The “Best” Feminist Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

Isn’t it a little sad that when a celebrity like Joseph Gordon-Levitt calls himself a feminist, it’s considered news?

But in the wake of so many high-profile women—Madonna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Juliette Binoche, Bjork, Melissa Leo…even Lady Gaga—all declining to identify as feminist, a public voice that still embraces the term, from either side of the gender divide, is a necessary corrective.

Let’s review: women still only hold 4.8% of the CEO roles of the Fortune 500, as of January 2014 only 9 women served as Head of State and 15 as Head of Government (there are 196 countries in the world, roughly), in 38 countries women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians, and in the United States—bastion of freedom and equality—median full-time earnings for women have been 77% of men’s across the spectrum of jobs for a decade. And it gets much worse. The largest survey ever conducted in Europe on violence against women showed that 33% of respondents reported being physically or sexually abused since age 15, and some people estimate that 500,000 women have been raped while serving in the U.S. military since the 1940s—largely by their comrades in arms.

Despite the feminist movement’s long and storied history of achievements—which include, let’s not forget, things like very basic property, reproductive and voting rights—stunningly ignorant young women like Shailene Woodley use their undeservedly large public pulpits to spew nonsense like “The word ‘feminist’ is a word that discriminates, and I’m not into that.”

You know how Webster’s defines feminism? “…the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Equal. How the hell, in 2014, is that still considered controversial?

In the spirit of declaring myself a staunch feminist, here are a few examples of the best* feminist sci-fi and fantasy books. Please join in with any recommendations in the comments below.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
The most oft-cited book in any discussion of either feminism, or women in sci-fi in general, The Left Hand of Darkness is the indisputable first choice for the simple fact that it is one of the all-time great science fiction novels of any kind. In the classic mold of all great SF books, The Left Hand of Darkness revolves around an elegant what-if conceit, but really lives in the specificity and richness of its characters.

Le Guin imagined another world where humans have evolved over time to go through gender cycles, being neuter, male and female at different stages of their lives. This blunt metaphor for the ways in which gender dictates how we experience this world is shown through the contrasting absence of fixed roles and discrimination on another planet. But the core of the novel is essentially a love story between an Earth-raised man—who arrives on Winter with all the preconceived gender boundaries of the world of 1969 Le Guin published the novel in—and Estraven, a government minister whom the Earth Envoy initially mistrusts.

The Left Hand of Darkness is, all at once, a gripping ice-bound survival adventure, a thought experiment and a truly feminist exploration of possibilities: what does it mean to be human when we are all equal?

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has always annoyed me. Her reluctance to accept that she’s a science fiction writer has always seemed the worst kind of pretension to me. However, I’d be a fool to deny the power of The Handmaid’s Tale, which sits comfortably beside 1984 as one of the most chilling dystopian novels ever written.

Atwood’s genius with The Handmaid’s Tale lay in how little satirical stretching is required between the real lives of many women and the hypothetical stern and inhuman patriarchy of her imagined future. Women subsisting as breeding stock is also a clever inversion of the B-movie trope of Amazon-ruled styrofoam planets. All of which makes Atwood’s denial of the science fiction label even more irritating given her obvious understanding of it’s power chords and traditions.

But let’s not quibble, The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent novel with sharp world-building and even sharper satire—a book that even resists dismissal as a feminist rant thanks to the genuinely moving journey of the protagonist Offred towards agency.

The Scar, China Miéville
Here’s where my choices get a little more eclectic and less obvious but bear with me. You could reasonably point to any of China Miéville’s books—particularly Embassytown, which was warmly reviewed by Le Guin herself—as being, if nothing else, feminist-friendly. Few other contemporary male writers of fantastic fiction imbue their female characters with as much individuality.

The Scar, in particular, is told from the point of view of the fascinating (and wonderfully named) Bellis Coldwine. Bellis starts the novel as a near-caricature of a repressed ice-queen and ends as a strongly sympathetic, fully-realized and recognizably flawed human. As in The City and the City‘s city, Miéville uses scars as a multi-purpose and fluid metaphor for various physical and psychic transformations. The novel is structured around a journey towards “the scar,” a physical location where the laws of reality break down into chaos—the transformative potential of scars taken to the extreme of sundering.

Bellis becomes a surrogate for all women through a series of bad choices and unhappy accidents, which, by the end of the novel, are even revealed to be the result of unseen manipulations by a man…maybe.

Also, The Scar is full of beautifully baroque monsters.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson’s 10-volumes of door-stopping high fantasy may seem like a perverse choice to appear on the same list as books like The Left Hand of Darkness, but I think it’s a great example of feminist fantasy simply because it assumes equality as a starting point.

Erikson made an incredibly smart choice when he began the vast and archaeologically deep worldbuilding at the heart of the Malazan series: since this is a fantasy world, traditional gender roles don’t have to apply. So, when new characters are introduced—which happens very often—as “Sargent” or “Captain” or “Commander” you can’t automatically assume they are male.

In the first novel of the series, Gardens of the Moon, the two most politically powerful characters we are introduced to are both women: Empress Laseen and her Adjunct Lorn. And Erikson goes on to include a wide variety of other female characters at all levels of power, from slaves to gods, whose gender has little to nothing to do with their standing, role or fate. Rape is unfortunately a possibility for some women, but no more-or-less so than the possibility of violent outcomes for any of the male characters—it’s a dark place, but equally dark.

This may seem like a simple choice, but how many high-fantasy books are still full of damn ladies in waiting? Even in George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular books, Brienne of Tarth and the Mother of Dragons are still really outliers, no? And Daenerys begins the books as an ineffectual court lady, sold into marriage by her brother and repeatedly sexually assaulted.

Jack the Giant Killer, Charles de Lint
Jack the Giant Killer is something of a nostalgic choice on my part as Charles de Lint lives and works in my hometown of Ottawa, Ontario where the novel is set. The wild hunt that opens the novel takes place in a park I can picture easily and is only 10 minutes from where I’m now writing. However, Charles de Lint is also possibly the best urban fantasy writer working today.

His re-imagining of the classic Jack of beanstalk fame as a kind of archetypal trickster role that can be inhabited by a woman was fresh and unexpected in long ago 1987. Today, when every second e-book bestseller on Amazon is an urban fantasy of some kind, it’s hard to imagine how fresh de Lint’s approach with Jack the Giant Killer was. I know I had never read anything before Jack that resuscitated fairy-tales, which had been thoroughly trampled on by Disney for so long, by combining them with contemporary urban settings and issues.

Jack the Giant Killer is a tightly-written, thrilling bit of fantasy adventure starring a woman—whose main aide-de-camp is also a woman. Charles de Lint has been reflexively and undemonstratively feminist throughout his career and should be much more widely celebrated.

——
*And by “best” I of course mean: “my personal and highly subjective favourites.”

Jim Starlin: the Bronze Age of Comics Goes Hollywood

JimStarlin2008

“Jim Starlin 2008” by Pat Loika – Flickr: Jim Starlin. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The rise of Marvel Studios and its recent purchase by Disney has accelerated the Silver Age of Comics[1] adaptations. Spider-Man is mid-way through his second trilogy of films. Other franchises are well-established and likely to continue on well into the future: Iron Man, Avengers…you know the roll-call.[2]

This Friday (August 1st), with the arrival of the Guardians of the Galaxy film by Marvel, we will begin to see the first serious foray into the Bronze Age and the mind behind some of the characters and concepts: Jim Starlin.

Starlin is behind the creation of Drax, Gamora and the villain Thanos in the film. Bill Mantlo (of Micronauts and ROM fame) created Rocket Raccoon; Star-Lord was created by Steve Englehart but re-conceived by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. All of these creators and creations stem from the Bronze Age.[3]

Starlin holds a special place in the firmament of these creators. He is the most successful incorporating a certain 70s zeitgeist into his work. For the kids reading, we’re talking about the end of the Vietnam war, genocides in Cambodia, Charles Manson, the end of the hippy dream, Nixon in the White House, etc. Starlin’s themes? Mass death, insanity, existential crises, transcendence, inter-generation alienation and Jesus freaks. His work was a veritable Dark Side of the Moon in comics form.

Surprisingly, he was building his distinct body of work from the get-go.

Starlin, like any other young creator just breaking into comics in 1973, was not given the plum jobs. He was drawing fill-in issues for middling titles. Yet in his first three-issue fill-in stint in Iron Man, he introduced two of his most enduring creations:  Thanos, a megalomanical lover of death and Drax, a cosmic case of bad anger management whose raison d’etre is to destroy Thanos. Starlin had conceived of the two while attending a psychology class following a discharge from the US Navy.

Following this,  he was assigned his first regular gig to draw Captain Marvel, another poorly-selling book limping along in its mediocrity. Captain Marvel was a character only created and sustained to maintain copywrite over the name “Captain Marvel.”[4] He was little more than a cynically-conceived cypher. However,  Starlin quickly transformed the character. He did it first by re-introducing his two creations, Drax and Thanos, and expanding upon the cosmic concepts established in the title. Captain Marvel (real name Mar-Vell) was an alien, a Kree warrior, sent out to fight crime around the universe and to spy on Earth lest the latter pose a threat to the Kree Empire. Quickly taking over the writing and drawing himself, Starlin had Mar-Vell’s powers expanded, including a “Cosmic Awareness” power that ultimately made the life-long warrior no longer want to fight.  What could be more hippy and post-Vietnam than that, man?

In the Captain Marvel title, Starlin had the space to expand upon Thanos’ character. Thanos, originally a pacifist and animal lover and born into the perfect family on the Utopia of Titan, in his adolescence grows morose and obsessed with death. He begins to court the cosmic manifestation of Death, a gorgeous woman eternally and maddeningly out of reach. He will do anything his harsh mistress demands of him. He imagines what might please her. He attempts to murder his own family and partly succeeds. Ultimately he will commit genocide against his own people and attempt to attain ultimate power through various means.

Drax meanwhile, continually thwarted in his mission to bring down the crafty Thanos, goes insane with frustration and becomes a maverick force of destruction to be manipulated by various Powers-That-Be.

And that was Starlin’s opening act. His second assignment would be the work that would truly define him.

Warlock-10

Warlock was a dog’s breakfast of a character born from an average Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four tale. He starts off as a genetically perfect human dubbed “Him.” Years later, re-imagined by Roy Thomas and designed by Gil Kane and dubbed Warlock, he is now a “cosmic Jesus Christ Superstar”[5] whose veiled parallel life to the Gospels becomes more apparent as the title progresses. Soon Warlock is bound to a high-tech cross and wonders why he has been forsaken. Alas, the concept wasn’t working. The title was on the verge of cancellation. Then along came its saviour.

Starlin’s first act was to take Warlock the saint and screw him up; make the perfect man a failure and an obsessive. He also picked up the thread that Warlock, despite his adult appearance, is essentially an adolescent, his rapid physical aging an artificial process from his experimental origins.

Starlin lays the groundwork of  Warlock as a screwed-up teen in a re-contextualizing intro of his first story. [6] In earlier pre-Starlin issues,  Warlock had decided he needed a girlfriend and decided to take Thor‘s with an ensuing fight with the Thundergod over that. Another flashback to the character’s origin as a scientific experiment and the “patricide” upon his birth as the underground lab where he was “born” explodes, killing his creators.  Finally, his transition to an angst-filled loner amongst the stars looking for his purpose, his mission in life.

Starlin also puts new focus on a previously minor plot point: the giving of The Soul Gem to Warlock by an entity named The High Evolutionary.

Then Starlin gets rolling: a pretty girl in a skin-tight space suit seeks Warlock out on a remote asteroid. (What’s he doing there? Hanging out and moping, I’d guess.)  In hot pursuit are minions of the Church of Universal Truth who seek to slay her due to her impiety. Warlock vows to protect her for no other reason I can tell except she’s pretty and humanoid and her pursuers lumpy reptilian beasts.

Warlock wins the fisticuffs with the interstellar gang except against a baddie named Borgia who is too strong. Thus, like Bilbo and the Ring or Elric and Stormbringer, he must invoke the evil power of his soul gem to defeat him. Despite this distasteful choice, Warlock’s  enemies still get the drop on him and manage to kill the girl with a laser blast. Wails of anguish as Warlock laments what a screw-up he is. However thinking quickly, he realizes that he can use the power of the soul gem to re-animate the girl, and learn more of her tormentors. Lazarus-like, the girl rises again and explains the deadly methodology of the Universal Church of Truth and how they have spread their faith around the universe using the weaponry of the Purification Fleet against those who don’t convert.

This history lesson is interrupted by the appearance of Magus, the head of the church, who yells at and basically freaks out Warlock by revealing the two are the same guy, only Magus is Warlock’s future version! Magus soon disappears in a de rigeur burst of Joker laughter.

The issue concludes with a Warlock thought-balloon soliloquy: “How does one defeat himself without destroying himself? ‘Tis madness to go on, yet if I cease the struggle, madness shall surely prevail!” The prince of Denmark couldn’t have said it better. Except he could. And did. Anyway…

In Warlock,  Starlin created a perfect avatar for the over-wrought adolescent male: adult in power but with immature impulses and emotion, prone to overly grand gestures, narcissistic and moody. With the Magus story-line, Starlin sets up a brilliant teen angst: by fighting his future adult, evil self Warlock taps into a teen’s fear of the future and the compromises to his idealism (don’t trust anyone over 40…) . In possession of the Soul Gem, Warlock has that evil seed literally planted in (on) his (fore)head.

The Soul Gem gradually gets stronger and vampiric, thirsting for souls. The Soul Gem absorbs the souls of its victims and they remain active in the gem. Their voices can still be heard by Warlock. And the voices multiply. Soon Warlock’s head is filled with a cacophony of voices of his enemies and tormentors. He begins to become insane and schizophrenic. He contemplates suicide to release himself from his torment. (Who didn’t feel like that at 14 years old?)

It was the story-line Starlin wanted to pursue: the gradual insanity of Warlock which would culminate in his suicide. End of the title. Unfortunately, Starlin’s editors would have none of that because the book was selling better again, not gangbusters but enough to justify its continued publication. It had “buzz”.  Better sales meant greater editorial scrutiny, however, which didn’t suit Starlin’s agenda at all.  With marginal titles, creators were given largely a free hand because there was nothing to lose money-wise. Starlin elbowed even more creative freedom by deliberately submitting Warlock just before deadline (even though the book was completed 3 weeks in advance) so the editors had no choice but to accept the book as a fait-accompli. Starlin became a victim of his success and quit after his newly-awake editor tried asserting control. The book itself didn’t survive much past his departure. It was one of the first in  a massive wave of cancellations of titles in the mid-70s because Marvel could no longer afford their printing bill.

Starlin was pissed at Marvel for a few years over Warlock and worked for rival DC in the meantime on prestigious titles like Batman.

What lured him back was a new project by Archie Goodwin called Epic Illustrated magazine. Epic Illustrated was another attempt to copy what was selling in the market, this time the object of flattery being Heavy Metal magazine, essentially an English translation of Métal Hurlant magazine in France. The formula of Epic and Heavy Metal was high production values, magazine format, outside the Comics Code[7] with a heady mix of sci-fi, fantasy and scantily-clad women in the serialized story-lines. Epic Illustrated wasn’t as raunchy as Heavy Metal but it did lure in top creators from Europe and the Americas with this: Creator’s Rights. For the first time, cartoonists working for Marvel and published under the Epic imprint would wholly own their creations.

This development towards the Creator’s Rights at Marvel wasn’t just an aping of European practice however. Marvel and DC had both been embarrassed in the late 70s and early 80s with sensational stories of creator exploitation. Seigel and Shuster, creators of Superman, were living in poverty while Warner Brothers raked in millions from Superman: The Movie. Jack Kirby, the genius behind many Gold and especially Silver Age creations at Marvel (Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-Men, Thor, Hulk et al) wanted his original artwork back to possibly sell at auction but Marvel refused (while surreptitiously selling it themselves through back channels).

There was a whiff of rebellion in the air. Elfquest, an independent creator-owned title was a hit. As was Cerebus.[8] Prestigious creators like Howard Chaykin, Steve Gerber, Gene Colon, Mike Grell, Steve Ditko, P. Craig Russell and many others were drifting towards the few but growing outlets of creative freedom and ownership. Marvel provided a major one with Epic Illustrated and Starlin was interested in creating a space epic purely of his own creation.

Dreadstar_graphic_novel

The tale was serialized in Epic as the Metamorphosis Odyssey but now is largely referred to as Dreadstar after its main protagonist.

Dreadstar revisits some of Starlin’s themes but on a vaster scale: genocide, destruction of the universe, the harnessing of evil forces in the service of good (or at least, less evil), revenge, evil organized religion, and good children growing up bad. Where it departs is Starlin gives himself  a larger cast (whereas Captain Marvel and Warlock were essentially loners with an occasional hanger-on. Gamora, a character in Guardians of the Galaxy, began as a companion to Warlock.)

Each cast member of Dreadstar is tormented in different ways of course: one is the guilty last survivor of his race, one compromises his humanity to learn dark magics in the service of good, one a victim of incest etc. Vanth Dreadstar himself starts out as a peaceful farmer forced to join the army of the Monarchy against the evil church of the Instrumentality after his wife and home are destroyed by the Monarchy forces. He is a fifth column, quickly rising in the ranks, until he kills the monarch himself. Vanth installs his own puppet monarch and sets about ending the war with the Monarchy forces at his disposal. Helping him is a mystical sword that grants him immortality. He is a mercurial figure: at times hunter, soldier, rebel, and mystic. Starlin expressed to me at the Montreal Comiccon that his shifting identity was part-and-parcel of his immortal nature and was intended to continue.[9] Vanth ultimately succeeds in ending the Monarchy-Instrumentality War but by losing it on behalf of the Monarchy. His forces routed, he is forced to escape with his companions into the wider universe, his enemies in hot pursuit.

The story gripped its intended readership. Epic Illustrated was initially a success and it’s fair to attribute a large part of that to Starlin’s steady contribution. But Starlin had larger ambitions.

He approached Jim Shooter, then Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, with an idea for a “graphic novel”[10] format. Essentially these formats would be similar dimensions to Epic Illustrated but with a card-stock cover and with stand-alone stories. (In fact, Starlin had already pioneered the format with another publisher, Eclipse, with his second part of the Metamorphosis Odyssey called The Price.) Starlin wanted to create a follow-up to The Price and call it Dreadstar and create an on-going Dreadstar comic series under a new Epic Comics imprint.

Shooter liked the idea but it was a big shopping list Starlin was presenting.  Shooter wanted something in return: Starlin would create Marvel’s first graphic novel, but it would be a revisiting of Starlin’s most famous body of work: Captain Marvel.

Starlin agreed. For doing an original Captain Marvel graphic novel, his Dreadstar graphic novel and the birth of Epic Comics and the Dreadstar series would be green-lighted. So, Starlin being Starlin, his Captain Marvel graphic novel would be The Death of Captain Marvel.

DeathofCaptainMarvel

The Death of Captain Marvel would become Starlin’s best-selling, most famous and most collectible work. It carried on his theme of Mar-Vell the warrior retiring in peace on the utopian moon of Titan with his girlfriend. But the Kree has grown ill. Indeed, he is diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer which re-ignites his warrior instincts to “rage against the dying of the light.” On his deathbed Mar-Vell hallucinates a last glorious battle to the death with Thanos, his arch-enemy. Alas, Mar-Vell goes out with a whimper, not a bang, surrounded by his superhero colleagues. What struck the fanboy base was the difference of tone to the story. A superhero up to then had never succumbed to something as everyday as cancer. Mar-Vell goes through steps of treatment and denial of his condition. The spark for the story was Starlin’s own father dying of cancer and, in Starlin’s own words, “Death of Captain Marvel”  was “a cheap form of therapy.”

Shooter kept his end of the deal and Marvel Graphic Novel #3 was Dreadstar shortly followed by the launch of Epic Comics in 1983, Dreadstar #1 being its first title.

This would be the highwater mark in terms of Starlin’s impact and influence until now. Dreadstar would have a modest success and other titles launched by Epic Comics would be flops (notable exception being Moonshadow by J.M. DeMatteis and J. Muth).  Starlin would once again have a falling out with Marvel/Epic and move Dreadstar to First Comics. A former champion of creator’s rights, he would later hand over the title to work-for-hire cartoonists to continue.

My personal “jump the shark” moment for Starlin was when Dreadstar is “killed” by his arch-nemesis The Lord High Papal of the Instrumentality  (an albino Magus/Thanos stand-in) and returns as a superhero in bright yellow skintight costume and Dreadstar chest insignia. The murky troubled promise of the Epic Illustrated serializations vanished for me at that point.

It must be noted Starlin is noted primarily for his contribution as a writer and creator, not an artist although he wrote and drew a great deal of his own work. The peak of his visual output was his painterly work for Epic Illustrated, The Price and Dreadstar graphic novels. Outside of those, he is no great shakes. His character design is pedestrian. Figures are mostly naked with lines denoting form-fitting clothing. He used one lithe female body type for all his female characters and two male types: standard superhero and bulky bad guy. His aliens are insect heads on superhero body. His human faces all had deep-set eyes with heavy shadows above them (or way too much mascara). Starlin has confessed he preferred drawing sci-fi stories because he “hated drawing cars and guys in suits.” Yet even his technology is dull. Walls gridded with multi-coloured lights and minimalist geometric sets. His spaceships and ray guns are completely forgettable.

Yet now on the cusp of seeing Drax, Gamora and his beloved Thanos adapted to the big screen, Starlin is once more ascendant. Deservedly so. His compelling body of work combining teen-centric themes of death, insanity, outrageous scope, Ditko-esque trippiness, and Jack Kirby scale featuring moody characters who take themselves far too seriously has come of age. Add a soupcon on Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga (especially Elric’s sword Stormbringer playing a similar role to Warlock’s soul gem) and Frank Hebert’s Dune (and its idea of the flawed Messiah) and you’ve got the heady mixture that makes Jim Starlin’s body of work so compelling, of its time and yet still resonant today.

For a life-long fan like me, this is a very exciting moment.

______

[1]The history of comics has been divided into 4 eras: The Golden Era of the 30s,40s and 50s when comic books began and introduced such characters as Super-Man, Bat-Man, Captain Marvel, The Spirit, The Phantom, Green Hornet, Captain America and their creators: Siegel and Shuster, Bob Kane, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Steve Ditko among many others; the Silver Era of the 60s which revived superheroes and chronicled the rise of Marvel Comics and their properties: Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Avengers, Iron Man, Hulk et al; and finally the Bronze Era of the 70s and early 80s which saw a whole new generation of creators take on and introduce characters into the “universes” of DC and Marvel. Creators that rose to prominence included Chris Claremont on the X-Men, Frank Miller on Daredevil, Steve Englehart on Howard the Duck, Neil Adams and Denny O’Neil on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Jim Shooter on Legion of the Super-heroes and later Avengers plus many others.
[2]George Lucas could be credited with getting the ball (or egg) rolling with his disastrous flop Howard the Duck.
[3]Only the character Groot stems from the Silver Age and was a creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
[4]Shazam etc
[5]Roy Thomas’ stated aim for the character.
[6]Starlin often did intros that recapped past events as one of his techniques to produce pages quickly. In those economically-strapped days, artists were required by Marvel to do one page “for free”. This often meant duplicating scenes from past issues as flashbacks or taking one page, putting it on its side and making it a two-page spread.
[7]Comics Code was an industry-created and maintained standard of thematic conformity in Americancomic books.
[8]See my original article: Non-genre Revolution of the 1980s
[9]At this writing, the Dreadstar story-line is unfinished after a discontinued run at Epic and later First Comics.

[10]This was 1982 where the very idea of the “graphic novel” was in its infancy. Indeed, the term itself was widely mocked by fans of the “comic book”. Starlin and Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit and what’s considered the first modern American graphic novel A Contract with God were its strongest proponents.

Hardboiled: Motherless Brooklyn

Belonging, without question, within the lineage of the hardboiled, Jonathan Lethem‘s moving Motherless Brooklyn is an example of the way hardboiled tropes can be tweaked to make sense in a contemporary context. Not a revisionist book per se, Motherless Brooklyn stays true to its generic inspirations while also exploring new modes.

Published in 1999, reviews at The New York Times and Salon, described Motherless Brooklyn as “better than the average hip post modern novel” and working under “the guise of a detective novel” to achieve loftier goals, respectively. The problem I have with these analyses is that they dismiss how cleanly the novel stays within hardboiled genre conventions. Lethem clearly, to me at least,  set out to write a detective novel first, and the subtext and twists on genre followed after.

The story is entirely from the main character’s point-of-view, Lionel Essrog, an orphan who grew up with a close group of three other Brooklyn castoffs, Tony, Danny and Gilbert; later to be taken under the mentoring of a shady local businessman Frank Minna. As “Minna’s Men” the four eventually become a detective agency/limo service, with some sketchy additional responsibilities doled out by Frank with little context. Despite some occasional rough treatment at all of their hands, Lionel loves Frank like a father and the other Minna Men as brothers. A subtext in Motherless Brooklyn about the way we, sometimes desperately, create ersatz families out of friends is essentially text.

The primary plot driver of the novel is an investigation Lionel undertakes—of his own volition with no support and rife with obstacles—of the mysterious fate of Frank Minna himself. This investigation eventually destabilizes and recontextualizes Lionel’s understanding of almost all of the people and situations he has lived with most of his adult life.

What sets the novel apart from other hardboiled detective fiction is the unique interior mental landscape of Lionel Essrog. Lionel has struggled all his life with Tourette’s syndrome, in a social environment that is by turns dismissively cold or actively hostile to the different and unexpected. But while Lionel’s syndrome is the source of a wide range of injuries to his self-esteem and a daily challenge, it’s also shown to be part of what makes him a natural detective. Lethem turns Lionel’s Tourette’s into a kind of secret—admittedly hard to control and potentially damaging—super-power, like an X-Men-style mutation. Given Lethem’s well documented love of comics, this approach to explaining Tourette’s to the lay person is organic and strangely relate-able. I had never understood Tourette’s as a collection of discreet compulsive behaviours until I spent time in Lionel Essrog’s mental landscape.

Lethem tries to capture what it must be like to compulsively turn an idea, word or image over-and-over in your head until it has to explode out of you in a outburst—like venting steam to release pressure—the outward expression of rapid and compulsive thought processes. I have no idea how accurate Motherless Brooklyn is to the interior life of a Tourette’s sufferer, but to an outsider like me there seemed to be an emotional honesty and genuine empathy to the depiction. Lethem also makes a compelling argument that the compulsions at the heart of Lionel’s syndrome make him the only one in the book capable of following through on the truth behind the fate of Frank Minna.

In hindsight, it’s hard not to see Motherless Brooklyn as the precursor (inspiration?) to so many television shows about brilliant characters with diagnosable mental problems, which seem to help make them better at their jobs, such as Monk, House and even the recent Sherlock.

While engaging and heartfelt throughout, Motherless Brooklyn is not without some minor issues. In particular, a love interest for Lionel begins as an intriguing personality sketch but quickly thins out into inscrutability. This was probably a deliberate choice on Lethem’s part as it either helps show the challenges someone with Tourette’s must face in cultivating romantic relationships, or the challenges Lionel faces in specific because he basically inhabits, and is largely comfortable in, a world of thugs and gangsters. Either way though, the net effect is to turn an initially promising character into stock. This is a little disappointing in that the lack of positive female influences—particularity mother figures—in all the Minna Men’s lives (implicit even in the title of the book) is an interesting bit of subtext that could have been explored further. Lethem pokes at the idea with his depictions of Frank’s mother and wife, but the concept feels slightly under-served.

Flaws aside, Motherless Brooklyn is a refreshingly entertaining read: a tense, driving, hardboiled detective story with heartfelt and truly moving pathos and a unique point-of-view—it’s also full of lovingly rendered Brooklyn details that ground the proceedings.

Motherless Brooklyn helps to reinforce that hardboiled writing can have a place in contemporary fiction, and not just as a curio of the past. Motherless Brooklyn feels as fresh and interesting today as when it was written, and I suspect it will age very well.

Marvel Toys with Sci-Fi

Star Wars - Howard ChaykinA bleak landscape. Casualties by the score. A desperate pack of misfits doing what they can to survive in increasingly hostile terrain. A premise for a post-apocalyptic film? No. What Marvel Comics and its artists were facing in the late seventies.

In my first article, I explained how the plummeting sales of mainstream comics nearly caused the collapse of DC and Marvel and how creators outside of these companies planted the seeds of non-genre comics in the early eighties.

The Big Two comics companies weren’t going down without a fight. Well, maybe more accurately, they were waiting out the downturn and hoping something, anything, would come along as their salvation. Meanwhile, desperate for some sales spark, Marvel in particular fell back on a strategy that many companies had tried in the past: produce a whole bunch of books of various genres, throw them at the wall and see which ones would stick.

To their credit, some of these genre comics were quite inventive. Bruce Lee was a movie sensation in the late 70s so Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu comic was created; Evel Knievel the stuntman had captured imaginations so The Human Fly, a comic about another real-life stuntman was produced; Japanese giant robots and monsters were appearing in cartoons on TV (along with various merchandise) so Shogun Warriors and Godzilla were offered up; horror reappeared in a tamer Comics Code* form in books like Frankenstein,  Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night; adaptations of other successful genre literature were created such as Conan the Barbarian. Blaxploitation film was channeled into a book called Luke Cage, Powerman and Jack Kirby (who always marched to his own drum) tried a book based on the further adventures detailed in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Strangely, previously accepted genres like romance comics were not revived nor were war comics. DC had an on-going title Sgt. Rock whose sales may have played a part in discouraging others. MAD Magazine was still going strong so imitators like Plop! from DC were attempted. DC also tried to capture the zeitgeist by paring Mohammed Ali with Superman for a prize fight but the effort was widely mocked.

These books of course met with various levels of success. Conan was a hit but Shogun Warriors, Godzilla, 2001, and The Human Fly were big misses. Further, none could staunch the bleeding of sales of Marvel’s bread & butter: The Amazing Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Mighty Avengers, Captain America and Thor.

Then Marvel got lucky.

Roy Thomas, an editor, had heard Hollywood was creating a sci-fi movie that would be released in 1977 and asked the director permission to adapt it for comics. Luckily the director was a fan of Marvel Comics and gave the go-ahead. The adaptation’s publication would coincide with the film’s release but as the final edit was not finished, the artist and writer would work from the script, some rushes and production stills. The result was one of Marvel’s best-selling comics of all-time and by far its most successful adaptation: Star Wars.

Those who have read the Roy Thomas scripted and Howard Chaykin drawn Star Wars know what a funky book it is. It has scenes and dialogue that hit the cutting room floor, a different progression and story structure and some crude likenesses of characters. Star Wars #1 was on newsstands before the film’s release. It would be the first piece of merchandise from the franchise.

Many in the comics industry credit the Star Wars comic alone for turning around Marvel’s late 70s fortunes. (Marvel, of course, continued the adventures of Han Solo et al long after the 6-issue adaptation had finished). It had whet the appetite of Marvel for other space opera properties so when Battlestar Gallactica the film (and later TV series) came along, they bet on lightning striking twice. It didn’t.

Marvel was still casting about for other properties to adapt when one of their lower-tier writers approached them with an idea of adapting toys to comics. As Marvel had little to lose, he was given permission and two books were produced in close succession: the Micronauts, based on a line of Japanese-made interchangeable mini-figures, and ROM, a big clunky robot doll made by Parker Brothers.

The writer was Bill Mantlo, a guy whose comics career up to that point had been based around how fast he could write. That may sound absurd, but in the monthly grind of comics production, a writer who could turn in a reasonable script on a dime when a previously-planned story was delayed for whatever reason was a God-send for many editors.

Mantlo was a “true believer,” a term Stan Lee used to describe die hard Marvel fans, yet he had greater ambitions than writing fill-in issues of Iron Man. He wanted to produce a sci-fi comic and Marvel had given him the green light to produce two. His first would be his greatest.

The Micronauts

Micronauts toys were based around a Japanese anime TV series in 1974 but Mantlo only knew of them as cool toys his mother had given his son one Christmas. The concept was clearly sci-fi with various space ship accessories, futuristic weapons and advanced and impractical architecture. The unique selling point for the toys though was the mini-figures, the robots, parts of vehicles et cetera were interchangeable. You could mix and match the heads, hands, weapons etc with almost any other Micronaut. (This was long before Playmobil or Lego mini-figures it should be pointed out.) One character, Force Commander, had a horse, Oberon, that could blend together to create a centaur for example. Some weapons on the Astro-Station could be mounted on the chest cavity of a normal Micronaut .

The main baddie was a Micronaut named Baron Karza, clad in black armour and mask that looked suspiciously like Darth Vader but actually pre-dates the Sith Lord by at least 3 years.

Based only on the look of the toys and this idea of interchangeable body parts, Mantlo went about creating his comics masterpiece.

He started lucky. Michael Golden, a virtually unknown artist at the time who had done some fill-in work at DC and worked part-time as a plumber, was brought in. Golden was a cagey guy, a bit of a hippy, who loved sci-fi  and Mantlo’s concept intrigued him. He could draw like a dream.

Seizing on the word “micro”, the adventure would take place in a microscopic universe. The evil Baron Karza, a former Chief Scientist, has seized control of the planet Homeworld and slain the monarchy. Prince Argon and Princess Mari escape the coup and go underground to form a rebellion against the tyrant. The dictator doesn’t hold power by sheer force of arms alone, however. The key to his power and popularity is a business he runs, the Body Banks, which allows the Homeworld population to live forever by renewing body parts. Where do these parts come from? Where else? The poor underclasses of Homeworld sell them or gamble them away in the Body Bank casinos while the rich bask in eternal young and beauty at their expense. Indeed, the Baron himself is over 1000 years old.

The seizure of Homeworld is in fact the final move for the Baron to dominate the entire Microverse. Like the emperor he is, he now goes about keeping the population docile and amused by hosting gladiatoral games wherein his enemies are publicly executed. There is one loose end, however.

A former student from 1000 years ago named Arcturus Rann is set to return from his futile exploratory mission of the Microverse. Why futile? Because during Rann’s trip, warp drive (a faster method of travel) had been discovered on Homeworld and the Baron used the data beamed back by Rann to conquer all that had been explored. Rann is also the last of the line of Lord Dallan and Lady Sepsis, monarchs the Baron snuffed out centuries before while their son traveled around in suspended animation as a micronaut.

Upon his return, Rann is quickly imprisoned while the Baron, always the scientist, can examine his protege for any side-effects from the journey. While in prison, Rann meets two other political prisoners, a mischievous insectvorid thief named Bug and Prince Acroyear, another deposed monarch but from the warrior planet Spartak.

Finally they are all set to be destroyed in the arena of the Great Games but things don’t go the Baron’s way as Princess Mari and her rebellion set off explosive charges, cause mayhem and the Micronauts: Rann, Mari, Bug, Acroyear plus two “roboids” of theirs, Microtron and Biotron, escape in Rann’s ancient ship, the Endeavor. With the Baron’s forces in hot pursuit, Rann’s only remaining evasive tactic is to pierce the Space Wall, which lands them as 4″ mini-figures on planet Earth.

What would follow over the next 12 issues was some of the best comics Marvel has produced. The story of surviving as little people on Earth, the forces of the Baron pursuing them there, befriending Earthlings, the discovery that the Micronauts were not the first from their microverse to land there, an encounter with another mad scientist, taking the rebellion back to the Microverse and ultimately defeating the Baron had breath-taking pace and scope. It was a tour-de-force and importantly for Marvel, it sold like gang-busters. It was of course helped by the popularity of Star Wars and some of the elements Mantlo “borrowed”: rebellious princess, funny robots, and the main character’s connection to a mysterious power, in this case the Enigma Force.

The concept itself was strong on its own though. It was also brought to beautiful life by the skill and creativity of Golden who peppered his visuals with odd alphabets, inventive layouts, and excellent renderings of duct work. The rapid pacing was also due to Golden.

After Micronauts #3, Marvel and Mantlo knew they had a hit on their hands and the latter’s ambition grew. Mantlo began to draft a 50-issue epic that would culminate in the defeat of Baron Karza at the hands of Arcturus Rann. Golden would have none of it.

He had committed to a 12-issue run and after that would be happy to do a few covers but that would end his association with the book. Mantlo, the Marvel fanboy, had introduced some superhero elements that irked Golden and Golden had been told his beautiful drawings weren’t “Marvel enough” and he should ape Jack Kirby like everyone else.

So Mantlo changed tacks and crammed the important elements of his 50-issue master plan into 12 so that Golden would be the artist to realize them.

Other artists would take over after Golden. Chaykin, hot off his Star Wars success, was a natural choice but he handed in some rather pedestrian work. Pat Broderick, another newcomer, revived the book with some stellar illustrating. A year after Broderick left, Jackson Guice would bring the book to another creative peak.

Mantlo ultimately got 58 issues of Micronauts, 2 Annuals, a 4-issue mini-series with the X-Men, but using all-told a dozen artists and a story-line that included 2 Baron Karza resurrections. The book rarely wavered from its core sci-fi premise and had a cadre of very loyal readers, so loyal that the Micronauts was one of three books Marvel selected to sell exclusively through a new form of comics retailing in the 80s: the comics shop.

Mantlo would pen another hit book based around another toy, the aforementioned ROM, Spaceknight. This toy had no backstory whatsoever except a blurb on the box saying his arch enemies were something called “Dire Wraiths”. Mantlo’s concept was a cross between the Silver Surfer, the Skrulls (concepts lifted from classic Lee and Kirby Fantastic Four) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Comparing the impact of ROM versus the Micronauts is a case study of the influence a talented artist can have. In the Micronauts there were the stunning visuals and compelling character designs of Michael Golden, whereas ROM was pencilled by a journeyman cartoonist Sal Buscema. The art was serviceable but hardly inspired. The dreaded Dire Wraiths, whom Parker Brothers had named but never visualized, were no more than Pillsbury Doughboys with fangs.

The concept was that the Dire Wraiths, a shape-shifting sorcerous race,  had threatened ROM’s home planet of Galador for generations but were ultimately defeated by the valor of the Spaceknights. The Spaceknights were selected from the best and brightest of Galador, but their humanity was transferred into an electronic suit of armour. The knights’ original human form would be restored once the war was over. Alas, upon defeat, the Dire Wraiths fled and scattered amongst all the populations of the universe. Feeling responsible for this outcome, the Spaceknights pursued the Wraiths to all corners of the universe. ROM’s assignment was Earth.

What followed was a McCarthy-esque hunt for the evil shape-shifters which ROM could detect with a special analyzer kept in an extra-dimensional “pocket” and which would appear in his hand at will. Upon discovering some evil-doers, ROM could switch devices and blast the Wraiths, compassionately banishing them to limbo. As the war progressed, however, and the casualties mounted, ROM began to feel his humanity melting away and being replaced by the cold Galadorian steel which housed his soul. His salvation? A pretty woman from a small town, of course, named Brandy Clark, who reminds ROM what is important in life.

In execution, ROM was more super heroic than the Micronauts. It was largely based on Earth with only an occasional sojourn into space. There were many super-hero guest stars over the course of the book and the story culminates in practically all the super people forming a massive army to help ROM kick Dire Wraith ass once and for all. It dealt with themes of duty, sacrifice, guile, and compassion with a sheen of sci-fi as shiny as ROM’s armour.

It sold well, helped in its early days by Michael Golden covers.

These three books together: Star Wars, the Micronauts and ROM Spaceknight helped to save Marvel from collapse in the late 70s. It could have been the beginning of a new era of sci-fi comics (or toy-based comics for that matter) except for the revival of super-heroes spearheaded by 4 prominent creators: Chris Claremont on the newly launched The New Uncanny X-Men, John Byrne on X-Men and later the Fantastic Four, Frank Miller on Daredevil and Jim Shooter on the Avengers and later Secret Wars.  These books and creators brought new life and concepts to long-in-the-tooth properties and were largely responsible for the boom in comics sales in the 1980s. The super-heroes were back, having narrowly escaped death, more powerful than ever.

Star Wars the comic finished shortly after The Return of the Jedi film came out. Micronauts finished in the late eighties. ROM lingered only slightly longer, but their work was done. Unfortunately for the creators and Marvel, these properties couldn’t be revived at a later date because they were not owned by Marvel, only licensed.**

Of the three, the superior book is the Micronauts, in particular the first 12 issues. You will have to hunt them down in whatever comic shops are left and in the few remaining back issue bins still stocked. Or if you want to be lazy about it, find them on-line.  You will be treated to a well-crafted and highly entertaining book, a book that could have been a new direction for mainstream comics but is now a fondly remembered footnote.

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*The Comics Code was responsible for the demise of the strongest line of horror comics ever created, those being from EC Comics of the 1950s. Indeed, it was created to specifically target and neuter the conventions and violently graphic nature of these books.
**Recently Marvel and Lucasfilm were bought by Disney, so Marvel will be once again producing Star Wars comics.

Is the YA Book Bubble Bursting?

Charlie Jane Anders posted a brief but intriguing piece recently at io9 (based on a Wall Street Journal article) that speculates on the possible end of the current young adult book boom. The film and book industry that serves the YA audience seems to be collectively holding its breath in anticipation of Divergent‘s performance this upcoming weekend. In Ms Anders words:

“Studios are hoping it’ll show there are still audiences for young-adult films other than Hunger Games, after the dismal performance of several other films.”

She goes on to cite fatigue over the similarities between different YA books and movies as one of the causes of the seemingly receding YA market.

“…studios are getting wary of novels that feel too much like cookie-cutter copies of other stuff. Especially Twilight clones.”

This argument resonates with me because as a lifelong reader of genre, I’m sensitive to the difference between the artful use of common genre conventions—like a dystopian society under the thumb of an oppressive government—and the recycling of tired clichés because they moved product previously—like the Romeo & Juliet combinations referenced in Ms Anders’ post.

Ms Anders also provides a couple examples of new, more literary sources, as potentially a positive direction for producers, including The Giver, but doesn’t encourage a lot of enthusiasm.

“…the larger problem remains—in books as well as in movies, there’s no ‘mega franchise’ to replace Hunger GamesTwilight and Harry Potter among the tween and teen crowd. At least, not yet. Maybe that book is being written as we speak.”

I really like that last hopeful note. The image of someone toiling away somewhere in—what I imagine to be—a cramped, drafty space, maybe at night after a day job, to produce the next big hit is heartening. Because whatever feelings I might have about the relative literary merit of books like Twilight, any “mega franchise” that drives young people to seek out other reading options is a boon to book culture at large.

During the last book sale we attended, I was surprised at the number of young readers who came to our booth. Several were looking for Twilight and The Hunger Games or something very similar, sure, but also many of them were exploring genre books in different directions, as a result of having read those books already—some of whom even had a more than passing interest in true classics.

I guess my point is that we maybe should all be crossing our fingers that Divergent is successful this weekend, leading more young readers to the book, and hopefully on to other books.

Divergent Ticket Winners

Divergent, the movie

We had an amazing response to our recent Divergent ticket giveaway. Thanks to everyone who entered and congratulations to our four winners, listed below along with their favourite YA book choice:

Rubby Neville “Hunger Games trilogy…first [of the] dystopia genre I’ve read…”
Karen D “…The Giver…first futuristic book I read that seemed plausible…completely engross[ing]”
Susan Lehmann “I hate to sound stereo typical…but I still like all vampire…related books (especially with a good love triangle…)”
Alyson Barlow “Hunger Games—it was so well written”

Based on the entries we received, The Hunger Games still seems to loom over the YA market, but the Divergent books are selling well and there’s some buzz around the upcoming movie. Any of the winners are welcome to come back and post a comment here letting us know what you thought. Enjoy the show!

Giveaway: Divergent Tickets [CONTEST CLOSED]

Divergent

UPDATE: unbelievably fast response and the tickets are spoken for. The winners will receive emails shortly, thanks.

——

We have four pairs of tickets to give away to a preview showing of Divergent in Ottawa:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Show Time: 7:30 PM
SilverCity Gloucester Cinemas
2385 City Park Drive
Gloucester, ON K1J 1G1

If you’re interested, send us an email using the contact page with the subject line: “DIVERGENT TICKETS.” In the message of your email, tell us what your favourite young adult book is and why—just a couple of lines is fine. The first four entries will receive a link and code to download free passes.

And before you ask, no I don’t know anything about either the Divergent books or the movie, but I am partial to dystopian teen angst a la Battle Royale, so I have an open mind.

Top Five Reads of 2013

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”
—Umberto Eco

I enjoy lists and list-making so much that there’s no better way for me to brush away the cobwebs and get into 2014 than to look back, briefly, at 2013 and praise my favourite reads of the past year. Confining this list to just a top-5 is a wise choice, I think. Despite enjoying a wide variety of reading experiences in 2013, it seems prudent to me to only highlight the best-of-the-best and not belabour the exercise.

So, here are my top-5 favourite reads of 2013, listed in reverse order of importance. I strayed from the genre path only once in this list, but couldn’t help myself. Feel free to throw any of your favourite books, stories or comics of last year into a comment at the end.

5. Omega the Unknown, Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple


I read a lot of great comics in 2013. Some of the best were: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, an epic SF and fantasy backdrop for realistically human drama; The One Trick Rip-Off by Paul Pope, a hip urban love story wrapped in cyberpunk; and Prophet by Brandon Graham et al, which re-imagines a boneheaded superhero character from the 1980s as a Moebius/Druillet/Eurotrash-style, galaxy-spanning space opera.

In hindsight, the first comic I finished last January established a theme that unites all of the comics I really loved this past year. Omega the Unknown, by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple is an almost perfect synthesis of indie-comic sensibilities and superheros. There seems to be a current trend in comics for creators to revisit and build upon their influences in unique ways—reinterpreting science fiction and superhero tropes (or power chords per the genius of Rudy Rucker) though the filter of indie and underground comics aesthetics.

Omega strikes a delicate balance between honouring the intention of a superhero comic in terms of engaging action and colourful characters, while simultaneously deconstructing superheros for the 21st Century. But rather than retread the over-familiar territory of something like Watchmen, Omega‘s deconstructions make us contemplate the outsider status of the comic fan of the past, the relationship between comic reader and superhero character, and the the all-consuming commercial juggernaut that is the superhero today. Lethem and Dalrymple achieve this balance in intriguing ways: an protagonist whose alien bearing is interpreted as autism, a doppelganger/projection of the antagonist who is nominally the superhero but is mute and struggles to understand both his mission and the foreign milieu of New York City, and an antagonist, The Mink, who is a wildly popular “superhero” and media darling who is wracked with paranoia, narcissism and other disorders. Dalrymple is a particularly brilliant choice of artist, he realistically conveys emotions and movement through a slightly sketchy, cartoonish line that reminds the reader of the handmade quality of the work—reinforcing the factory feel of most current superhero product.

Omega even incorporates a brilliant comic-within-the-comic device, using the work of underground iconoclast Gary Panter to represent Omega’s attempts to communicate—essentially abetting Panter’s mission statement to infiltrate the mainstream using underground ideas.

Omega the Unknown is both comfortingly familiar as a superhero comic and yet challenges us to reexamine our assumptions about our relationship to superheros, something badly needed in an age of billion-dollar franchises. And it does all this using idiosyncratic and absorbing characters, situations and art.

4. The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard re-contextualizes both the distorted mirror-image of Heart of Darkness‘s Marlow and Kurtz, and the ennui of Fitzgerald’s decaying upper-class zombies, by placing these literary archetypes into a future world of utter societal collapse and ongoing environmental change.

The story follows Dr. Robert Kerans, a biologist and part of a generation who grew up post-apocalypse, exploring a flooded and largely abandoned London that has become an archipelago of decaying buildings amid a resurgence of Triassic-era jungle flora/fauna and rising tropical temperatures. Kerans is mesmerized by the devolving landscape and finds himself mentally embracing entropy. He longs to change along with the environment.

In this, his first novel, Ballard’s pet themes and personnel obsessions find expression in a traditional SF framework. As a child, Ballard and his family were ripped from the lap of British ex-pat luxury in a large home in Shanghai and dumped into a prison camp by the Japanese during WWII. Ballard was therefore intimately familiar with the psychology of disaster and as a student of the surrealists, he would explore the same themes over and over: regression, coping mechanisms, identity, sexual fetishism, technological fetishism and the relationship of the media to the spread of psychopathology.

The Drowned World is the near-perfect expression of our unspoken or unconscious ambivalence towards the inexorable march of entropy.

3. Consider the Oyster, M.F.K. Fisher

If you told me years ago that a book of essays devoted entirely to the oyster would be one of my top-five favourite reads in 2013, I would have laughed out loud. I love food, and even reading about food and cooking, but I eat oysters maybe twice a year, maybe. Any one essay in Consider the Oyster made me want to eat oysters again immediately—like I didn’t properly appreciate the last experience I had eating them.

Mary Frances’ prose is so casually elegant it seems effortless. But her razor-sharp mix of erudition and earthy passion speaks to a devotion to craft. Pick up any volume of her work and start with any essay and you’ll enjoy the same impeccably constructed writing again and again. She wants the reader to think and feel in a measure equal to herself.

It’s almost impossible to know someone from their writing, but MFK Fisher’s work has an immediacy and intimacy that deliberately encourages identification with both her intellectual curiosity and sensual retrospection.

2. The Passage, Justin Cronin

This book surprised me more than any other I read in 2013. I have a tendency to resist hype in an admittedly knee-jerk fashion, so the acclaim surrounding Justin Cronin’s The Passage, made me avoid it when it came out. The book only landed on my ‘to-read’ pile because I got a copy for fifty-cents in a library sale. Home sick one day, I hauled it out and promised myself I’d only read the first couple of chapters and then ditch it if I wasn’t sufficiently engaged. The better part of the day was gone before I looked up again.

Not only is The Passage an engrossing and satisfying read as a pure thriller, but it reveals surprising depths and rich prose styling the further you get into its massive length. The Passage is like a high-art makeover of Stephen King’s The Stand—taking similar end-of-the-world themes of contagion, social collapse and the struggle to sustain community, and extending those themes into a grander discussion about what really makes us human and binds us to one another—also vampires.

The plot turns on pivot points that take large leaps into a post-apocalyptic future, where attempts to maintain recognizable social constructs fail again and again. Cronin drags us through these massive story changes by making us identify with a character that seems less human at each leap, but somehow more humane.

Neither purely nihilistic nor unconvincingly optimistic (a la King’s opus) The Passage is a refreshingly new approach to both the apocalyptic and vampire sub-genres—each so well worn by now that a book as interesting as The Passage is wonderfully unlikely.

1. The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard

Empire of the Sun is often thought of as the key to understanding Ballard’s work as it deals most directly with the childhood trauma he experienced interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shanghai during WWII. But I now think that the real Rosetta-stone text for Ballard is The Atrocity Exhibition.

The Atrocity Exhibition is one of the most challenging books I’ve ever stuck out to the end. It took me three tries to read it, but on the last attempt I went through most of it in a single sitting. It finally unlocked for me when I began to see the short chapters or sections—particularity in the early parts of the book—as analogous to gallery wall labels for an art show entitled “The Atrocity Exhibition” taking place in an asylum and showing works by the inmates. The edition I read contains a number of notes, written by Ballard much later, that almost constitute a fascinating separate book—a gloss on the original rather than explanations per se. One of his recommendations is to flip through the book and read pieces at random, which makes the gallery-like structure more apparent. However what worked for me was to flip through and read random pieces, as suggested, and then go back to the beginning and read it all the way through like a more conventional novel.

Atrocity contains most of the themes, obsessions and fetishes that run through all of Ballard’s work: a protagonist whose identity and name shifts scene-to-scene, doctors with obscure and often perverse motives (echoing Burroughs), car crashes as expressions of transformation and carnality, planes and pilots, clinical descriptions of medical procedures and sex blending into each other, celebrity worship as the ultimate pathology of the twentieth century, the psychology of disaster and decay both urban and biological, and often on a blurred line between the two.

What sets Atrocity apart from Ballard’s other books is that is seems to contain all his pet themes and presents them more directly than anything else he wrote, as it largely ignores conventional plotting and story-telling. The semi-experimental nature of the book allows him to lay out his mental and emotional clutter on the table in front of us—encouraging the reader to participate in an autopsy of Ballard’s subconscious. Atrocity even features lists generated through word-association games Ballard plays with himself as discrete “stories” or labels.

The odd thing is that if you described this book to me before, I’d probably tell you flat out that it wouldn’t be for me. I tend to favour conventional stories and plots. My reading tastes are usually pretty prosaic. But Atrocity works for me because of Ballard’s unusual approach to his experimental writing. Rather than wallow in stream-of-consciousness, the way a writer like Kerouac did, Ballard’s deliberately distant and cold approach to examining his own psyche is weirdly refreshing.

You feel like you’re sitting in a lecture-hall with Ballard himself watching films of doctors dissecting Ballard’s own brain while he says things like “that’s fascinating” at your elbow, chuckling. Reading The Atrocity Exhibition was a unique and unsettling experience that I’m thrilled I finally undertook, but let me be clear: most people I know would hate it.

Honorable mentions:
The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
Bubba Ho-Tep, Joe R. Lansdale
Fatale, Ed Brubaker & Sean Philips

Hardboiled: Pronto

This year, a legend in the hardboiled genre passed away, Elmore Leonard. When I heard the news of his death, I was reminded of a copy of his novel Pronto that I had picked up a few months earlier, along with a small lot of other used paperbacks. Pronto had caught my eye because it features a character named Raylan Givens, who is the focus of one of my favourite television shows, Justified, which Leonard was involved with as a producer until his passing.

Pronto is both an excellent example of Leonard’s style and functions as a de facto prequel to Justified—the novel’s climax is a key scene early in the pilot episode.

Raylan emerges gradually as the hero of Pronto, but the character the reader begins and ends the story with is Harry Arno, a Miami bookie in his middle sixties who has been skimming from his mob bosses for years as part of a plan to flee into retirement in Ripallo Italy. Ripallo holds a special place in Arno’s heart due to a Word War II encounter he had there with poet Ezra Pound. But in the way of most of Leonard’s protagonists, reality rarely, if ever, matches the vision in their heads—of either the past or the future.

Years earlier, Arno had given U.S. Marshal Givens the slip in an Atlanta airport. The dogged Raylan sees Arno’s latest flight to Italy as a chance for him to redeem himself with the Marshal service, and hopefully secure a promotion. At the same time, Arno, vaguely dissatisfied with life in Ripallo, has called his ex-stripper wife Joyce to join him, using American ex-pat Robert Gee, a former foreign legionary, as intermediary and security. Joyce is pursued by Raylan, Tommy ‘The Zip’ Bucks—a cold-blooded hitman working for Arno’s mob boss Jimmy ‘The Cap’ Capotorto—Nicky Testa, The Cap’s assistant, and several other Italian confederates of Tommy Bucks. All of these vividly drawn characters converge on Arno’s decaying villa in the hills of Ripallo.

But the events of Ripallo will lead to an inevitable final showdown between Tommy Bucks and Raylan Givens back home in Miami. In Raylan, Leonard found an engaging balance of traditional western* and contemporary crime heroes—extravagantly flawed, but attempting to make the right decisions, to do good, within a limited frame of reference.

Arno, in contrast, is a perfect example of a Leonard protagonist who is incapable of understanding his own motivations—not stupid per se, but too myopic and narcissistic to fathom the impact his choices might have on those around him. He is entirely driven by trying to satisfy needs he is unable to effectively articulate or even enjoy when he meets them.

Better than any other writer, Elmore Leonard understood the intersection between criminality and stupidity. Not that all of his criminal characters are idiots, but even the smarter ones make bad decision after bad decision as a result of greed. Rather than a simple “crime doesn’t pay” morality though, Leonard’s novels are often overtly sympathetic to the way average people can be lead astray by greed. Even his heroes are drawn as complex individuals who make bad decisions due to flaws—like Raylan’s temper and stubbornness.

Pronto is classic Elmore Leonard, clean hard prose** with ultra-sharp dialogue, but the novel is also an interesting read if you’re a fan of JustifiedJustified captures the essence of Elmore Leonard’s writing in a way no other adaptation, some of them very good, has managed—a specifically Leonardian combination of black humour and gripping crime drama. Although published back in 1993, Pronto contains a number of scenes and characters that appear throughout Justified, albeit often in reconfigured fashion. Raylan’s back-story in the tv show is very close to what appears in Pronto, with some minor variations—for example he mentions two young sons in the novel, but starts the tv show childless. As a fan of the show, the variations become a bit distracting, but the novel definitely merits attention on its own terms.

It’s striking how clearly Leonard’s characters and dialogue translate to the screen. Twenty-six of his novels and short stories have already been adapted into movies and television,*** starting in the 50s. But this natural affinity film and television has for Leonard’s strong dialogue and plotting shouldn’t obscure the overall quality of his writing. His ability to convey rich characterization with a minimum of highly readable prose sets his work well apart from many of his hardboiled contemporaries. Elmore Leonard’s books aren’t just entertaining, they’re very good.

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*Leonard began his writing career with westerns, including the seminal 3:10 to Yuma.
**Leonard was influenced by Hemingway, but found him too humourless—nicely summarizing Leonard’s appeal as a prose stylist.
***Apparently even Pronto in 1997 with Peter Falk!—thank you for your generous bounty wikipedia.

Sci-Fi: Future Shock Proofing

Can science fiction make the world a better place?

As I’ve discussed before, SF can have a demonstrable impact on the real world in terms of inspiring scientists to develop new technologies. But part of that previous discussion included the potential costs and negative effects of that technology—something SF lit explores in often frightening detail.

Damien G Walter has written a thoughtful and compelling piece for The Ascender Magazine on the way SF serves as a forum for building a better world through imaginative explorations, as, in his words: “…imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world.”

In the overview to The Ascender article on his blog, Mr. Walters describes the two basic audiences for SF as liberal and conservative constituencies, each approaching reading SF with different aims: world-building and escapism, respectively.*

“The increasingly frequent arguments about race, gender, sexuality and other forms of representation in science fiction (I put forward this increasing frequency as a good thing, to be clear) arise at the faultlines where the two constituencies of science fiction meet.”

It’s this social futurism that is often neglected when discussing the predictive aspects of SF writing. Mr. Walters cites excellent examples of progressive SF writers who address sociopolitical issues directly, such as Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is still one of the benchmarks for literature about gender and The Dispossessed made me seriously consider for the first time if an anarchist state might be possible. But there are just as many wacky libertarian-conservative imagined futures like Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistressline marriage anyone?

But I think Mr. Walters really gets at the core of an important idea when he writes about SF as the literature of the imagination:

“The wider message of science fiction isn’t necessarily the content, but rather, the medium itself. If science fiction is the great product of the modern imagination, then it is to the imagination that it directs our attention.”

The individual quirks of a given vision of the future are less important than the act of trying to imagine one. Gay marriage seems downright prosaic once you’ve spent time inhabiting an imaginary line marriage. Star Trek showed the first interracial kiss on television. John Christopher’s The Death of Grass made us confront the possibility of ecological disaster as early as 1956. Beyond predicting the next cool gadget, SF has long helped those of us who embrace the genre adapt to the ever increasing pace of technological and social evolution.

One of the principle benefits of reading a lot of SF is the protection it affords the reader from future shock. If you have imagined—with the help of a good writer—a wide range of possible futures, you’re less likely to be alarmed by new technologies or new social norms.

Vernor Vinge‘s Rainbows End is a great example of near future world-building that examines both the practical and social impacts of emerging technologies. Reading the novel, I shuddered at the (largely metaphoric) book scanning device that devoured whole libraries; felt pangs of sympathy for a character struggling with the displacing effects of anti-aging tech (a possible social cost of looking younger that had never occurred to me before), and vicariously reveled in the potential applications of wearable computing.

Despite the potential downsides of Vinge’s future, I’d be ready for it tomorrow. Bring on the wearable computing and constantly wired life, I’m ready to Google everything I see.

Can SF make the world a better place? The cumulative effect of all these imagined futures on the real world is probably equally dark as light—as many drugged-out cyber terrorists as social progressives might have been inspired by a given piece of SF. But change is indeed the only constant and SF is the only literature that has ever fully engaged with change at all levels.

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*Although I would argue that the line he draws between these two goals is blurry at best, isn’t world-building just a different kind of escapism? —maybe a more progressive kind, but still.