RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: September 2013

Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Saga cover

I wish I had written Saga. It’s the kind of brilliant mash-up of science fiction and fantasy that I loved as a kid, complete with robot princes, adorable animal people, and a bounty hunter wearing a superhero cape. It’s so far from hard science fiction that the moon people cast magic and the space marines have giant feathery wings. As far as I can tell, every starship in the galaxy runs on an abundant supply of handwavium. And with all due respect and affection to the hard stuff, this kind of space opera is where my scifi heart lives. Brian K. Vaughn has taken the idle imaginings of a kid and turned it into a mature, fantastic, slam-bang epic of a story. And I can’t get enough of it.

Gwendolyn doesn't trust reviews

The setting is a galaxy locked in a seemingly endless war between the winged and tech-reliant inhabitants of Landfall and the horned and magical inhabitants of its moon, Wreath. Unwilling to risk catastrophic damage to their homeworlds, the belligerents have taken their war into the galaxy at large, fighting on remote worlds and dragging nearly every other intelligent race into a genocidal, galaxy-wide proxy war. And into this hostility, two soldiers from opposite sides fall in love, conceive a child, and run.

Meet cute

The story is intermittently narrated by Marko and Alana’s daughter, offering reflective commentary and the occasional foreshadowing. It’s clear from this – and the title, I suppose – that this is the beginning of a long arc, an epic tale, and it’s likely that not everyone will make it to the end. The pace of the story, however, is action-movie quick and the retrospective narration never intrudes on the immediacy of events. The action rises and falls like the perfect rollercoaster, and I’m so caught up that I keep re-reading as if hoping that one day I’ll turn to the end of the second volume and find the next issue picking up where it left off.

robot sex

The writing is Vaughn at his best, maybe better than he’s ever been. The dialogue, even the expository passages, is quick and punchy, unencumbered by archaisms or futuristic slang, no matter what strange creature you’re looking at. Marko and Alana are strange aliens in a strange alien war, but they are recognizable as young people in love, as new parents, as people. Even the Stalk, an alien Freelancer who I think is best described as unsettlingly beautiful, speaks profanity-laced contemporary English like a Hollywood assassin or Elmore Leonard hitter. And this comfortable Leonard-quality dialogue meshes seamlessly with a wonderfully strange galaxy of creatures and events, incorporating death threats, incorporeal babysitters, and cosmic eggs as easily as observations on love, politics, and parenting.

Izabel babysitter

I sometimes have a hard time evaluating art in comics, but the art in this book is goddamn beautiful. Fiona Staples is really more of a co-author in visual form, her style integral to the telling. Lying Cat communicates whole stories about her and her relationship with the Will, even though she never says more than “Lying” or “Mrrn”. When ghostly babysitter Izabel complains that Alana is being dumb, the way Staples draws her is what kicks her voice in my head to an exasperated teenage whine. The narrative itself is punctuated by broad panels and full page illustrations that drive the drama home. Every now and then we’re even treated to a double-page splash of some amazing beautiful thing. It’s a perfect match between writer and artist, and just completely gorgeous to look at.

The Will and Lying Cat

Although Star Wars is a pretty good comparison in terms of genre, Vaughn doesn’t seem to be telling a story of predestined heroes and plucky rebels trying to change the course of history. Firefly might be a closer comparison in terms of stakes, as right now it’s tightly focused on this one family and their survival rather than the fate of a free galaxy. Vaughn already told his Most Important Boy in the World story with the excellent Y: The Last Man, and although Saga has some similarities, it’s clearly a very different tale, and not just because it’s set a million lightyears from Earth. Alana and Marko are not exceptional through a quirk of fate like Yorick or Mitchell Hundred, but because they decided they wanted a life different from the ones chosen for them. Even when being pursued by gray-moraled assassins, war-scarred aristocrats, and vengeful ex-girlfriends, even riding a magical rocketship from a planet full of psychic ghosts, it’s a story about romance, family, and people. Vaughn and Staples have put together a brilliant world full of amazing characters, and they are telling a fantastic story. If you aren’t already aboard, now is a terrific time to hop on.

harp seal and walrus

Buy Volumes One and Two on Amazon(1/2) or Barnes & Noble (1/2), or pick them up with the latest issue at your local comic shop.

 

Frederik Pohl (1919 – 2013)

Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl is dead. I’ve looked for his name in the used book store for as long as I can remember buying my own books. Science fiction has a not entirely undeserved reputation for humorlessness, Douglas Adams excepted. For every Bill the Galactic Hero there are a dozen Dunes and Foundations demanding to be taken seriously and scowling mightily at those who would go to space on a lark. I’m not saying that Pohl didn’t take his writing or his stories seriously, and he certainly wasn’t writing comedy. His subjects are often world-changing events, political upheaval on a planetary scale, and the fate of humanity. But his characters feel more recognizably human than anyone on Arrakis, and even his aliens are easier to empathize with than Harry Seldon. That may be what has always made him stand out for me in the field of authors: he never elevates the Grand Idea of a story to the point at which he loses sight of the human beings caught up in that story. The characters in Frank Herbert’s Dune are well-drawn and intensely memorable, but they are also explicitly at the mercy of something larger, and more important, than themselves. I don’t think that Pohl ever believed the plots of his books were more important than the people in them.

002

One of these books approaches its subject with substantially less gravitas.

Of course, I’m basing this analysis on a hilariously small sample, considering that Pohl published almost continuously since 1937, writing more than 40 novels, and I have read five of his books. I think the first was Black Star Rising, because look at the cover art, followed by Jem, which is considered one of his best works. I remember liking them well enough, though I feel like I was vaguely dissatisfied by their endings. Maybe they were more cynical than I could appreciate at that time in my life. It’s long enough ago that I can’t remember any of the details of the stories or characters, but at the very least I liked them enough to pick up Gateway.

001

Gateway is an asteroid riddled with alien-made tunnels and starships. The starships go to any number of preset destinations, but the human prospectors who ride in the craft don’t know where that destination is, how long it will take to get there, or what will greet them when they arrive. If the explorers don’t starve to death on a decade-long trip, their ship may still return to Gateway full of corpses, its occupants killed by radiation, gravitational stresses, or some inexplicable anomaly or mysterious accident. Survival is more or less random, and coming back alive but empty-handed isn’t much better than dying in deep space. But those who return with an artifact or scientific discovery that the Gateway Corporation can exploit can retire to a life of luxury back on Earth, the envy of billions.

Into this walks Robinette Broadhead, a young man from the food mines of America, looking for his big break. His story is confessional, from the perspective of an older Broadhead confiding to his holographic psychiatrist. Although the absent Heechee, classic precursor aliens who have all but completely vanished from the galaxy, are an important part of the novel’s setting, this isn’t a story about unraveling ancient mysteries, or saving the galaxy, or even interfering with the intrigues of corporations and nation-states. It’s story of personal risk, adventure, and romance, and all the fear and wonder and heartache that comes with that. Gateway manages to inhabit a rich setting complete with alien mysteries, environmental catastrophe, and multi-national power struggles without ever losing sight of the human story Broadhead painstakingly reveals from the psychoanalyst’s couch.

002

Gateway is terrific, but Broadhead’s story doesn’t end there. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is a more traditionally plotted novel, bouncing among several viewpoint characters converging on a climactic confrontation. The story is full of brilliant and well-executed ideas, though, and it’s refreshing to see the Heechee universe from outside of Robin’s head. More fantastic Heechee technology is discovered, with dramatic consequences, and we begin to see the outline of the void that the Heechee left when they escaped the known Universe. It’s a more traditional novel, but it also captures more of that traditional cosmic wonder and awe of discovery that I find in more traditional space exploration science fiction. It satisfies that Star Trek itch to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations, to go someplace, as a reader, that I’ve never gone before.

004

The last novel, Heechee Rendezvous (there are other Heechee-related books, but I believe they are supplemental to the main trilogy), is the weakest of the series, but still explores some fascinating territory. Pohl experiments again with a less straightforward narrative; Broadhead looks back on recent events from the perspective of one who has been “vastened”, which has the effect of creating an omniscient first-person narrator whose point of view is sometimes interrupted and counter-balanced in tidy inserts by the advanced artificial intelligence known as Albert Einstein, a creation of Broadhead’s wife. In spite of Essie Broadhead, the writing is at its most dated with regard to women, featuring just a bit too much sex-as-survival-mechanism for my tastes. Pohl also attempts to up the stakes, both for the Earth, which is increasingly gripped by political and social turmoil despite the advances brought about by adopting Heechee technology, and for the Universe, as the threat that caused the Heechee to retreat from normal space is finally revealed. It’s clear, however, that Pohl’s real interest is in Broadhead and his companions, and the story’s real strengths lie in its meditations on aging and death, the potential implications of technology that grants a kind of immortality, and what I found to be surprisingly endearing relationship drama. It’s an uneven story, bouncing between fascinating alien races and the emotional burden of being a burgeoning AI to cringeworthy passages subjecting various women to the intolerably selfish Wan. Despite this, I found it more consistently enjoyable than Dark Knight Rising, and a more satisfying capstone to a trilogy I quite enjoyed.

Frederik Pohl was active in science fiction from his first publication in 1937 to the present, and he blogged about life, science fiction, and politics right up until his death at age 93. It’s an all but unsurpassable accomplishment. I will still look for his name on the shelves of old bookshops, and look for his influence in my own spacefaring tales. I will reread Black Star Rising and Jem. I will recommend Gateway to anyone who will listen. I will remember Frederik Pohl as one of the Grandmasters of the Golden Age, who left a mark on my favorite genre that will not soon be forgotten.

FrederikPohl2

Visit his website, or his blog, where you can read the obituary from which I got whatever personal details I included in this post. Buy his books from Amazon, especially Gateway.

Bob’s Burgers (Seasons 1 and 2)

Starring H. Jon Benjamin, Dan Mintz, Eugene Mirman, John Roberts, and Kristen Schaal

Created by Loren Bouchard

bob's burgerstitle

I have a difficult time writing about comedy. I don’t have the language for it, maybe, because I’m so used to thinking in terms of dramatic plot and round characters and rising tension, and don’t know how to apply that to something that is primarily comedic. So when I love a comedy, I don’t really know how to talk about it beyond saying that it makes me happy. Why do I love Spaced more than Eastbound and Down? I like Eastbound and Down, it’s pretty great, but Spaced makes me happy. And even when I understand why I find something so funny and joyous, I’m wary of explaining the joke, of making something laugh-out-loud funny seem silly and dull.

But this is the year of challenging myself, so today I’m going to try to capture what I love about Bob’s Burgers.

peeing race 1  peeing race 2

Bob’s Burgers is the antidote to bad days. I avoided it for a while, afraid it would be some kind of Family Guy clone, five-count cartoon family, dumb dad, precocious kids, etc, etc. But it is so much sillier and stranger and funnier than that, and has little in common with Famly Guy or The Simpsons other than the dad wearing white shirts all the time. It doesn’t rely on pop culture references, topical humor, or shock-value gags. It is goofy character-driven fun that brightens my whole day.

hit a rainbow

The names H. Jon Benjamin (of Home Movies and Archer) and Kirsten Schaal (of Flight of the Conchords, The Daily Show, and Gravity Falls) were what finally brought me in. Coach McGuirk and Mel? Yes! Now, at first, you will probably find it strange that Schaal is the only female voice actor when the main cast is 60% female. Linda and Tina are voiced by John Roberts and Dan Mintz, and that will seem weird at first, and funny later, and then you’ll forget all about it and be unable to imagine them having any other voice. The voice acting in this show is 100% excellent, from regular cast to special guests, including Kevin Kline, Sarah Silverman, and Aziz Ansari. I’m not sure how, but H. Jon Benjamin manages to both have a comfortingly distinctive voice and completely and uniquely inhabit the character of Bob. Good voice acting makes you believe in the characters, and the talent in this show really does that for me.

white people 1

white people 2

It’s a character-driven kind of comedy, similar to Spaced, in that the characters do have certain comedy-driving traits – Bob is stubborn and proud, Linda is obsessive, Louise is manipulative – but they aren’t two-dimensional. Bob is proud because he’s genuinely great at what he does, which is making burgers (Mr. Fishoeder, the landlord, calls him a “beefartist”), even if that same pride makes it hard for him to admit that he’s terrible at running his business. Linda gets obsessed with strange things, but she devotes that same obsessive interest to supporting and encouraging her family. And Louise torments her siblings and manipulates stupid adults, but her relationship with Bob is actually one of the sweeter aspects of the show. There’s a lot of sweetness here, between the characters. And the relationships between them have such an instant familiarity that it makes the comedy sharper, and deeper, than I think it would be with a shallower cartoon family

no crying 1 no crying 2

no crying 3 no crying 4

Family is kind of the key, both to the comedy and to my deep affection for the show. The relationships between the characters, the sense of family, feel very real to me. The Belchers feel like a family, and the comedy is as likely to be silly family stuff as wacky hijinks involving angry vegan documentarians or bank heists. The show isn’t realistic, exactly, but the cartoon world of Bob’s Burgers doesn’t feel too terribly far from our own, and the Belcher family doesn’t feel so far away from families I have known. It’s not about making commentary or lampooning real life in some way. It’s a comedy about a family trying to make ends meet, and also about kids growing up loving their family but really having no sense of the stakes involved in being an adult. Gene and Louise just want to be weird and have fun, and Tina doesn’t have a choice about being weird because she’s a teenage girl and just wants to touch Jimmy Pesto Jr.’s BUTT. And because, as a viewer, you are invited to participate in this family comedy, you, or at least I, develop so much affection for this family. I love them, every one of them, but probably Tina the most, because awww, Tina.

tina puberty 1

tina puberty 2

Looking back, I’m doing a terrible job of describing why Bob’s Burgers is funny. It’s weird and silly and smart, vulgar but not exploitative, simultaneously problematic and generous in its handling of, say, trans* sex workers, takes joy in avoiding easy moral lessons and then delivers some unexpectedly sharp and insightful joke as a throwaway gag in the middle of a scene. It takes risks and can be almost too goofy sometimes, but it always comes back to the family, and well-crafted comedy, and a generous amount of heart. That’s why I love it, and I hope, if you give it a chance, you’ll love it too.

zombie kiss

Watch seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix, or on Hulu, or on Fox Sundays. Or buy Seasons 1 and 2 on Amazon.

All gifs are from the Bob’s Gifs Tumblr.