of the Earth, and everything it possess, away? The fundamental makeup of the character has changed. Importantly though, it isn’t a shift toward selfishness. Later one, Reed rails against the “rape” of science. Which is actually true in the Ultimate Universe. Every organization, from the corporation Roxxon to the world police S.H.I.E.L.D. has recklessly pursued scientific advancements purely for money, power, or both. Many of the villains are the botched (or illegal) experiments of one group or other. Reed’s grief is that the entire world is relentlessly trying to degrade itself for petty reasons. And he, as a genius scientist, has only wanted to work quietly on making it better, but is roped into covering up the screw-ups or inventing the extra-dimensional gun. Intentions don’t get more noble than Reed Richards’s. It makes sense (and I’m so happy) that he finally gets angry enough to really alter course. Coming from Reed, this is a condemnation that the Earth can’t be and isn’t worth saving. Reed’s emotions have always been tied into his sense of morality, and coupled with his persona being (essentially) a force of discovery (as opposed to a person who also is a scientist, like Sue Storm) is what makes his anger at everything so powerful. He’s not a pissed off young kid stomping his feet at the existence of injustice. He’s an elemental judge who wanted and expected better from people and has been monumentally let down.

The very best stories are not ones with incredible technical merit but ones that catch the reader at a particular emotional moment in time (not saying vulnerable, saying story matches mood); supplying a full-on discourse of the critical issue. I apologize Greater Society, I don’t wish to contribute economically (it’s the reason you made me after all). I want to write my stories, study where my curiosity is, and not worry about shit else. I think Reed and I are both upset at being thrown into a game we don’t like nor have any ambition to play. I wish his genius characteristic didn’t come and go, so that he would have realized stealing all of science from the world of superheroes with a constructed fodder race was a poor way to kick-off his new life. Then my man, Brian Michael Bendis, wants to hit the reset on profound change with a character who doesn’t even know how his powers work or why (Nova)? That’s insulting. Maybe a cosmic joke but still galling.

Regardless, I’m rooting for Reed Richards. I hope he reengineers physics for the Ultimate Universe so that certain levels of technology become impossible. Just rip the rug out from underneath ‘em all.

All images Copyright Marvel

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Shadow Of The Wind - Book Discussion

I like to jump right in, so this is the heads up: Book = The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. These two quotes will help to bring anyone up to speed and provide focus:

"When peace finally came, it was the sort of peace that haunts prisons and cemeteries, a shroud of silence and shame that rots the soul"

“Wars have no memory, and nobody has the courage to understand them until there are no voices left to tell what really happened, until the moment comes when we no longer recognize them and they return, with another face and another name, to devour everything they left behind"

Carlos Ruiz Zafon creates War and its Aftermath (which for ease I will call Aftermath with a capital “A”. Even though Zafon refers to that time after War as Peace, I don’t think it felt especially peaceful, as the lingering effects of War were still causing distress with attempts made to repress memory) as nearly personified forces. I’d say “elemental” forces but I’m not sure that will carry the same meaning universally as an elemental being leads my thoughts to a humanoid shaped being constructed of X element. Or in this case, a dispersed body with a will / purpose but lacking the complexities of human character. I’m drawing these thin lines across ground that maybe nobody cares about to begin with. I do though. It affects the tone and feel of the story to think of an actual, living, malignant force suffocating Spain. And then it becomes “other”. War isn’t described as action taken by people, not as people behaving badly / cruelly. The people involved in the war have left their human bodies (they no longer act or understand as humans do) and are thus untouched by human emotion (their own) and cannot be understood by others. In the beginning of the story, Barcelona is surrounded by War but the residents hold their breath hoping that it skips them by. That’s the first effect of War, to create a terror that denies confrontation. Everybody in the city not talking about, no behaving as though it’s near, but characters retelling the stories of their lives during this time make it clear the thought of it has hallowed out a portion of everyone’s mind. They are not going about their lives “as normal” but purposefully avoiding any contact. Then War does come into Barcelona. Any stories told of this time are bereft of the precise details that are usual in the stories any character tells of their past. Everything is vivid, from dates to emotions, but not anything of War. It’s that Terror that War brings that has pushed them out of living in the present moment that these characters typically do, and forced them into a numbed state. Events are still recorded on some level: the torture, killings, and shifting alliances of Francisco Javier Fumero aren’t missed or ignored, just not engaged with. War is being characterized by the reaction to it. War is a monster too terrible by reputation to even look at. In this way, as one unified force divorced from human input, War’s form (how it is fought) cannot be altered in part of whole, nor can it be associated with any noble ideas. I contrast this with the current (2011, United States) conception of war as a tool, used in limited or full scale effect, and expressing some idea (liberation / freedom). In The Shadow of The Wind universe, War possess humanity to destroy it. There can be no debate then: War is evil.

The Aftermath personifies the malaise of Barcelona. It’s the intense regret of the citizenry being unable to confront War and thus being abused by it. It’s the feeling of losing one’s dignity, and to some extent their sense of self. Meaning that, again, all are bullied into a quiet regarding, exactly, what happened to them and their city. Nobody will confront the war, even after it’s past, because to do so will necessitate reliving their shame of who there were during it. By attempting to save face, the war generation deprives the next of any guard against war coming back. Daniel’s investigation seems to pull the lingering life out of all the war’s survivors. They give away all their secrets and hopes at being remembered well posthumously, gaining small relief from whatever infected them. Which isn’t to say they were “saved”, the evil cloud scattered, as each was disfigured (metaphorically, though Julian Carax was physically) by the events of the war. There isn’t a reset to happy times. Actions matter because their result must be lived with. The relief comes from no longer worrying or caring about the eventual consequences. Like a body’s death sigh; the fight is over but the outcome is still death. Making Daniel an innocent little soul collector. Curiosity started him off but fear from the numerous threats he soon gathered is what pushed him to fully coax out the truth. His chief interest was preserving himself. That makes sense too, to finish the characterization of humanity as selfish, giving reason for the weakness which makes it easily penetrated by War.

What’s so astounding and beautiful about Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s prose is that it creates two worlds at once. One is the story, the combined sequence of actions with Daniel at the center. The words. The other is a loose, outlined but undefined, painting. The image of War circling Barcelona. War coming back with another face. To me if feels as though he painted a giant, Sistine Chapel-like, story. It’s one image but as your eyes take it all in the story presents itself. He does this at least once a chapter… It’s how one imagines a story about War and Aftermath, with all its secrets, without the aid of words to describe them. They have to be given form. The two worlds reflect slightly different versions of the other back, inspiring but not giving a more nuanced understanding of them both. And just to heap the praise on, the worlds are equally interesting and beautiful. Beautiful not a description of quality but the qualification of form. The concept of. I’ll call this a book just so anybody can identify the physical space it occupies. About as accurate and useful as “over there”. This book is a work of art.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Orbus by Neal Asher - Book Discussion

I memorized Neal Asher’s name as an author to watch after reading Strood (In Years Best SF 10). The story was so weird; I felt it actually captured the feeling of “alien”. I read a lot of science fiction but rarely do I feel challenged that what I’m reading, what’s supposed to be “alien”, is any great leap away from familiar and human. Seems to be the quick and easy way to create an alien civilization is to exaggerate one small cultural practice and make it uniform for an entire race. Deciding to start at the beginning of Asher’s Runcible (Or Polity I’ve seen it called) Universe, I read Gridlinked… Just a whole mess of clich├ęs and “junk”: Ideas and characters that can seem intriguing or, I will say it, cool, at a glance but are ultimately broken in many ways (shallow, childish, stupid). I’ve made peace with the fact that Neal Asher is not my personal salvation and now enjoy his stories as just pure fun. But such was the strength of Strood that I still look into new Asher novels hoping for a return to that alien feeling. His short stories are consistently good, fun, and entertaining, so my faith gets incremental reassurance.

I write all that so that it’ll make sense when I write “I was surprised by Orbus”. Asher actually changed the fundamentals of his universe. And, perhaps it was a realigning of my expectations but, the junk ideas were more fun this time and not as exasperating. There were moments of “alien” feelings. But more important than expanding the range of imagination is feeling that characters are actually doing / changing. Else what is the purpose of the story?

I WILL NOW SPOIL VARIOUS STORY ELEMENTS. The spatterjay virus worked on a number of levels to really make this story. First, I will admit, it makes people really cool. I love that Asher can fit this ancient sea captain into his science fiction universe and have him not be ridiculous. Beautiful thing that traveling a little this way and you can get a heavy cybernetics / A.I. emphasis, and cross a line over here to get brutal monsters, and in-between are all manner of cowboy types and monolithic superbeings. Orbus (the old captain) underscores the raw cruelty of Asher’s universe by being powerful only by virtue of the virus, which at first is just another natural part of the universe. As if the universe is saying “here is a match to your best creations”. Later, once it’s revealed that the virus was engineered by a mysterious / ancient / long gone/ incredibly powerful race (but they’re bugs! Which are typically the fodder of alien races), the virus still functions as a warning that everywhere has something that wants to kill; not even a world completely lacking in technology is safe.

Characters that are driven to acquire new (armor, ship, money, armies, powers) imbue the story with life. I care much more about someone, real or fictional, actively pursuing a goal in their life. Characters just out to solve THE problem are boring. I want to see all the sides of that character, what they would do if they had X power. And the best thing about the spatterjay virus was that, so long as the character kept living, they got more abilities. More possibilities to do. It feels like the universe is actually going somewhere. Characters only goal isn’t to reestablish the status-quo set at the beginning of the story. Topple a king, invent immortality, even discovering a better career are much better uses of their time and mine. The virus also added this mean undercurrent in that anyone infected with the virus, but that couldn’t eat non- infected food to recover, would lose their mind to the virus. Now every battle has a cost to be paid at the end. A new something that must be acquired. Little events, like eating or equipping new armament, make the character more than a plot device. It also means I get immersed in the fiction, which is exactly what I want. Orbus was full of that. I got so excited when Vrell captured the dreadnaught class Prador ship. And justifiably so. He created an army, got in a position for revenge, got a base with all sorts of utility.

Best of all, as far as progression of story in concerned, the virus changes this animalistic, feudal, shortsighted race, into something that will at least have a long term goal. They may stop eating their own young, which is both a metaphor and not. I was so happy the character of the Prador gets altered, not because they weren’t any good before, but because they’ll become more powerful (and thus interesting) by the results of contact with the spatterjay virus. So enjoyable to see Asher shuffle around his universe. And at a fundamental level! This universe’s identity was Polity vs. Prador. And now the Prador are different. I don’t even know what the details of this shift are; just the fact of evolution gives me a good feeling in the reading.

Also, on the naming conventions Asher uses. Many of them I hate. Sniper, Dragon, Prador. I associate such names with a level of creative prowess that would be insulting to Mr. Asher (because he is not at that level). Prador is obvious a few letters chopped and switched from Predator, which is an accurate adjective for them but also plain and ugly. Even just use a better adjective to cut up. Vicious. Viious / Vious / Vous. I’ve got a thing for names and this continues to bother me a great deal.