Archive for July, 2020

The Future Is Home

Probably a short review today, so we’ll take a fast look at Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.

The tale stars a teenager named Binti, a member of the (somewhat fictionalized) Himba people of Southern Africa at an unspecified point in the future. The Himba traditionally cover their skin and hair with otjize, a mixture of butterfat, ochre pigments, and aromatic plants, as a combination of sunscreen, insect repellent, and cleansing agent. Binti’s people consider otjize an almost religious sacrament, preferring to wear it at all times. The Himba also prefer to stay close to home — in the novella, no Himba have ever left Earth at all, despite space travel being fairly commonplace.

Binti is a mathematical genius and is expected to take over her father’s business creating electronic astrolabes — but she’s secretly accepted admission to the prestigious Oomza University, located on a distant planet. She sneaks away from home, boards her flight off-world, and starts making friends, slowly, with her future classmates. It’s not an entirely smooth process — even among other African tribes, the Himba are considered unusually standoffish and weird, thanks to all the otjize, but Binti slowly begins getting acquainted with people.

And that’s when the Meduse attack.

The Meduse are jellyfish-like aliens, hostile to almost everyone, and they tend to prefer to shoot first and ask questions never. Can Binti survive the attack, learn to communicate with the Meduse, and convince them to embrace peace before her ship arrives at Oomza University?

Verdict: A very enthusiastic thumbs up. This was a pretty short novella — just around 100 pages — but I had a lot of fun with it. It reads quickly, the action is sparse, but well-done, and the concepts Okorafor is playing with — mathematics, African futurism, communication, and some level of mysticism — are excellently done. Binti is a glorious character, both traditional and conservative, and forward-thinking and radical at the same time.

Binti’s interactions with the Meduse aliens, particularly the one called Okwu, are also very well-done. These scenes are very tense, with both sides slowly coming to understand each other — although whether any reconciliation between the two sides is possible is hard to say.

I thought it was particularly cool that Okorafor was able to use a science fiction novella set in the far future to respectfully bring attention to the real-world Himba people. Binti is treated like an alien by almost every Earthling she meets because of the Himba’s isolation and customs, so perhaps she’s the perfect person to make friends with cultures even more alien.

FYI, Okorafor has turned out to be one of my favorite authors, and I plan to review at least a few more of her books eventually.

“Binti” won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella. It has two sequels — “Binti: Home,” focusing on Binti’s homecoming to Earth, and “Binti: The Night Masquerade,” which puts a capper on Binti’s journey. You can buy all three novellas separately, though there’s also a collected edition. You should get ’em and read ’em.

Comments off

The Long Way to a Great, Optimistic Novel

These days, we need as much positive, open-hearted, optimistic, diverse fiction as we can get, so let’s take a look at one of my favorite books from the last few years: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

Becky Chambers’ debut novel was originally funded on Kickstarter in 2012 and self-published in 2014 before being picked up by larger publishers, which tells you that it connected with a lot of readers very quickly. The book focuses on the crew of the Wayfarer, a small working-class spaceship that specializes in building wormholes to facilitate long-range travel throughout the galaxy.

The crew includes Rosemary Harper, the ship’s new clerk, who’s hiding a dark secret from her past; Ashby, the compassionate human captain; Sissix, the gregarious reptilian pilot, Corbin, the ship’s uptight algaeist; Kizzy and Jenks, the fun-loving engineers; Dr. Chef, the ship’s doctor and cook, who’s from a dying race; Ohan, the reclusive navigator, and Lovey, the ship’s AI. Among the crew, several have interesting plothooks built in — Ashby is dating a member of an alien species that deeply disapproves of sexual relationships with aliens; Sissix and Corbin absolutely hate each other; and Jenks and Lovey are deeply in love and making plans to give the AI an illegal robot body.

The Wayfarer is an unusual ship because most of their crew is human. In this futuristic universe, humans are a distinct minority among more numerous and more powerful alien nations. The human race had to leave Earth hundreds of years ago, living on scattered planets and asteroids and spaceships. They’ve come to terms with some of the problems we’ve had to deal with, and most of the species has chosen to embrace pacifism, feeling that endless warmongering is what got their homeworld wrecked.

Soon after Rosemary joins the crew at the beginning of the book, the Wayfarer gets a lucrative contract, and because they’ll have to spend a year traveling to the site where they’ll be building the new wormhole, we get to spend most of the book meeting these people and getting to know them. We essentially get a nice long stretch of short stories focusing on each of our characters. We get to visit Sissix’s homeworld, we meet Kizzy and Jenks’ demented engineer buddies, there’s a pirate attack on the ship, and one character gets arrested for an accidental genetic crime.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This book turned me into a fan of Becky Chambers forevermore.

The characters and interactions in this book are absolutely why you’ll find yourself loving it so much. It’s a hard, brutal, depressing world out there, and this book gives you a bunch of people who are interesting, diverse, funny, and supportive of each other, even when they hate or don’t understand each other.

We’re able to see through these people’s eyes to examine a galaxy filled with wonders. Aliens may be everywhere, but they still tend to be pretty compassionate and empathetic, because that’s what you have to be in order to survive in a cold, cruel universe. And if scores of alien species are able to live together in peace, maybe there’s hope for us, too. It’s everything you’d ever want from optimistic, forward-thinking, hopeful science fiction.

Yes, there are more astonishingly wonderful books in this series, but for now, go pick this one up. You’ll love it.

Comments off

Good Trouble

This has been an overwhelmingly rotten year, and if we needed another reminder of that fact, it came Friday night when we learned that John Lewis, civil rights icon and one of the best damn people anywhere, had died at the age of 80.

I suspect y’all will remember that Lewis wrote his own graphic novel, “March,” co-written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. I’d previously reviewed Book One and Book Two, but I was surprised to realize I’d never reviewed Book Three — it was released after I’d mothballed the blog in 2016.

So there’s probably no better time to remedy that situation than right now. Let’s look at March, Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell.

In 1963, the civil rights struggles become more violent, largely because white supremacists were getting more and more frightened and angry. The book opens with the terrifying bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham by the KKK that killed four girls. While much of the rest of the country is horrified, whites in the Deep South are largely ecstatic.

From here, Lewis recounts a lot of tough times for the Civil Rights Movement — attempts to register voters in the South that were obstructed by police, judges, and politicians; the death of John F. Kennedy, one of their major supporters; the murders of Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman, James Chaney, and far too many other activists; the futile struggle to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates at the Atlantic City Democratic Convention.

And Selma. The campaign to register voters, opposed with fanatical rage by the police. The brutal Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettis Bridge, where Lewis was savagely beaten by police. And the march from Selma to Montgomery.

And finally, the Voting Rights Act of 1964. But the battle didn’t end there.

And the book isn’t a dry recounting of historical events. Lewis tells you the people he worked with, the disagreements, the small moments between friends, the events that mattered, the speeches that drove civil rights forward. Lewis shares meetings with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, C.T. Vivian, also gone last week, and dozens more. It’s not textbook history — it’s human history, recreated before your eyes.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Lewis brings us the terrors and triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement on a fully human scale. You’re gonna see a lot of stuff in this book that will make you absolutely furious, from the various bigoted sheriffs committing assaults and murders at will (Golly, how the times do repeat themselves) to LBJ, who, though he may have signed the signature civil rights legislation, was still a racist douchebag.

Luckily, you’ll also see plenty of stuff to inspire you, too. Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony, Lewis’ trip to Africa and meeting with Malcolm X, the march to Montgomery, all the people working together to bring about a more equitable world.

Lewis decided he wanted to write this because he wanted to educate young people about the struggle for equality and the right to vote — but parents should be aware that the book is full strong language and violence. It’s not gratuitous — this is the language white racists used. And the violence is not gory, but the smudged and shadowy depictions of assaults and fires and bombings are their own kind of nightmare fuel.

But even if you’re worried about showing it to your kids, you shouldn’t be afraid of reading it yourself. When I was growing up, my history classes always petered out not long after World War II. The Civil Rights Movement was glossed over, at best. So reading this is a valuable education for adults as well as kids.

This one is highly recommended. Go read it. Go read all three books of this series.

Comments off

The Story of You

Hey, it’s been too long since I had a review up here, so let’s look at You, a novel by Austin Grossman.

This was the second novel by Grossman, who’s still probably best known, especially among us nerd types, for his superhero novel, “Soon I Will Be Invincible.” This is a novel about the video games industry and probably classifiable as science fiction, partly because it’s set in an alternate universe where Ultima III and Tomb Raider and Wolfenstein existed right alongside and in competition with the novel’s fictional Black Arts Studios and Realms of Gold games, partly because the book covers fantasy, espionage, and science fiction gaming, and partly because Black Arts’ signature game engine, WAFFLE, does things that normal game engines probably can’t do.

Our plot focuses on four people who became friends in high school — brash, charismatic Darren, nerdy hyper-genius Simon, quiet, furious Lisa, and Russell, the guy who can’t match up to any of them, and knows it. When they were in high school in the ’80s, they all helped create — in handwritten and physically-typed-in code — the first versions of the “Realms of Gold” fantasy computer game, which would eventually go on to become a popular game franchise.

Years later, Darren, Simon, and Lisa go on to found Black Arts Studios, and Russell goes off to law school. And when he burns out on law, he goes crawling back to his old friends, or what’s left of them. Darren is the public face of Black Arts and a gaming industry legend. Lisa buries herself in the code. Simon is dead. And soon after Russell joins the team, Darren leaves, takes off with the senior developers to found a new game studio all his own, and Russell finds himself promoted to design lead for Realms of Gold VII. He’s not ready. He has to be brought up to speed on how to design a modern game. He has to learn how to lead a team on creating a playable game.

He has to learn how to make sure You have fun in the game. You know — You. The player who experiences the game. The player who sees themself as the hero. The player who keeps the studio profitable.

And the high pressure and focus gets Russell thinking hard about the Four Heroes of Endoria, the characters who’ve headlined all the Realms of Gold games, sometimes imagining conversations with them, sometimes dreaming about them. Brennan, the warrior. Lorac, the wizard. Prendar, the half-elf thief. Princess Leira, the beautiful archer.

And he has to deal with a truly game-breaking bug — Mournblade, a sword that drives its owner to endless bloodlust, allows them to kill any character, including unkillable NPCs, and curses them to inevitable death. No one knows where it comes from, no one knows how to fix it, and its effects can potentially reach beyond the game world to cause real-world catastrophes.

Can Russell track down the Mournblade bug? Can he save the Realms of Gold franchise and Black Arts Studios? Can he come to terms with his past and with the people he used to be friends with?

Verdict: Thumbs up. I liked it a lot. If you’re going into this hoping for science fiction props like proton cannons and alien invasions and mutated penguins, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. It’s a story about people, with plenty of diversions to examine gaming, the concept of play, and how we perceive fictional heroic archetypes.

One of my favorite things about this book is that it’s almost unremarked upon that Black Arts runs on a game engine that’s just a shade away from a fully sentient artificial intelligence. No one really knows how WAFFLE works — because Simon, the company’s secretive genius, built it and didn’t leave a user’s manual around for anyone else to review. It’s so good, they’ve actually loaned the code out to the financial sector to help regulate and stabilize the markets. What looks to everyone else like a complicated but well-designed spreadsheet program, looks more like a bunch of goblins and dwarves selling stocks in a village market if you look at it through the Realms world engine. And Lisa speculates that the Mournblade bug actually got loose in the financial markets through WAFFLE and caused Black Monday…

There’s a lot of drama here — not just the drama of the real-world characters, how their less-than-happy childhoods gradually turned into less-than-happy adulthoods — but also the drama of the fictional game characters. Grossman gives the 2-D game characters, Brennan, Lorac, Prendar, and Leira, their own fully-realized backgrounds and histories, sometimes contradictory, sometimes impossible, sometimes nonsensical, but he lets them have their own inner lives. He lets them be people, beyond the thin origin stories written up for game manuals, and it makes for beautiful reading.

But there’s lots and lots of humor, too. Russell’s observations of the game business are funny, many of his “dialogues” with the game characters are grimly humorous, and his E3 demo for Realms VII just gets funnier the longer it goes on and the more disastrous it gets. And Black Arts’ sports-themed spinoffs of Realms of Gold, always financial flops, are also great: Black Karts Racing, Realms of Golf, and Pro Skate ‘Em Endoria: Grind the Arch-Lich.

And then there’s the mystery of Mournblade — how does it work, why does it manifest, where is the cursed sword hiding, and how can it be found and destroyed?

Looking for a low-key science fiction read that emphasizes character and plot while offering a look into the computer gaming industry? This is one you’ll want to find and read.

Comments off

Brain Sprain

Heyo, everyone, took me a well-deserved weeklong break, and now I’m all ready to go, batteries recharged, et cetera!

No, let’s be honest, I got good and lazy and didn’t feel like writing anything for way longer than I should. That and trying to catch up on cool TV shows. Y’all should be watching “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Doom Patrol,” y’all realize that, right?

It’s a difficult time to be focused on writing, largely due to high stress. It’s not easy living in a borderline fascist dictatorship — especially one that’s working extra hard to kill as many people as it can because it’s either that or, quelle horreur, wear a facemask — and worrying about that all the time keeps you exhausted and unproductive, more eager to engage in low-effort hobbies like video games than chores like writing that require you to actually use your brain…

As always, I struggle with what kind of content to drop here. I can dig up the occasional review, but I really don’t know whether anyone cares for reviews. Comics news is vanishingly hard to find nowadays. I could post more of my photos, but I suspect that’s more for my own ego and self-aggrandizement.

Rants are easy as pie to come up with nowadays — I did mention the borderline fascist dictatorship, right? — but I’m trying to control my entirely understandable rage issues, mostly to keep me from showing up in your newsfeed at some point for tearing a governor’s throat out with my fangs.

So in the absence of anything else, let’s check out a few interesting links.

Comments off

Just Another Day in July

So it’s Independence Day, and that generally means I post a bunch of comics covers with flags on ’em, right? I really don’t feel like doing that this year.

Let’s be honest — it’s a rotten time to be an American. We’re ruled by a bunch of fascist dumbfucks. At least 70 million of our fellow citizens believe Nazis are Very Fine People and won’t hesitate to kill any of us when their Combover Pedophile God Emperor demands it. The Republicans in Congress know they’d get their ass whupped in a fair election, so they’re busy sending election machine passwords and the nuclear codes to the Russians. And 99% of the cops in this country are champing at the bit to go full Mindless Horde on the rest of the country if we won’t give them medals for committing crimes.

Not to say there isn’t hope for the future — but we’ll have to exterminate 70 million cultists who’ve been successfully converted into Nazi cultists. And the only people who have the stomach to kill that many people are the Nazi cultists.

Still, if you need some inspiration for a better Independence Day, let’s turn to comics.

Happy Fourth. Let’s hope it’s not our last.

Comments (1)