Notes/First Impressions: Orphan Black by Graeme Manson and others

I’ll keep this quick: I adore Orphan Black. It’s full of twists, has an interesting mix of gritty and comedic, presents a convoluted story with a large group of characters in a way that I find easy to follow, and Tatjana Maslany’s acting performance as multiple characters is a delight. When I queue this show up on Netflix, I know I’m not going anywhere the rest of the evening and into the night.

That said, the episode “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” is not going to be my no.1 pick for the Hugos, for two reasons. One, while the show as a whole is great, the individual episodes don’t stand out as much for me. In Doctor Who, each episode has its own tone and identity; I don’t get that from Orphan Black. Two, the show does have some glaring flaws, especially in its plotting. These faults are not so much plot holes (all stories have them, and a lot of the times the best thing to do with those have been to just let them slide rather than try to fill them) as signs that the viewer is being given the runaround. Here, we get that in the bone marrow donation subplot: Seven-year-old Kira donates bone marrow to cure the disease that is going to kill her “aunt” Cosima; the bone marrow gets coopted by her other “aunt” Rachel, and then destroyed to give Kira’s mother Sarah the motivation to shoot a pencil into Rachel’s eye. The whole donation subplot is thus nullified with very little in the way of plot progression to show for it. Oh, and Cosima starts feeling better anyway, for a while at least. One instance of this isn’t deadly to a series, but by the end of season 2, there are already multiple instances of the same phenomenon, and the show has been confirmed for a fourth season already.

Many years ago, I read the Belgian comic XIII. It was very similar in setup to The Bourne Identity and its sequels, indeed so similar to it that many have accused the writer, Jean van Hamme, of plagiarizing it. But it was a setup that worked: Van Hamme knew how to tell a mystery tale, and was a great match to the hyperrealism of the artist, William Vance. Over several albums we learned everything about the background of the man who was found washed up on the shore with a roman numeral XIII tattooed on his collarbone and no memory of his life before that. Except we didn’t. The story that we learned turned out to be a red herring, as did the one that replaced it, and the one after that. I bounced off the series after the seventh book, at which point it was clear the author had no interest in giving us a definite answer as to who XIII was and what happened to him, let alone any kind of closure. At that point at a pace of one or two books a year, the chronology had already begun to strain: ‘XIII’ was at some point identified as a vietnam vet, and six books on he was still quite a young man despite it being 1990-ish now. Thirty years on, spin-offs of the original series are still running. In them, ‘XIII’ is still a youngish man, and characters who were high-ranking officers during the Vietnam war are still active participants in the story. I can see some of this happening with Orphan black easily. The writers have carefully kept the setting generic, but it is clearly 2014, and one of the characters is a seven-year-old child. By season six, we may see that child as a tween, with completely different technology in the setting, and with only a few months of in-story time having passed and no sense of when the font of answers has been exhausted. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen: this show deserves better.

Notes/First Impressions: Zombie Nation by Carter Reid

So in my post about Sex Criminals, Rat Queens and Saga, I added a bit at the end, saying

There is one more [Hugo] nominee [for Graphic Story] that, for reasons I’ve outlined before, I will skip for now. If I have time, I may check it out and if it rocks my world, it may end up on my ballot. If it turns out to be the only complete work on the ballot, the benefit of the doubt I’ve given these four works will not apply and they may all end up below No Award (in the same order), so there is ample scope for an upset.

Then I actually took a quick look at Zombie Nation and any thought of a radical change to my vote went out of the window. Here I was tut-tutting at Saga for feeling, in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, a little bit dated. Zombie Nation is the kind of webcomic that people have in mind when they talk about webcomics that only made it big because they were around in 1998. But for fuck’s sake, it’s not 1998 anymore. These days, when I think of a newish webcomic that I hadn’t heard of before but that somehow got nominated for a major award, I expect it to look more or less like, well, like Rat Queens looks: possibly not entirely well-rounded in terms of the artist’s ability, but at the very least able to fake professionalism well in most areas and really really good in some. If it can’t claim that about itself, it should not be up for an award like the Hugos. Zombie Nation is just ugly, and worse than that, it’s ugly in a really dull way. Everything about it looks copied from other comics. That includes the writing, which is based on just a small number of stale, sexist jokes and pop culture references that need to be retired. Who in their right minds nominated this?

Notes/first impressions: 3 Hugo-nominated graphic novels

Sex Criminals Volume One: One Weird Trick – Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
Rat Queens Volume One: Sass and Sorcery – Kurtis I. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch
Saga Volume Three – Brian K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples

When I read Ms. Marvel vol.1, I thought that it was a bit flimsy for a graphic novel, especially what with it not being a complete story but more of an opening chapter. Having now read three other works that have been nominated for a Graphic Novel Hugo for 2015, I have to walk that back a little. These three other candidates all have the same problem, and it’s the very smoothness of G. Willow Wilson’s storytelling that makes it more readily apparent. In a direct comparison with Ms. Marvel these three suffer rather badly. Ms. Marvel tells its story in a very clear and straightforward way so that pre-teens and young teens who may not be the worlds biggest comics fans and who won’t have decades of media consumption under their belts will be able to read it easily. Sex Criminals, Rat Queens and Saga are all aimed at older, savvier audiences and try to do different things with how they tell their stories, but they don’t do their thing with as much flair and accomplishment as Ms. Marvel does its thing.

Sex Criminals for example, is aimed at adults. Its narrative is dense and multilayered, mixing present-moment, flashbacks and in-the-moment-asides throughout, as well as using colour and effects to indicate when time is stopped or when an aside visually interacts with the present moment. Sometimes it goes quite far in smooshing these approaches together, such as when a character tells a story of something that happened in her past, and interrupts her narration with a “zzzz” sound when the past version of the character in the narration falls asleep for a moment. Thing is, it doesn’t always work, and when it does, it ends up papering over some big continuity errors, not the least of which is about when the lead characters know what about their antagonists.The art is also not as lively as that of Ms. Marvel and there are quite a few questionable design and colouring decisions throughout, such as the use of dark(ish) colours and gradients in word balloons.
None of this stops the first volume of Sex Criminals from being a perfectly enjoyable, often witty and thoughtful comic to spend an hour or so with. The lead characters are relatable, flaws and all and there were several good laughs in it. I will check out the next volume some time.

Rat Queens has an ensemble cast, and features elves, witches, brawling and beer. One of its selling points according to the blurb is that it has female characters who are written (by Kurtis J. Wiebe, who is a dude) and drawn (by Roc Upchurch, who is a dude and holy shit it’s someone I’ve followed on DeviantArt for years, and holy shit he’s not drawing the comic anymore as of November 2014 because he was arrested for domestic violence that month. I’m out of touch) realistically, with proper characterization and different body types and all. Now that I’m actually typing that sentence, it feels like it’s 2004 all over again. This is supposed to be noteworthy? I don’t even think the artist does the range of body types all that convincingly, at least not between the four characters that make up the main cast. But I digress. Like Ms. Marvel, this uses lineair style of storytelling, but much more loosely, with harsher, faster transitions and bigger gaps between scenes and chapters. I found it hard to follow in places, though that may have had to do with me being tired at the time, and some of the transitions might have worked better in the monthly or bimonthly installments. There actually appear to be bits missing from the collection: I can’t for the life of me figure out what the phrase “what the assassin said” referred to. The assassin, in that one scene, said “Dicks” and then died. Could be bad script editing, could be a page that was accidentally left out of the book. Don’t know which option is worse.
I also found the art very uneven. Upchurch has won quite a bit of praise for the things he does well, such as fighting scenes and facial expressions. But in scenes where the backgrounds play a prominent part, his perspective is often off and the compositions can get a bit messy. His page layouts aren’t the most readable.
Finally, I found that the sass part of “Sass and sorcery” got on my nerves a bit, as American comic-book witticisms often do. I enjoyed Rat Queens despite its flaws, but those flaws did add up.

And that leaves us with Saga The nominated work here isn’t even a first part, but lands the reader in the middle of a story spanning multiple years and a vast fictional universe. This made it difficult for me to get into it at all, but what I could see in front of me honestly didn’t help. It’s competently done, I guess, and the characters look interesting, but the overall impression I got was that I was looking at a lesser-known Vertigo title. There seemed to be a large number of different things thrown in for no other reason than that they were cool. I might have got more into it if I’d started with volume I, but for the purpose of judging it for the Hugo, to say that is to make excuses for it.

Above, I’ve dwelled on the flaws of the comics discussed a lot, and I would like to mention that I really did enjoy two of them and found things to enjoy in the third. They have flaws but they’re not disastrous ones. As the incompleteness problem is apparently par for the course for this category, I’ve decided to ignore this and give all works the benefit of the doubt on that score as far as award-worthiness is concerned. I have decided to vote all four above No Award for the Hugos, in, as it happens, the exact same order as I read and discussed them. My preliminary vote for the category, then, is

1. Ms Marvel
2. Sex Criminals
3. Rat Queens
4. Saga
5. No Award.

There is one more nominee that, for reasons I’ve outlined before, I will skip for now. If I have time, I may check it out and if it rocks my world, it may end up on my ballot. If it turns out to be the only complete work on the ballot, the benefit of the doubt I’ve given these four works will not apply and they may all end up below No Award (in the same order), so there is ample scope for an upset.

Notes/First impressions: Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie

I’m back to work from vacation, so reading Ancillary Sword took a lot more time than the previous few books, and it was harder for me to get immersed into it. Other than that, it was pretty much what I expected: a strong sequel to Ancillary Justice but a sequel none the less and that sequelness (sequelity?) didn’t help it much.

  • In this book, the flashback technique wouldn’t have worked as well as in the previous novel in the series, so it wasn’t used as much. That did, however, mean that the storytelling was more linear, less mysterious – but also less ostentatiously there.
  • What this novel did do better than its predecessor was the detailed wordbuilding, working from the notion that single-culture planets were to be avoided and using that to make the environment come alive. Not that Ancillary Justice was any slouch at worldbuilding, but in Sword, it’s more alive. I liked that a lot.
  • The plot was essentially a mystery in which the criminals reveal themselves through their own actions rather than being found out through the protagonist’s brillians, although she does show considerable insight throughout. As plots go, it works, but it’s not that special.
  • Leckie spends a lot of time this time around putting her pieces in place and making sure her readers have the right ideas in their heads for the events in the last 50-odd pages to work. Until the novel heats up in those final 50-odd pages, it works mostly as a fantasy of manners similar to The Goblin Emperor and in many ways they are structured very similarly.
  • For a number of reasons, such as being back at work and having to steal reading time fifteen minutes at a time again, as well as being a little under the weather, I can’t find a lot of actual enthusiasm in me for this novel. That, however, is not Ancillary Sword‘s problem. Used to be I’d re-read a novel again for a second impression but what with time being at such a premium still, that is unlikely to happen right now. I already have my next book lined up, which I will be reading with a view to nominating it for the 2016 Hugo awards…

Notes/First Impressions: Ms. Marvel Vol 1: No Normal – G. Willow Wilson (writer), Adrian Alphona, Jake Wyatt (illustrators),

  • This is very much not made for me. Its target audience is about 30 years younger than I am, and I need to keep that in mind.
  • Small-capacity iPads and ebook editions of full-color comics don’t go together well. I read this on the 27″ iMac. That does not affect my impression at all, but it’s worth noting in case I want to read more comics as ebooks. Wonder how it looks on my phone…
  • That said, it looks pretty good on the big screen. I love the art: bright colours, dynamic, distorted yet always on-model and easy to read. A few panels had line tangents, but only comics professionals care about those, and then only when it’s somebody whose work they already dislike or who is asking them for advice. Line tangents are amateurish unless a known great of comics makes them. I should teach myself not to notice them.
  • As for the writing, my biggest problem with it was that it was over too soon. It’s called a graphic novel but it’s really only the beginning of a novel. That’s what you get if you collect, what, six monthly issues into a larger volume without considering if it’s really a good place to end the volume at. Ah well. It’s the Marvel way
  • Other than that, I really had no complaints about the writing. It’s a superhero origin story that covers all the expected beats when your newly-minted superhero is a sixteen-year-old Pakistani Muslim girl. Of course she has to juggle her new life as Ms. Marvel with the expectations of her strict family, her school, her mosque, her friends. You know what to expect, and you get it.
  • That said, this could have been a train wreck if the writer hadn’t done her homework. I’ve seen one comic where the writer as well as the artist had both failed to do that, and just assumed that the story to write about Muslims in America is that of a young man’s radicalisation, and will a veil out of 1,000 Nights do? Sure it will. Well, here’s G. Willow Wilson’s Wikipedia bio. Lady did her homework and more, and luckily any bum notes were avoided with ease. I could believe in Kamala, I could believe in her family, her wider circle of friends and the people at her mosque. Lines like "delicious, delicious infidel meat" bring back memories of listening to Muslim teenagers talking about food on the train during Ramadan – as well as being simply a very funny line.
  • I laughed out loud quite a few times, both at the sight gags that Alphona put in the background, and at some dialog/situation-based gags. This doesn’t normally happen as I usually find superheroic witticisms tiresome.
  • Much as I enjoyed it, I am reluctant to judge it as a Hugo-worthy effort, though perhaps the full run of the series will be. It’s just a bit too unsubstantial at this point for that. I guess it won’t look that way if you’re 13, but for me that’s what I was left with.

For future reference…

… ads like this are not OK on my website.

Hate based ad
This ad normalizes hate and associates it with social justice. It ain’t foolin’ me.

I don’t monitor my ads closely and have so far only blocked ads that were obviously scammy, and only when I saw them. But I cannot accept advertisers who promote violence, and linking it with social justice causes – opposition to sexism, MRAs, the year-long harrassment campaign that is Gamergate, and transphobia – is both a shitty thing to do and crosses the scam threshold harder than anything I’ve ever had to deal with before. I actually clicked on the ad and it took to some shitty image blog, so it’s a bait and switch as well. Doesn’t make the ad’s contents OK.

The ad that replaces it, the next highest bidder on Project Wonderful for that spot, says “Repent or perish in hellfire”. Not much better but at least it’s neither hateful nor scammy (as the ad actually leads to a site that tells people to repent or perish in hellfire, from a writer who appears to be sincere). It’s also running at no cost to the advertiser. So now might be a good time to bid on the top banner for Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan on Project Wonderful. It’s still got a lowish but steady daily flow of visitors on a number of web locations that carry the ad.

What I read on my vacation

Over the past few years, the amount of time I spent on recreational reading has shriveled to a pale shadow of what it once was. In 2014, I read two novels; in 2013 only one. This is not who I am, so when I had two weeks off without any travel plans, I decided to get back in the habit. The Hugo controversy helped, but it was not my sole motivation. My reading speed is not what it once was, and there were some other things that needed doing, but I did get a few nice novels under my belt as well as some critical writing. Here’s what I read over the past two weeks:

The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison
A lovely fantasy of manners/court intrigue (let’s call this genre a Ferrero Rocher Opera) that I enjoyed but ultimately did not love. Very much a case of not-my-thing done very well. Likely to be my No. 3 pick for the Hugos this year. Read Martin Wisse’s more insightful review or just buy it from Amazon US/Amazon UK.

The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin, translation Ken Liu
My likely No. 1 pick for the Hugos this year. A much harder Science Fiction novel carefully plotted around the limitations of sub-light-speed communication, taking in the broad sweep of history over the 50-year period that first contact would take under these conditions, if the civilization you’re contacting lives as nearby as theoretically possible. One that I personally couldn’t put down. Buy from Amazon US/Amazon UK.

TARDIS Eruditorum – An Unauthorized Critical History of Doctor Who Volume 2: Patrick Troughton   Philip Sandifer
This second volume of Doctor Who-related writings fom Philip Sandifer did not impress me as much as the first. It seemed to me that compared to the first one, it had undergone less revision from the original versions as posted on Sandifer’s blog (where you can read the majority of the articles for free). This is just a subjective impression, because even on a vacation I still don’t have the time to go through the different versions and compare them directly, but it’s one that’s backed up by a number of mechanical editing errors I spotted. It’s also based on the style of the writing, which is less fluid than Sandifer’s is today, and considerably more bloggy than I remembered the first volume being. Also, I kinda dropped out of my attempt at watching the whole classic series during the Troughton years, which means I have less of a connection with this era than with the Hartnell era, which I’ve seen nearly all existing episodes of. All that being said, Sandifer is one of the best and most accomplished critics writing about Doctor Who today and I recommend buying these books just to subsidize his new writing. Buy from Amazon US/Amazon UK.

The Day the World Turned Upside Down (Novelette) – Thomas Olde Heuvelt, translation Lia Belt
This will likely be the only work I will vote for in the Hugo Best Novelette category, and I may put it below No Award. I can overlook that it doesn’t work that well as What We Think Of When We Think Of A Speculative Fiction story, but I can’t get over the unlikability of the narrator/protagonist, with the narrative itself being consistently on his side (there is no sign that the narrator/protagonist is aware of what a douche he is, or that he should be. The case for no-awarding it is made in this review by Secritcrush on Livejournal. I didn’t read the events in the story as magical realism, but as literary parallelism, but while such a reading is easier to enjoy, it doesn’t remove the protagonist’s issues entirely. Read for free at Lightspeed magazine, so you don’t have to take my word for it.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie
Not a Hugo nominee this year, but the book that won all the major awards last year and the prequel to the Leckie novel that is nominated for Best Novel this year. I read the blurb for this one after I took it home, and immediately showed it to my wife, because she plays (played, honestly) Halo and read several Halo novels. I haven’t read any of those or played the game myself, but she’s told me enough about them to suggest that when the back of a book talks about warships and ship AIs given flesh, that’s something that she’d be interested in. She said she was and also that she’d actually heard of the Imperial Radch series that this is the first novel in. Er, I just wrote 500 words on this book today so I don’t feel like recapping it right now. Buy it on Amazon US/Amazon UK.

As part of my personal Hugo voting process, but also to help me train up my critical abilities again, I try to write something about all novels and stories I read. I didn’t do that for the TARDIS Eruditorium volume, because I don’t enjoy writing criticism of criticism anyway. For the time being, I’m doing this in the form of unstructured notes; what I like about doing it that way is that there’s no expectations of insight or quality attached to that format. I am not in a place where I can spend a day to hammer out 2500 words of well-structured argument on a book, and it would be very harmful for me to even try. The notes will help me remember, at voting time, what I thought of any of the works read, and hopefully trigger some other memories as well when I go back to them.

I did spend some extra time to add some Amazon links to the paragraphs in this post, containing my old Amazon Associate codes. This was probably pointless as the blog is now much more of a personal thing I write for myself, but you never know if people do decide to purchase, and if they do, that would give me some extra disposable income to buy more books. I would hope, though, that these posts help cause more books being sold! If you read this and want to buy one of the books discussed above, please feel free to ignore the Amazon links and instead support your local book store. My current home town of Hoogezand-Sappemeer (NL) has no real bookstores left. I did some of my shopping in Groningen and was appalled to find out that both major stores selling new books in the center were now part of the same regional chain, offering roughly the same selection of books. I expect they will consolidate to a single location in the center soon as well. For comparison, Hoogezand-Sappemeer, pop. 30,000, still has a good record store and Groningen, pop. 200,000, supports half a dozen record stores.

Or get the electronic editions! That’s what I did for several of these.

Notes/First Impressions: Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

  • Not a Hugo nominee this year; this is the one that swept all the major SF awards last year.
  • Its sequel, Ancillary Sword is a nominee this year, and I read this one to get up to speed, and also because the two books were placed side by side in Van de Velde bookstore in Groningen.
  • Justice is a gourmet burger of a novel, insubstantial but a lot of fun and mostly not a lot of work to read.
  • That said, the beginning was a bit of work, and not because of the thing that everyone notices about the book. I found the splintered consciousness of the protag to be hard to follow until i got the hang of it. This is not something that would have given me much trouble 20 years ago, so I guess I’ve gotten dumber since then. Or maybe out of practice at reading carefully. Yeah, that’ll be it.
  • The thing that everybody notices is that the protag doesn’t understand gender very well and consistently refers to everyone in her own language as “she”. This is not particularly confusing. I’ve not gotten that dumb in the past 20 years.
  • Oddly, no one comments on the same situation in reverse: that the second-person pronoun is ungendered (and unnumbered) in English as in the protag’s own language, but not in some of the languages that are foreign to her. This was often enough to take me out of the act of reading for a fraction of a second, make go back to what I just read and go over the same sentence again, whenever the protagonist stumbled on the correct usage, which was consistently rendered in English as “you” regardless. But hey, ungendered “you” is normal, right? We only have issues with ungendered “she”, because that’s like really far-fetched. Right.
  • Anyway, other than that, it’s a straightforward revenge book in which the protagonist gets closer to her target and eventually overtakes her. Then stuff happens that is the sort of stuff that happens when the enemy also has a fractured consciousness and multiple bodiies, and that stuff also leads into the next book.
  • Ancillary Justice has detailed wordbuilding and a strong ability to show that world through a single, biased perspective while also letting its realities shine through.
  • “Empires are evil” is not a message in any meaningful way; it is, however, a point of view. So is “it’d be fun to tell a story of an ungendered culture, and without using the default options for when we don’t know a person’s gender”.I would hope that adult readers would be clear on the difference. Apparently not.
  • If this was this year’s nominee for a Hugo, I’d vote for it as my #2 choice. Because sometimes, you just gotta stick up for a novel that’s good popcorn reading, has some spaceship action and pew-pews and does all the things you expect of a space opera novel and does them well. That’s what this is.

Notes/First Impressions: Thomas Olde Heuvelt – The Day the World Turned Upside Down (trs. Lia Belt)

The Day The World Turned Upside Down at Lightspeed Magazine. 10367 Words, so a really quick read. Don’t take me at my word—read it yourself.

Another one that I thought was clearly very good but didn’t have any particular resonance with me. The macro/micro/nanocosm conceit is clever and I could see where the author was going with it, but it just didn’t sweep me off my feet with it. I should ask some of those who did love it what they thought was so great.

I did like the old women, who I initially imagined as being Fates or Norns, or at least fulfilling a similar role. Much more interesting than Toby, who could have been the protagonist of a Marco Borsato song. Perhaps that’s the problem: the idea of breakups-as-the-apocalypse has been thoroughly ruined for me. It goes without saying that the comparison is a bit insulting to the story, which is a good deal better and more artful than that, but still. Something like that gnaws atcha, you know.

And perhaps I should read it in the original Dutch! That option is open to me. I thought that for a non-native speaker, Lia Belt did a good job translating Olde Heuvelt’s story into English, but if I’d been the editor, there would have been one or two phrases I’d have had questions about, and one of those was very early on, taking me out of the story a bit. Unlike with Ken Liu’s work on the Best Novel candidate, there are no translator’s notes, but I did not have the impression that preserving the Dutchness of the story was foremost in Belt’s mind, or that it was a desirable approach for this story, whose setting is deliberately kept unspecified.

Ibeyi – Ibeyi

It is entirely possible that Ibeyi are the best newcomers in pop music this year. At least if you ignore that they had an EP out in 2014, but the linked album is their full-length debut.

It is also entirely possible that I am the last person to find this out as there’s been a bit of a buzz around them, they’ve already done a Spotify session and they were at Eurosonic. I have a long-standing habit of missing out on Eurosonic tickets and this year was no exception. Since moving to Hoogezand, I am also deprived of the free Eurosonic gigs, some of which were practically in my back yard when I was living at my old address.