Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Comics Round-up

My Twitter followers are already quite familiar with my #SundayComics tweets, in which I live-tweet my way through my current stack of single issue comics to be read. I started doing that about a year ago when I realized my backlog of stuff that was showing up in my subscription drawer at my Friendly Local Comics Store (the awesome Heroes Only) but not getting read was getting out of hand. Since I was already making a small name for myself as a comics critic/reviewer, people were always asking me what I thought of this book or that, and so this seemed a way to share my enjoyment of what I had with at least that part of my Twitter following who were interested in, or at least curious about, what the world of comics has to offer these days.

But tweets are ephemeral, as my good friend and occasional publisher Ommus pointed out when I first started doing this. He encouraged me to find a way to preserve and aggregate them. Yeah, great idea, I'll see what I can do...

But I tweet a lot, and not just about comics, even on Sundays. There's a lot to comb through there, even with the #SundayComics hashtag to help (though as of recently that is no longer a help, since Twitter messed with its integrated search and made it useless. That might just be for those of us who have dug in our heels and resisted the bloated horror that is #NewTwitter, but it's still a major inconvenience that cripples a service that I love). So weeks, then months went by and I was still just tweeting into oblivion -- except, of course, in that my tweets have led to some fun interactions and conversations, as I'll share a bit below.

But so enter FriendFeed, which I've been using and shunting my twitter feed to for quite a while just because it hangs onto stuff longer, and my oh duh moment this morning when I was trying to catch myself up on the story so far in one of the comics I was resuming after way too long since I'd read the prior issue. And because FriendFeed is not infected with bloat and spam and other clutter, voila! It's very easy for me to harvest those tweets.

But to make this more of a reader friendly entry, I shall expand on those tweets a bit. So get ready (note: to spare your eyes a lot of pound signs, I've slashed out the hashtags from the individual tweets).



Malignant Man is published by Boom! Studios; written by James Wan, in what I believe is his major comics debut, and Michael Alan "Zombie Tales" Nelson; and drawn by Piotr Kowalski in what appears to be his American debut. All three are new to me, since I missed Zombie Tales.


Alan Gates, a cancer patient with a terminal diagnosis, is resigned to his fate...until he discovers that his tumor is actually a mysterious parasite! Granted a second lease on life and incredible, otherworldly powers, Alan must fight against an evil army buried beneath society's skin, all the while unlocking the secrets of his forgotten past. -- from Boom! Studio's site for the comic


Grabbing from the #SundayComics bag more or less at random, I have Issue 4 of #MalignantMan. Paranormal powered tumors FTW XD

MalignantMan is pretty interesting to read with this week's speculations on cancer as new, mutant species in mind

Why just have a fist when you can have a FISTFUL OF LEAD? XD Also: yuck!

Interesting tactics with the sphere. Also: yuck!

Rather matrix-y panel full of bad guys in suits. "He WAS expecting us." XD

Classic mentor and former protege confrontation. A little stale..

OK, but the thing with the bullets is very cool.

Ah, and so The End is just the end of this first serial. Must pursue the weirdness back to its origin eventually.

Not 100% sure that I'm on board for another story, though. It's cool but I'm not sure it's THAT cool.


Issue 4 brought the story up to kind of a predictable conclusion. As I tweeted, the mentor or creator/former protege or creation thing has been done to death; it's just the twist, that this guy's tumor gave him regenerative and other paranormal powers, that's new. What really kept me sticking around was the art; I hope Kowalski, who seems to have had a decent little career in Europe, gets a chance to do more here, if such is his desire. He's good with action and with creepy crawlies and gives these characters way more personality than the script, which really has kind of petered out, did.



Published by Radical Comics. There are too many fingers in this pie to mention. Click on the link above to see. Like a lot of Radical's books, this is basically a movie pitch, so one guy (film director Darren Lynn Bousman, he of Saw II fame) came up with the concept and another the story and two other guys wrote it and lots of people worked on the pencils and inks and I'm tired just writing this paragraph.


From director Darren Lynn Bousman comes a chilling supernatural tale set in the cold beauty of Middle America. After a brutal massacre takes place in a mansion, real estate agent Richard Ashwalt is assigned the impossible task of cleaning the blood-soaked grounds. When a twisted old man journeys to the house with a sinister and terrifying purpose, Richard is drawn into a web of shadows, murders and massacres that will shatter him to his very core… and make him run for his life. -- from Radical's website

Basically, the twisted old man has lived for at least 100 years and goes around buying properties where particularly grisly murders have taken place. He then removes the actual part of the house or grounds where the deed was done and spirits it away; as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs sought to make a dress out of women's skins, creepy Mr. Crone is building a house out of crime scenes. Pretty cool concept...


This creep has built a house out of snatched pieces of other crime scenes. What happens now?

Abattoir is an intriguing mess. And so is this finale.

I have a weird-ass sympathy for Crone in this late hour.

Ew. Gross. Wait, what?

A little underwhelmed with that finale.


What I said in that last tweet: I'm a little underwhelmed. Which is a pity, because I started out liking this comic. The slow build to the discovery of what Crone was doing was pretty well handled, and the truth came as a surprise. The art was always pretty much just so-so; Radical is evolving a house style that aims at photorealism, probably because, as we know, Radical is mostly making movie pitches in comic book form; it's only when someone like Steve "Hotwire" Pugh gets involved or, as in Radical's first book Caliber, they bring in an established comics artist like Garrie Gastonny, that we get visual standouts (but oh, when we do, we really do. Go have a look at Hotwireespecially. I reviewed it in detail for Indie Pulp last year. But anyway, my attention was theirs to lose, for Abattoir, and they lost it. See that tweet where I just said "Ew, gross. Wait, what?" I have no memory now, just a few hours later, of what made me say that, nor do I recall why exactly I was feeling sympathy for Crone. And -- and this is what is important -- I can't be arsed to go look again right now because I don't care all that much and I have more interesting things to share with you. Moving along.


THE CREATORS Hellboy comes to us from Dark Horse Publishing and is the brainchild of Mike Mignola. Google him and Hellboy too, for that matter, if you don't know of them. I'll wait. Meanwhile, this issue was written by Mignola, penciled by Duncan Fegredo, and colored by Dave Stewart. These are all also big names; Hellboy is big stuff. You may have heard of a film or two by Guillermo del Toro (though I, for one, shudder at the second one, though mostly because of the ludicrous inclusion of Barry Manilow tunage, ironic in intent, intolerable in actual presence).


While Hellboy makes one last stand against the Queen of Blood the war between the forces of good and evil rages on the battlefield with heaps of dead monsters and knights! - from Dark Horse's website.

Basically, Hellboy has been established as King Arthur's heir and is combatting various evil forces out of Arthurian legend and Celtic mythology -- which is exactly the kind of stuff for which I love this comic.


Hellboy next. With loads of @duncanfegredo. Happy sigh

Oh, there's gonna be a dragon? Yes, please.

"Your fall should be like the fall of mountains... But I was before mountains." Positively Lovecraftian!

Sigh. That poor, poor cathedral.

Oh that poor bridge. And those poor buildings.

Dude. Enjoying the hell out of this Arthurian/Nordic heap that is this arc.


As you might guess from my clucking over the fate of the buildings, this was an action-heavy issue. A cathedral, the Leicester Council offices, and Edinburgh Castle took a beating. The colors were glorious and the fight between Hellboy and the current big bad, who as you see liked to trash talk, was equally so. This book is famous for a reason and the torch is still being carried proudly. I was thrilled with it.

But that's not all!

See, Duncan Fegredo is on Twitter. And he saw my starting tweet, with my happy sigh. And he responded with the hope that I would enjoy it. And because, what the hell, you never know, and because I have interacted with him a bit before on Twitter, I tweeted him back, teasing him about how mean he'd been to all those buildings. And soon we were having a very enjoyable conversation and joking about how Hellboy must employ an amazing army of contractors to repair all that damage because as far as I know all of those buildings are intact already/again, and how he also must have hellacious tailoring bills for all the overcoats that get trashed and, you know the kind of silly conversations that can happen about comic books. And it lasted well into my other tweets about other comics and was altogether delightful. So here we have a textbook case of why Twitter makes comic books more fun. It's like a letters column with instant gratification and sometimes, repeat contact. How do you think I know exactly which buildings got trashed? The artist himself told me. Simply awesome!

B.R.P.D.: Hell On Earth: Monsters #1


B.R.P.D. is another Dark Horse book, a spin-off of Hellboy, also created by Mike Mignola. This issue, though, was written by one of those trusted helpers I spoke of above, John Arcudi. It's also the debut issue of artist Tyler Crook, with whom we are greatly pleased; colors by the great Dave Stewart.


While the Bureau's off fighting giant bat-eared beasts in Texas, Liz Sherman is kicking hillbilly ass in a trailer park! - from Dark Horse's website

B.P.R.D. stands for Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, a government agency and Hellboy's sometime employer. Many freaks of nature and supernature work for it, including Liz, who is a firestarter and who has taken her training as a sort of supernatural cop very seriously as we soon shall see.


So hey, why not follow that up with a look at the latest BRPD that I have. Looks like Liz in Redneck Central. Hmm

Wow. Did she just break a dude's jaw with her foot? Apparently so.

If I could do that, I would probably go to a lot more bars. So it's probably for the best that I can't XD

Oh, dude. Come on. This is the Mignolaverse. You think that frog you kicked was just a frog?

Um, wow. And gross. And wow. Sick Bastard Is Sick.

Aw. Poor broken jaw guy!


Very little can ever really be taken at face value in this comic, and that was certainly true here. Crook obviously had a lot of fun drawing these hillbillies and their icky homes, and gave them a lot of personality -- especially the big guy whom Liz kicked in the face early on, who totally seemed to deserve it at the time but later, in a neat story turn, garnered my sympathy. Not a totally unexpected development by that time, but still nicely handled. And note this contrast: where I couldn't be bothered to go back and see what grossed me out in Abattoir, I could sure as hell tell you in excruciating, gory detail, without having to look again, what got to me here. I won't, though; go get the book your own dang self.



The Last Mortal comes to us from Top Cow's Minotaur imprint and represents the comics debut of writer Thomas Mahoney, working from ideas by Filip "Witchblade" Sablik. Thomas Nachlik is the artist and is simply blowing me away with his sketchy lines and fantastic and stark black and white work.


Immortality is the most sought after gift in human history. When does it become a curse? When the only thing you want to do is die. Alec King is a small time criminal and three time loser. When he gets his partner and best friend killed, he tries to commit suicide and finds out the hard way that he can't die. Now he has to find a reason to keep living. - from Top Cow's website

This is basically a revenge story. Both Alec and his best friend were supposed to die in a staged botched assassination, but of course Alec didn't die, as some people are about to find out here in Issue #2.


On to Issue 2 of #TheLastMortal. Amused by the "story so far" on the inside cover.

"Shooting yourself in the head sucks. Waking up afterwards is infinitely worse" As is graphic B&W puking XD

Setting this in a train yard turns this into a weird riff of Vertical Features Remake. Freight cars every panel.

Really digging the line work in this. Thomas Nalchik. Go Thomas!

I like the Jack Daniels roll here. Everybody's done it.

And WOW with the expressionistic violence.

College flashback now? Really? Um, okay.

These characters have awesome taste in music.

Just once I'd like a mysterious ability story not to feature a whole secret cabal of people with it. Sigh.


Man, oh man do I love what Nachlik is doing here (yeah, I spelled his name wrong in the tweet). This is stark black and white (as in no grey tones) at its finest. The train car backgrounds are just heavily shadowed enough so many panels have strong, broad vertical lines that make the visual suggestion that everybody is already in jail. Nachlik's figures are done with contrastingly fine lines that remind me weirdly of those intricate drawings that were in, I think, Highlights for Children when I was a kid that were all done in one line (the challenge being to follow that line all the way to its unexpected stopping point). It's really this art that is selling me on this book, which is not to say that the story is bad, it's just not extraordinary so far -- my disappointment at the suggestion at the end of the book that Alec might not be the only immortal out there and is either going to join or be hunted by a bunch of others was real and may be slightly colored by having just read Malignant Man about an hour before but still, that got a meh from me. Had it not been accompanied by such wonderful eye candy I might have been angry.



This one's from Image Comics, my go-to house for good stuff. The story is by Viktor "Heavy Metal" Kalvachev and Andrew Osborne, with art by Kalvachev, Toby Cypress (whose done everything from Batman to X-Men to Star Trek, but whom I chiefly did for the issue he did of C.B.G.B and Nathan Fox.


A powerhouse team of Hollywood and comic book veterans (along with special guest artists) presents a fast, funny, 100% cool new series for readers of all stripes. On the mean streets of Los Angeles, an alcoholic hit man and a desperate starlet dodge Russian mobsters, Italian gangsters, ninjas, hippies and the L.A.P.D. in a scheme to steal millions from a psychotic action movie hero. - from Image's website.


Another deliciously OTT lurid pulpy cover.

Reading the little recap at the beginning and suddenly I'm thinking of Southland Tales. What a hot mess THAT was.

LMAO at the Russian-dominated film set.

"Why for you sabotage my film debut?" XD

Moviemaking as money laundering scheme. Would be surprised to learn this is not a real thing XD

That's a ridiculous place to put a cell phone.

Amusing as #BlueEstate is, I don't feel too motivated to dig deeper into it online. Too many other floppies! Next!


Blue Estate is so Hollywood I'm surprised it didn't come from Radical. This is straight up pulp-y crime with a gloss of glamour and, in the form of Russian gangsters who are making a movie starring the boss's girlfriend as a money-laundering scheme, very trendy villains. All of Image's marketing stresses that it is 100% cool and, well, therein lies a bit of a problem I'm having with it as it goes on. It's trying, a lot of the time, a little too hard to be cool. It's so arch. It's so hip. It's so tongue-in-cheek lurid. The ridiculous place to put a cell phone? The front of a woman's bikini bottoms. And it's vibrating. Like that. So trashy I need a shower. But I'll probably keep reading, just to watch what might well be a great slapstick ending.



Dollhouse was, of course, originally a TV show created by Joss Whedon, about which I had a thing or two to say when I first started up this blog. In what has become a tradition for shows that only ever found a cult audience on the Devil's Fishbowl, the story is being concluded more properly and at a more leisurely pace in comics form; in effect we're to accept it as Season 3 of the show, or beyond if it continues. Joss didn't do any of the writing here that I'm aware of, but his brother Jed, who was one of the writers on the show, joins fellow alum Andrew Chambliss and Maurissa Tancharoen (who helped bring another Whedon creation, Dr. Horrible, to comics) in penning this. Cliff Richards, a pro with heaps of superhero and other stuff under his belt, has the pencils here.


The fight for free will starts now! Alpha was the perfect product of Rossum Corporation's mind-altering technology, until he snapped, burdened by the dozens of personalities they'd downloaded into his brain. Now the technology has gone viral, turning the entire population into murderous automatons, and it's up to the psychotic Alpha and a small group of survivors to save mankind.

Basically, someone, probably the evil corporation, has taken rogue the technology it once used to wipe the minds and memories of attractive people who agreed to work as "dolls" and imprint them with new personalities and skill sets to please the clients of the Dollhouse. Not only that, but the tech has gone viral, as depicted in those weird flash-forward season finales of the show. The comic is, I gather, going to fill in the gaps between the regular show and those "epitaphs."


Haven't bothered with the Buffy or Angel comics but love the Serenity ones, so giving #Dollhouse a try

Off to a nicely creepy start in a telemarketing tank

Nice! Matrix-style skillz uploads! William Gibson territory FTW

Multiple Ivies. And they went there. "I'm hooking up with myself?"

So I am intrigued by the "Wielders" and their mysterious directives. And Alpha is still fascinating.


This is a great looking comic, faithful to the appearance of actor Alan Tudyk, who played Alpha in the series, but not slavishly so. The overall impression, visually, is that it is pro work -- so mostly, I don't notice it and I'm just there for the story, which is unfolding nicely. We're not yet into what promises to be a quest narrative to find Echo, the heroine of the TV show; it's a marshalling of forces and Alpha and his many personalities are making due and assessing the real horror of the situation, which is grim. Intercut with Alpha's scenes is a capsule story of how the tech starts going viral; a nasty electronic tone is robocalled into a telemarketing center and everyone who answers the phone gets zapped. But they're neither zombies nor homicidal maniacs (the two basic kinds we saw in the TV episodes), but something new, with a directive that involves building devices out of whatever crap they find lying around that spread the imprint and the directive. Scary stuff. I'm in!


OK, I hate entering stuff in HTML and making all of these links and embedding images is way more work than just writing so I'm breaking off here for now. I'll do Sunday Comics 2: Electric Boogaloo, tomorrow. Comics nerd's honor.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

100 Books 39 and 40 and 41 - More Beta Reading

As lots of my readers know, I do quite a bit of beta-reading for friends who are novelists, both aspiring and already-published. It's work -- a fundamentally different kind of reading than just reading for pleasure -- but since I'm very picky about for whom I will undertake this work, it's also usually quite enjoyable.

And just to give those writers a little bit of a promotional bump, I'll name names this time.

So my 39th book, actually one I finished earlier this summer, is Ink for Thieves by the obnoxiously talented Jennifer Williams, who tweets as @sennydreadful and whose website, at which she occasionally blogs and posts bits of her excellent short fiction, here.. It was even better than my already high expectations and any publisher with half a brain should be knocking on her virtual door for it (though I'd rather she moved on with it her own bad self and became another Kindle millionaire. And a podiobook of it, read by the author and her cheeky boyfriend Marty, aka @boxroom would be great fun, too).

My 40th was one by a young friend of mine right here in Cheyenne, Colin Stricklin, who shows some promise. It's going to be a nice entry in the urban/dark fantasy genre when it's all straightened out, sort of Ray Bradbury meets American Beauty by way of Donnie Darko (see, we've already worked out his elevator pitch). I think I've talked him into offering this as a podcast novel when he's done with rewrites, so get ready for teh crazy!

And my 41st, which I just started yesterday, is one from my good friend and co-author (though our collaborative Lovecraftian Western ball is waiting in his court right now while he dives with his racket to return some other serves from publishers and others demanding his time as a hotshot on the rise) Adam Christopher. This will be my third beta-read for him overall; I had the pleasure late last year of being among the first to enjoy his delightfully bizarre superhero noir opus, Empire State, which is coming out, I think, next year from Angry Robot Books; I read his godpunk-cum-space opera Ludmilla, My Love late this last spring, and now I'm on his giant straight-up superhero/crime entry Seven Wonders, which is off to a cracking start and is very exciting so far. If you want to see what his stuff is all about but don't want to wait until Angry Robot offers up the goods, you can check out his blog here. Click on "Free Fiction" and you can not only read some good short stories but the entirety of Adam's vastly entertaining Lovecraftian steampunk extravaganza The Devil in Chains.

If you look carefully at my list so far for the 100 Books Challenge, you may find that I have two #22s; a prior entry I hinted at as "Super Secret Beta Reading" was Ludmilla, My Love and then I blundered on and counted Mike Shevdon's Seven Nails as #22 also. I have yet to fix this because I am a lazy sod that way, and so I declare retcon. I've already read an Adam Christopher this year, yes, but I failed correctly to count it, so I get to count Seven Wonders for my 100 Books and not violate my additional one book per author restriction. So there.

Back to the beta!

Friday, July 29, 2011

100 Books 38 - Robert Anton Wilson's THE COSMIC TRIGGER

I can't do a year of books without including a little something by my old pal Robert Anton Wilson. I can, of course, only sort of call him a pal, since I met him once, alas, prematurely for me; I was 18, more or less fresh out of high school and small town Wyoming, drawn to a talk he gave at Saugerties, NY's Thelemic Arts Center on "Religion for the Hell of It." I had just had his The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Monday, July 25, 2011


I started reading this book for very different reaons than those for and through which I finished it.

Philip Ball has been a bright blip on my radar ever since I stumbled across his marvelous Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color. A physicist by training, Ball's approach to art and artist's materials changed the way even I, who had grown up with a nearly complete collection of Horizon magazines and a pretty stunning variety of other amazing resources in my mother's personal library, look at paintings forever. Combining observations on the optical and chemical properties of pigments with a connoiseur's appreciation of how these properties have affected what paintings portray, how they portray them, and how what they're made of changes how they look as they age (Van Gogh's weren't originally so muddy-looking; he experimented with new formulations that didn't age well, for example). The result is a book I turn to over and over out of sheer enjoyment.

So what, I wondered, would a Philip Ball book about the great cathedral at Chartres, France be like?

Very much like Bright Earth but, as Ball regarded a monument that could well outlast humanity, more so, in all the best ways.

Ball has managed to combine lots of different kinds of writing about place into one book. I could take my Kindle with this on it with me on a tour of the cathedral and feel as well-guided as with a Baedeker. I can imagine the personality conflicts and struggles that went on behind the scenes of its building from this book as well as from any Ken Follet doorstop novel. I could look up into its lofty interiors and see the "webs of force" that are carefully balanced there and appreciate the weird mixture of science, theology, lore and guesswork they represent.

And in the midst of all this, I gained from Universe of Stone something I failed to find in God's Philosophers (a book which, you may recall, I desperately wanted to like but found off-putting and hectoring due mostly to its tone): a thoughtful consideration of how science as we know it gradually evolved from the ragbag of half-remembered classics, theology and the odd bout of actual observation of the actual world that was what knowledge was in the so-called Middle/Dark Ages. By which I mean Ball did a much better job than Hannam did of persuading me that the Dark Ages were not Dark, do not represent the lacuna or giant step backward in the advance of our understanding of nature and the universe that the period is popularly represented as being -- even though doing so was not Ball's aim.

For Ball, like the intriguing Villard de Honnecourt*, whose work he often references, is an enthusiast, and his passionate, omnivorous regard for his subject is infectious. The politics and economics of church-building, the problems of quarrying, transporting and shaping stone (his excursis on, e.g., the challenges a groin vault posed to stone cutters is especially dizzying), the evolution of what we know of the Gothic style, all get plenty of play here as Ball explores the fascinating question of just how much the thought and speculations of the scholars in the cathedral school at Chartres and elsewhere (all those Neo-Platonists like Abbe Suger, Peter Abelard, William of Sens, etc.) informed the building of the cathedral. That Ball doesn't quite find an answer for this question -- the answer is very likely unknowable since written records are few and stone can only tell us so much -- doesn't matter. It's fun to watch him consider what can be known and guess about what can't, all in his reasoned, thoughtful, curious and well-informed prose. Ahh.

I found this book, too, to be a balm when my real life intruded rather forcefully into my reading life. News of a good online friend's death hit me late last night and left me sad and thirsty for the kind of order and clarity of which Chartres and this book held promise. It felt better, as I grieved, to contemplate that which will stand to awe generations unborn after I, too, am dust, one of our finest achievements as a species. And so, this book and this cathedral gave me a kind of refuge from the raw new edge of my feelings, for which I am grateful.

And so, I leave you today with THIS:

--from Orson Welles' F for Fake

*de Honnecourt is a fascinating character of whom I had never heard before. Variously believed to have been a mason, a clerk or maybe even a clergyman of some limited kind, what he undoubtedly was, was an architecture fanboy, who kept a portfolio of sketches and observations of most of the great cathedrals that arose in the 13th century. It's apparently quite a jumble of drawings, notes and speculations, this notebook of his, and very little is known about the man behind the pencil. Which leaves lots of room for one's imagination. Viva Villard!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

100 Books 36 - Guy Adams' THE WORLD HOUSE

I'm not going to lie; I spent most of the reading of this novel in a state of annoyed confusion, and, having finished it, I'm still not sure it it counts as a success. By which I mean I'm not sure if annoyed confusion is what Adams was going for, if that were the deliberate effect he intended. Were this not explcitly a genre novel published by a genre house (in this case, Angry Robot Books), I would be more inclined to say that it was the author's intention, in a time-honored Literary Fictional way.

But since it is genre fiction, marketed and discussed as such, I am inclined to call this a flaw in that it got in the way of my enjoyment of a fine, pulpy mystery-adventure tale.

In the way of lots of stories, The World House spends about the first 20-25% of itself in introducing its characters, plucking them from the real world and teaming them up. This is in itself fine; it's something 'most every story has to do even when it is not, as here, sucking its characters -- and by extension its readers -- into a nightmarish, homicidal version of Wonderland. So we accept a few changes in perspective, a little disconnection among what seem tubigonnabe multiple protagonists' very different origins and narrative arcs, trusting that each one's presence will be justified, understandable and in some way necessary to the greater story as a whole because that is generally how most novels work; any novelist who wants to publish and sell more than one work obeys Chekov's rule about guns (and characters as guns).

And Adams does that. He does that extraordinarily well, with cleverness and originality and imagination and flair. And surprises! He is a bit of a prestidigitator, is Mr. Adams. He misdirects us into not noticing that someone is both more and less than he seems by distracting us with another possibility, about which we are sure we are right but are soon delighted to be wrong. We think we are in one kind of plot but find that we have been in another, too, all along. Bravo!

So why then did I spend so much of my reading time being annoyed?

A lot of the problem lies, I think, with the typographical presentation rather than the writing. And maybe just a little bit with the timing of when and alongside what I read this book -- though I won't say Adams is completely off the hook for this.

Once The World House has plucked its cast from around the world, the novel divides them up into three teams and follow each's adventures through a perilous phantasmagoria that the publishers doubtless saw as the novel's real strength. Rarely has a book been so aptly titled: the House is a world and has everything a world might have within its constantly transforming rooms and corridors. The bathroom contains an ocean on which a ship sails. The library is straight out of Jorge Luis Borges if the master had thought to include giant, menacing bookworms. The greenhouse contains a jungle teeming with hostile wildlife and savage cannibals who are not, though, a primitive tribe by origin; they are people like our heroes except in that they have failed where our heroes might presumably succeed. Though their still neing alive is maybe a kind of success for those savages, for the House is actively bent on killing its inhabitants in an infinite variety of terrifying and imaginative ways. Traveling through all of this with our teams is freakishly delightful -- except the reader doesn't always know with which team she is, in what room, from paragraph to paragraph, sometimes from passage to passage.

Were this a film (and it would make a fine one), we would at least have jump cuts to warn us that we are shifting locales and teams, but this is a book and a book lacks such easy visual cues unless the folks responsible for its layout and design put them there, or the author confines each chapter to the experiences of one character or team (here is where maybe the timing of my reading worked against The World House, because of course that is what George R.R. Martin does). In at least the Epub edition of the book, the designers/publishers have not done the former, and Adams has not done the latter; without warning, in the space between paragraphs (that are not even separated by an extra carriage return or line of asterisks) we change scenes and teams. And since the characters are more than a bit ill-defined and two-dimensional, most of the time the reader is unaware of the shift until it is suddenly a bookworm instead of a headhunter menacing Tom no wait it's Miles is he the professor or the barfly I forget and damn it, I'm ripped right out of the story and noticing that the characters are kind of cardboard and that all of the craft and imagination went into designing the House and I'm not in my happy reader's trance anymore and I go off in a huff and read something else for a while.

Which is not something a writer wants. Or a publisher.

Look, it's not as if I picked up this book expecting a case study in nuanced character development. It was pretty obviously pulp, and I'll forgive pulp for cardboard characters if it shows me something else, if it keeps me so entertained and curious that I don't notice the cardboard. Which arguably should have been the case here for the reasons I have already outlined. The House is cool as hell! And while this story has a satisfying conclusion, it also demands a sequel, which I already have on my device because I subscribed to Angry Robot's big ebook package.** I will now approach that sequel (next year, for this is my 100 books/100 authors year, GRRM notwithstanding) somewhat jaundiced, though, unless I am somehow assured that this grievous flaw has been addressed.

Despite this flaw though, I would recommend the book to friends. After I'd warned them of the problem. I think that might arm them against the annoyance I felt, as one who knows there are rakes all over the lawn doesn't repeatedly get a dowel in the face.

*And various points in time; we wind up with a Victorian explorer, a semi-flapper from the 1930s, a few more modern characters including a barfly and the exotic dancer he loves and a young Spaniard plucked from the midst of his country's civil war, etc. Very much a ragtag mismatched cavalcade like we have seen many times before, best executed for my money by the great Clifford D. Simak in Special Deliverance long ago.

**Very shrewd of them to stick the sequel but not the original in the package and then offer a respectable one-time discount on the back catalog to subscribers; I bought this and a few others on the strength of AR's reputation and of friends' glowing reviews of particular titles.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


So now you know why I haven't blogged much here of late. I've been eyeball-deep in the lastest installment of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Now, though, I am done, and I am weirdly tired.

I'm going to strain after a physics metaphor here, for which I apologize.

The first book of this enormous series (each volume is around 1000 pages), A Game of Thrones, more or less as I have observed in other posts here, set up something big and then blew it apart. The pieces flew and collided with stuff all through A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords with immensely satisfying effect, and then...

Then came A Feast For Crows, Martin's placeholder book, clearly published to placate the fans who were howling for the next book and getting very impatient. He hacked out, the conventional wisdom said, the less important and mostly less interesting bits of his original planned fourth book, which was getting just too big and unwieldy, and assembled them into a section of story (or, as some have observed, really just a pile of pages) and tossed it to the direwolves outside his door. The good stuff, we were told, was waiting for us in A Dance with Dragons and meanwhile, hey, enjoy these B rolls -- which did admittedly contain some good stuff but at the expense of a lot of oomph. The energy propelling the fragments sent flying by the explosions of A Game of Thrones was dissipating anyway, and sadly, A Feast for Crows didn't so much as let the force and velocity dwindle as artifically retard it further.

So this fifth book (or really, fourth-and-a-half) needed to find a new source of energy before everything stopped altogether. It needed it badly.

Did it? Ehh, not so much.

A Dance with Dragons, for my money, wound up relying too much on the readers' gratitude to finally be walking alongside the (remaining, as in still alive) core characters who first enchanted us and most of whom original readers have been missing for... let's see, eleven years (since A Storm of Swords was first published in 2000, yeah, eleven. As in this one goes up to. Ugh. My heart truly goes out to the fans who were with this series from the beginning, who endured that wait. My own wait was a mere and merciful month). Our reunions were sweet and joyful; just seeing a beloved character's name as a chapter heading was enough to make me squee as I started reading. But is that enough energy to propel a story through another thousand pages?

Not quite.

So what else is supplying the needed force now? Well, much like in A Feast for Crows, there is a lot of traveling -- marching, sailing, riding. But as the fans know, Winter Is Coming so this is a lot more arduous and slow. Chapters following one party from the Wall to Winterfell feel three times as long as they are even without the point of view character constantly chanting to herself that the distance is 300 leagues. This isn't quite "A highborn maid of threescore and ten..." territory but border skirmishes are possible.

A fan favorite (if not the fan favorite) character spends a lot of this book playing cyvasse, which as far as I can tell is this world's version of chess. It has somehow become his primary means of interaction with other people: sitting in a room - a tavern, a ship's cabin, a tent - moving a bunch of pieces around on a board and, usually, letting the other guy defeat himself.

It's really hard not to see this as a metaphor for what Martin is doing here. Which is too bad. He's obviously got big plans for all of his characters. The story is awash in prophecy and everything is still very much up for grabs; we are still nowhere near that point where a system settles into its new ground state at this point. There's still lots at stake. And the consistency with which his characters act and his situations develop really do argue for an eventual grand finale. I'm pretty sure he knows what's coming for everybody. But like his cyvasse player, he is cautious, whether because he doesn't trust his game plan as much as he arguably should, or because it's fun watching his opponent (that would be us) squirm (I suspect the former; he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would deliberately torment the multitudes). And so he feints. J'adoube.

All of that said, Martin did not forget to continue exploiting the strengths developed in the prior books. No character is safe, so when one is in jeopardy the reader feels it. And there is one beloved character who may well be dead now. Another may be captured, another may be executed, another may never leave his found sanctuary again, another whom we have loved for four books may be becoming a baddie. And as in every one of the books so far there are some new characters, many of whom are just as fascinating as the ones we have lost (and yes, one theory about a certain someone was definitively proven false, but it was an outside chance anyway that it was true and, oh well)... there is good stuff in here. And because of that, because I care about these characters and my heart is in my throat over the fate of a few (lots of cliffhangers!), god damn it, I'm looking forward to the next one.

And it's going to be a long-ass wait.

And, well, as I've said before, the waiting may all be for naught.

But god damn it, we need some new spin.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Facebook of Another

I feel a little sly naming this "The Facebook of Another" because it is Facebook and similar services (like the new "social sharing" site, Google Plus) that I kept catching myself musing on as I read the earlier portions of that weird and disturbing novel, Kobo Abe's The Face of Another. I'm far from done with it yet, but it's given me brain itches I just need to scratch now.

Telling the story of a scientist whose face is irreparably disfigured in a laboratory accident and the damage done to his life not only by this incident but also by his decision to create an artificial face (based on the features of another, hence the title), The Face of Another has a lot to say about isolation and the many kinds of same the modern man can experience, even when in a crowd.

As he ponders whether or not to take the step of making a mask for himself, he tries to convince himself that a person's face doesn't really matter that much, but fails at this. The face and its expressions, he realizes, are, if not THE channel by which we establish and maintain our connections with other people, it is still one it's best not to try to do without. Though the novel and these musings within it were written in 1964, well before the internet, even then our unnamed narrator cherishes the hope that the written word could be enough, but ultimately decides that a man without a face becomes, to the rest of the world, the human equivalent of an abandoned, untended house that even those who have enjoyed calling upon will cease to visit before long.

I deleted my Facebook account well over a year ago, over the protests of many. I had realized that the contact that mattered to me was to be had in abundance elsewhere and that most of what I had via Facebook was more annoyance than interaction. People leave each other's lives for a reason, making way for new (and often more fulfilling and intimate) relationships (and I do tend towards the belief that any one human being can only sustain so many quality relationships, and that number of same is a relatively low one). To look at Facebook was to have to filter out a lot of banality from people that, while I (mostly) bore no active ill will, I didn't really feel the need to hear from, either; I had "added" them out of politeness and to avoid awkwardness should I happen to encounter them in person during visits home and the like -- just to get to the good stuff, the stuff from the people whose ideas, opinions and experiences matter to me now, most of which I could get, in neat little bon-bons of thought, on Twitter. Combine that with Facebook's ever-changing privacy policies, its endless "social gaming" filler and the ugly influence it was beginning to have on my workplace and ditching it was really a no-brainer. So I did.

Deleting a Facebook account is pretty difficult. The company wants to keep hold of all of its clients (as any company does) and keep people adding value to its holdings via new posts and pictures and, yes, payments for game baubles and the like, and so it deliberately hides those delete options. Once one finds them, one next stumbles into a nest of faux histrionics; don't leave, so-and-so will miss you. Oddly enough, those pleas made it easier to leave; not only was I offended and annoyed by the presumption on the part of this corporation that it was my best and only access to my friends and by leaving them I was cutting them off forever, but also, well, its algorithms for choosing who to flash before me as "going to miss me" weren't all that good. The guy who gave me a hurtfully unflattering nickname in sixth grade and chased me around for six more years hooting it at me wasn't really going to miss me. My co-worker in the next cubicle could get hold of me whenever she wanted. And my sister definitely knows how to reach me, and does so often indeed (I'm her primary entertainment when she's stuck in traffic). WRONG. And anyway, the people who really wanted to maintain contact with me knew where to find me -- on Twitter.

There were, though, a few gentle souls who weren't all that computer savvy and who were kind of nice to hear from once in a while. They didn't log on much but did provide quality on the rare occasions that they did. Facebook was already a stretch for these folks, and Twitter baffled those of them who even bothered to take a look at it. I don't fault them for this, and it's a sign of how connections genuinely atrophy that these are not people who are going to migrate to another service just to hear what I think about what comic books I'm reading. Every once in a while I regret that I'm missing those graceful echoes, but the thought of all the brash shouts and clutter that drowns those out keeps me away.

Meanwhile, the party is always on at Twitter. I'm never away from my true friends; I carry them in my pocket wherever I go, and when they're thinking of me, I know.

Enter Google Plus.

For those of you who have been out of touch with developments on the internetz, G+ is a new social/sharing service from the big giant search engine corporation that is slowly encroaching on everything else in our online lives. As the famous xkcd cartoon illustrated (I'm not going to bother linking to it, because either you've probably already seen it or you don't give a damn), its initial appeal to many, its primary virtue, is that it is not Facebook. As my friend Bonnie likes to quip when explaining it, it's Facebook for grown-ups -- at least for now.

G+ is doing a lot right; someone at Google has been paying attention to Facebook's mistakes and has maybe even learned a thing or two about Diaspora's flop. It of course has a giant head start in that so many internet people have Google accounts (since Google bought Blogger a few years ago, I automagically had an account, since I've been using Blogger since 2002); integrating this new service into the other Google products already in use (I use Gmail, Blogger, Google Reader, and, sort of by default, Google Buzz, though I keep forgetting about Buzz. I was an enthusiastic user of the now-defunct Google Wave as well. Ah, me) with eerie ease. In these early days, just mentioning a friend who wasn't using G+ yet but has a Google account sort of brings him or her into the "circle" as a fait accompli. But alas, as Laroquod has pointed out to me, problems ensued, as G+ went maybe a bit too far with the integration and sort of forced another of its holdings, the image hosting site Picasa, to deform itself into being one's G+ photo album, despite the fact that many of its users were employing it very differently.

That aside, it's getting a lot of stuff right. Unlike Facebook, which treats everyone you've accepted or "added" as a "friend" as part of one vast pool of feed, G+ encourages users straight off to organize contacts into "Circles" -- this organization implying levels of trust and intimacy and more or less forcing the user to think more carefully about with whom one shares what. And so far (though this is bound to change since Google owns a piece of Zynga), not a stupid social gaming update or invite in sight.

So, provisionally, I'm on there. It's fun. So far most of my true friends are on there and none of my elementary school bullies have heard of it. It really does sort of feel like "Facebook for Grown-Ups." But that can, and probably will, change.

Google Plus is my artificial face for now, but I've learned I don't mind too much living without one. So all I can say is, we'll see. After all, since I've seen the searingly awesome cinematic adaptation of Abe's novel (by the great Teshigahara), I know how that story goes. And I know that an artificial face can do as much harm as good.

Friday, July 8, 2011


I wish that the next time Hollywood and its wannabes decide to make an action/horror flick about angels and devils, they would turn to Jeff Kirvin*, who has managed to wring a good deal of fresh juice out of old fruit here.

Despite its ringingly eschatological/apocalyptic title, this is nowhere near the hoary religious conflict story I somewhat dreaded when I took it up (especially after having recently enjoyed Rob Kroese's send up of that genre). I don't think God is even mentioned once, for instance, nor Satan except in an oblique reference to Lucifer that treats him more like a military general than the arch-enemy of Creation.

What we get instead is a page-turning romp of a conspiracy story, in which the imaginary/allegorical beings humanity has come to know as angels and demons prove to be real, after a fashion, but that fashion owes more to, say, the Stargate milieu than to the Bible. Which is awesome. Why, after all, would super-powered ancient aliens content themselves with mucking about with the Egyptians when they could tinker with all of human history?

We have a slightly cliche band of misfits unmasking this millennia-old plot, but despite this adherence to formula, the characters are still fresh, rounded, sympathetic and believable. We have Daniel, a former trauma surgeon whose past includes a fatal error that prompted him to leave his old life behind and start anew on the other side of the country; Susan, a scrappy pro blogger who has dreams of a proper journalism career and has been waiting for that one big break, and Jeff, a Vietnam vet turned tinfoil-hat wearing paranormal chaser. One is tempted to snark: check, check, check, as I so often do when I am disappointed in a book -- but here it doesn't matter. Buildings' foundations all look alike; it's what the architect does after laying those that matters.

What I really loved about these characters was how they could be anybody. Nobody, not even our hero Daniel, is a Descendant of Heroes or carries at all the whiff of being a Chosen One with a Special Destiny. Daniel has happened upon a disturbing incident that lands him in trouble with the "demons" and the authorities and winds up on the run. Susan catches a hint of his story and posts it and causes a sensation. Desperate for allies, Daniel decides to contact her and offers her what she cannot resist: an exclusive. And Jeff comes along for the ride after knocking on the wrong hotel room door and getting sucked into the chase. Human beings, reacting as such. One reads and hopes she could be as brave and resourceful as these characters in such circumstances, and believes that maybe she could.

This believability -- even verisimilitude -- is only enhanced by Kirvin's unique epigrammatic choices at the beginning of each chapter. Some start with a quote from a no-doubt bestselling nonfiction book purporting to tell Daniel's true story, direct quotes from Susan, "attributed" remarks from Daniel; others start with highly entertaining tweets sent mostly by Jeff, trying to convey the staggering weirdness of the situation he has found himself in after a lifetime of searching for just such a staggeringly weird situation. There is reference later to a demon wiki as well. All of this points to a strong trans-media potential; it would have been fun if Kirvin had actually made accounts for his characters and created that wiki (and hey, you still can, Jeff old buddy; I bet your fans would be happy to help). As it is, they make for an engaging and amusing storytelling device.

All that said, though, a detour the story takes on the way to its climax didn't quite ring true; as the reality of who these "demons" are becomes evident, the gang gain an almost literal deus ex machina ally who makes a lot of stuff a little too easy and the resulting change in setting (Iraq!) is jarring, though the action that takes place there is intriguing and satisfying enough. I just hope this angel buddy doesn't continue to be so effective an enabler for what the team has to do in future volumes.

For yes, this is the first of a trilogy, which Kirvin has named The Unification Chronicles, a name that now conjures up all sorts of ideas for how the world of these books is poised to change. He wisely included a sneak preview of the second book at the end of the ebook of the first, and I'm more than ready to take it up when I can.

*Full disclosure: Jeff Kirvin is a good Twitter pal of mine, and it was my relationship with him that led me to choose to read this book, from which ordinarily the title and cover art would have warded me off.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Jac Schaeffer's TiMER

I can't decide if I need a shower because I just sat through a romantic comedy (eww) or if I want to think some more (by which I mean blog, I guess) about this film, which I just watched out of wayward laziness and essential trust in Netflix's recommendations.

It has all of the usual rom-com conceits, starting with the idea that an unbelievably pretty actress can be believable as a lovelorn lonley heart, continuing with a meet cute and ensuing idyll and all of the other crap that makes the formula so annoyingly predictable I want to scream at everyone to stop forking over money to see "new" iterations of it so that maybe Hollywood and its wannabes will stop making it. It's all there, and it's eyeball-rolling and scream-worthy and reductionist and highly emetically hateable.

There's the argument for how I need a shower now, and a good rinse with some brain bleach.

Amazingly, though, while honoring faithfully every single one of those conventions, this film also managed to critique them, not by mocking them, exaggerating them, undercutting them or sending them up, but by presenting them in complete, wide-eyed earnest, trusting the story's real engine to keep us chugging through them.

And chug I did.

As the trailer above lays out, the world of TiMER is a world in which somehow an ultimate formula has been established whereby each person can find his or her absolute perfect soul mate by trusting a gadget implanted in the arm to go off when eye contact with that person is at last made. Furthermore, the gadget can predict to the second just how long the client has to wait before that magic moment: everyone has a countdown -- provided his or her soul mate has also so been implanted. How all this is supposed to work is glossed over via infomercial-esque "interviews" with scientists using a lot of buzzwords like oxytocin; we're not supposed to sit there and ponder how it's so or even if it's really possible in the real world. We're in a thought experiment, here.

But it's a thought experiment conducted way outside the lab, out in the big, messy world which isn't all that much tidier for everyone's potentially having that one big uncertainty (which, since this is rom-com, is basically the only big uncertainty worth worrying about, natch) removed. How like life that is: with that question more or less answered for everyone, everyone now finds something new to stress out over, namely how to conduct themselves with potential partners who really aren't "The One" while you're waiting for him or her to show up.

So here's our protagonist, Oona (Emma Caulfield, known to us nerds as the vengeance demon with a heart of gold from Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- interesting casting there, what?), who starts off the film coercing her current beau to get implanted (men who don't have TiMERS are now suspect; they're not serious, they're toxic bachelors, they're dangerous) to see if he's her "One" and dumps him when he proves not to be, even though they seem to have been having a nice time together -- the ideal of her future is more important than the real of her present. Her attitude in general seems to be that dallying with anyone who is not one's One is essentially cheating on one's One and should be frowned upon.

But then, of course, she meets someone the old fashioned way, someone whose TiMER puts him just months away from The Day but who doesn't seem all that hung up on it and thinks she's pretty swell. Her TiMER still blank, she knows he's not the One but he's rather swell himself and they spend some swell time making each other feel even more swell and golly gee, could the gadgets just be wrong because really, they're pretty darn good together, if only... if only...

Developments develop, complications complicate and a whole lot of people, not just Oona and Mr. Swell, find themselves in terrific muddles, all because of this constant tension between the real and the ideal that is now given concrete form on almost everyone's wrists. As she looks for answers and whines cutely to her similarly troubled (and also improbably pretty) sister, she starts meeting people who have opted out of the system altogether and seem pretty happy. Some even seem to have found love the old-fashioned way, and decided the gadgets couldn't tell them they're wrong about it.

But our girl has grown up in a world where the gadgets are taken for granted and their pronouncements as deterministic as the adage about death and taxes.

So this is a science fiction rom-com hybrid with a lot of ontology on its noggin and, because it is also an art film, it doesn't even try to answer all the questions it poses -- not even the narrative ones.

So again my dillemma: shower or blog? Looks like I already decided, doesn't it?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

100 Books 34 - Iain M. Banks' CONSIDER PHLEBAS

Long have I been aware of Iain Banks, and Iain M. Banks (who are the same man, just publishing under slightly different names in slightly different genres) and his Culture novels, and lo has the wheel finally spun around to him. Almost I took up his The Wasp Factory, which I picked up on the basis of the title (I am perhaps known among you as a bit of an insect fancier), but since my short, happy reading of Alastair Reynolds' Troika last month, I've wanted more space opera and I didn't need the multitudes on Twitter to tell me that meant it was Culture time.

Like many of my fellow readers, I have more than a touch of sequential compulsion, by which I mean if I'm going to read (or watch) a series, I'm going to read it into the ground unless it gets really terrible, so I decided, if I was finally going to get me some Culture, I was going to start from the first book, and yes, I am aware that Consider Phlebas is not sequentially that first, merely the first written or published, but that works for me. Besides, there's the title.

I'm a T.S. Eliot fan. I'm such a T.S. Eliot fan I could drive you insane at a party. Go on. Give me a martini and ask me about The Waste Land and the many genre works that reference it (my favorite of same is Tim Powers' Last Call , which concerns the frenzied efforts of many pretenders to the American Fisher King's throne left abandoned in the wake of the death of Bugsy Siegel. You knew Siegel was more than just a gangster, didn't you? And you knew John Prine knew all about it, right? If not, drop what you're doing and go read that book STAT. You'll be very glad you did. Look. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!).

"Consider Phlebas", as anyone with the wit to use Wikipedia should already know, is a phrase from The Wasteland. Phlebas is the drowned Phoencian sailor the reader/listener sought via a pack of tarot cards; dead as Section IV starts, he is now a cautionary tale, a warning to others sailing on. "Gentile or Jew/O you who turn the wheel and look to windward/ Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you." Pay attention, you doofus.

Several very interesting and intelligent articles exploring (or inventing, for yeah, a lot of them are a stretch) the parallels between Consider Phlebas and The Waste Land are out there waiting for you to Google them if you're interested. Mostly they focus on how Consider Phlebas' sort-of-protagonist, Horza, starts off the novel drowning and ends it on a sterile, dead planet that is indeed a waste land. Horza, they say, is both Phlebas and the Fisher King. It's interesting stuff, but it's really a distraction from both what is cool about this novel, and what is kind of disappointing. In defense of the parallelers, though, Horza's story (if it can be called any one being's story it is probably Horza's, but more or less by default) is a similar momento mori for others.

In the Culture, Banks has created a fascinatingly decadent society, in which people are genetically modified to get high off the products of their own glands and in which scarcity is barely even a concept, so effectively have the means of production been mechanized. All the yucky stuff is handled by machines, and even big decision making is mostly carried out by super-intelligent, super-efficient, super-awesome artificial intelligences called Minds. Somehow, these Minds and machines never get tired of doing the grunt work and so have never turned against their human masters -- indeed, it would seem they regard their biological co-citizens as much like pets as like partners, but I'm not sure of this because we are seeing the Culture mostly from the outside in this novel, from the perspective of one of its enemies; Horza is an agent for a cranky alien race who can't stand the laissez faire disorder (and secularism) of the Culture and have declared war on it. As to why he chose to side with the aliens, well, as he declares at one point (after, I imagine, drawing himself up to full height, clearing his throat loudly to make sure all eyes are upon him and raising a Finger of Declamation to emphasize the great portentousness of what he is about to say), he disagrees with the Culture.

That's all. Just disagrees. As to what he disagrees with the Culture about, er, well. Yeah. We never really find that out. As such. Or if we do it's in one tiny internal monologue line I missed and can't be arsed to look for now because I find I don't care too much.

Cue SAD TROMBONE right here.

But so, anyway, we only get glimpses of the Culture. One of its Minds has escaped a trap and gone to ground on a dead planet that is being kept as a sort of sanctuary/bad example museum -- that planet's original inhabitants failed to make it into space before destroying themselves, you see, AHEM (poignant to contemplate, this week, isn't it, as the very last launch of the United States' space shuttle is set for this Friday?). Horza is rescued from literally drowning in shit to go try to retrieve that Mind before the Culture does, but like all good missions (at least that make good novels), Things Go Awry and we spend a good chunk of the novel following Horza Among the Space Pirates, which... should be more fun than it is, actually. Especially since the pirate captain, one Kraiklyn, has to be the worst chooser of missions EVER.

But though each quest for booty for Horza and Kraiklyn's crew ends in disaster, it's not very engaging disaster because we never really have the feeling that anything is at stake*. The careful neutrality Banks has established -- the Culture is neither good nor evil, same with the alliens, same with Horza and most of his sort-of antagonists (with one very vivid exception I wouldn't dream of spoiling for you except to say imagine Jabba the CANNIBAL Hut) -- works against us here; we're not just skimming around the edges of the Culture but around Horza's own story, detached, disengaged, aloof, like perhaps a Mind itself might. Which might work except that the Mind this story concerns is rather a scrappy one; its scenes, though few and far between, riveting and desperate as we watch an entity born/designed to work with near-infinite resources struggling to make do with primitive relics of a long-dead race to conceal and defend itself. I mean, WOW.

Another wow factor is at the scale at which Banks has dreamed here. While some have sneered that the Orbitals in this milieu are ripped off from Larry Niven, they're still damned impressive (and as others have argued, giant ring-shaped habitats that occupy an entire planetary orbit may have just joined the sci-fi commons, as have spaceships and bug-eyed monsters and extrapolation from current conditions before them) even when, as here, we visit them only to loot them before they're (very impressively) blown up -- atomised, actually, illustrating as vividly as anything could just the stupefying level of abundance the Culture apparently enjoys. Most space operas would have societies salvaging resources from such a tremendous infrastructure, but here even an ocean's worth (more than an ocean's worth: this planetary orbit-filling structure is itself filled mostly with an ocean!) of fresh water is casually vaporized. I'm very interested in a society that does this, aren't you?

Points must also be rewarded for the agonizing climax, in which lots of different machines, literal and figurative, are set into motion for lots of different reasons, all at cross purposes, and literal and figurative crashes ensue, all in slow motion. This would be a masterpiece of intricate and elegant plotting, taut with unbearable tension (and tinged with more than a little humor), keeping the reader desperately turning pages... if she gave a shit about any of the characters' fates at that point. Your mileage may vary there. As a technical achievement, though, the finale of Consider Phlebas is kind of awe-inspiring. I'm sure J.J. Abrams or someone is dying to film it. With maximum lens flare.

And so, while I'm a bit annoyed with the near-dullness of Consider Phlebas I'm going to keep on (after the current challenge is completed, for I'm only allowing myself one book per author, which means my detour into George R.R. Martin-land has really cost me ground) with the Culture novels, under the theory that putting them aside because the first book didn't give me enough would be a bit like dismissing Peter Greenaway's The Falls after only watching an early entry like Squaline Fallaize's.

And I love The Falls even more than I love The Waste Land.

*True, one development about 75% of the way into the book finally gives us a sense of something actually being at stake, but it's too little, too late, and anyway completely undermined by the novel's pretty unsatisfying, Passage-esque conclusion.