Maelstrom, by Taylor Anderson

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Having just finished reading Maelstrom, I’m officially downgrading this series from “potentially profoundly interesting” to “some variety of popcorn lit.”  You know, the stuff that you’ll compulsively eat without thinking too hard about it: sometimes it’s exactly what you’re looking for, but more often it’s just there and you don’t bother to stop yourself.  This series is alt-history tech-bootstrapping military fiction with a very particular set of idealized social dynamics, and as of now it doesn’t look like it will stretch beyond that.  I’m not saying that it’s bad; popcorn lit is definitionally good enough that I’ll pick it up and breeze through it simply for the pleasure of reading it, provided I’m in the right mood.  But it also hasn’t lived up to my hopes of offering more introspection on any of its various conflicts, or breaking further from its genre precedents in an interesting fashion.

I should note that it’s hard for most novels to make it past my popcorn lit category, and the category itself encompasses an almost unhelpfully wide spread of books; furthermore, I can’t pretend to be better than that myself, as I doubt any of my own short stories would qualify as anything but popcorn lit.

I won’t say that the series can’t ever be anything but popcorn lit.  Some of the future books may deliver answers to the niggling contentions I’m sharing with you here.  But thus far my hopes for what I’ll call “deeper” material have not been met.  Specifically, I want Anderson to go deeper into examining the cultural conflicts inherent between the Americans and their various allies, and I especially want him to include the perspective of Lemurians who truly don’t have specified gender roles or gender/sex expectations.  It seems like he’s introduced the Lemurians (the cat-/lemur-like creatures with whom the Americans allied in the first book) as being without specific gender roles, but when we’re treated to the perspective of a Lemurian there are a number of basic social operating assumptions that appear to be based in a society more similar to our own, one which certainly embraces a number of implicitly gender- or sex-based values.  If Anderson wants to write the human perspectives in his book with those value assumptions in place, that’s ok by me, even if I don’t like it.  But much like my love for and disappointment with the use of Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, I find it frustrating that Anderson should introduce an ostensibly gender- and sex- blind culture and then not do them the justice of writing from a gender- and sex-blind perspective.  I have to give Taylor Anderson credit for trying, and it seems like he might not be aware of how he’s failing to deliver here, but that doesn’t make it un-frustrating.

More after the break.

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Ice Bath Challenge

Just because he’s writing on a different site doesn’t mean this shouldn’t be cross-posted here. This is worth reading, and you’ll probably want to watch the video as well.

Mattias Lehman

Welp, I did it, with a slight twist on the format!

I wanted to give some context on my decisions regarding the Ice Bucket Challenge, so here’s a post about it.

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Short Story: A Simple Misunderstanding

Here’s the return of Andre and Jerome, the pair of accidentally-adventurous miscreants.  If you want to read other stories about them, try Paying the TabJerome Goes North, or Jerome’s Tropical Vacation.  There should be another short story coming along soon!

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“Does everyone understand their part?”  The man’s voice was nagging and whiny.

Belly down on the hay-strewn dirt, Andre felt a sneeze coming on.  There was the unmistakable sensation of rising, building pressure, and that odd tingling feeling that came along with it.  He knew it would feel so good to sneeze that the anticipation was almost pleasant in and of itself.  Despite this, he thrust his hand up underneath his nose, trying to press against the bone just above his teeth in an effort to stop the sneeze before it could come out.  Through his desperately squinted eyes he could make out the feet of five people standing less than a yard from where he hid underneath a small wagon, and he knew that sneezing would be a very bad life choice at this moment.  None of the people whose conversation he’d been eavesdropping on would appreciate unexpected company.

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Crusade, by Taylor Anderson

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I just finished reading Crusade last night, the second book in Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen series.  It still hits that oddly specific sweet spot I mentioned before, with alt-history technological bootstrapping and idealized social dynamics being the name of the game.  I believe I referred to Into the Storm as a strange mix of Stirling and Flint, but I’ve come to a better understanding of these books’ oddly specific conflux of flavors.  To envision Anderson’s style, strip away most of Stirling‘s semi-religious influences and replace what remains with faith in Honor and Doing What’s Right, convert Flint‘s cheerfully proletariat bonhomie into something just a bit more hierarchical, and toss in Weber or Ringo‘s blood-spattered military adventurism.  Now you’ve got a good approximation of Anderson.  (Just to be clear, I don’t expect any Oh John Ringo No! moments).

This second book in the series sticks with the same characters we met in the first one, and expands the cast slightly to give us a better perspective of the foes our protagonists face.  The setting remains the same, and the various characters on the ship are still wonderful to follow around.  I still sometimes felt like I was reading about a Chopper’s gang from Apocalypse World, and the sometimes aggressive, sometimes malicious pranking and posturing of the crew is reminiscent of my own experiences of living with a large group of other young men.  People are convincingly selfish and obsessive about their various areas of responsibility, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing the gradual induction of non-human characters into the ship’s crew and watching how they adapt to their duties and adopt the mannerisms of the other characters around them.

Ok, speaking of adapting, I need to mention something that I brought up last time as a concern; Anderson very carefully carries through on representing stereotypical 1940s gender roles, and I found that a bit off-putting (not the accuracy, but the roles and expectations themselves).  Fortunately, since the American humans aren’t the only culture in the book, there are groups of characters who aren’t bound by those gender-strictures.  But Crusade doesn’t look much deeper into the disconnect between the human conceptions of propriety and the conceptions of their new Lemurian allies.  I said that I’d be dissatisfied if that didn’t change… and it didn’t really change, and I am dissatisfied.  At the same time, the topic has certainly been discussed (briefly, or as a source of disconcertion) by the characters even if not much has come of it thus far, and it looks like there may be more change coming down the line.  My guess would be that such change will inevitably be lower priority for the story than the themes of military and honor, but I’ll keep reading and keep hoping that the change will come some point soon.  At a guess, the alteration of gender expectations will come about as a fait accompli as more of the humans die and are replaced by Lemurians.  Go figure.

Those quibbles aside, I’m still enjoying the series.  If you liked the sound of the style amalgamation I described above, you’ll probably enjoy it too.

Deep Wizardry, by Diane Duane

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Yes, that is a truly massive shark.  The cover of the version that I read had something to do with a whale, but I like this one better.  I thought I’d already reviewed this book, and it was only as I was sitting down to write my review of the next one in the series that I checked back through my previous posts and found that I was wrong.  So before I tell you my thoughts on High Wizardry, let me tell you how I felt about Deep Wizardry.

The quick and dirty version is as follows: Diane Duane is good at her job, and she knows how to write books about young children taking on incredible responsibilities and facing overwhelming decisions… Which is a decent description of growing up, when I think about it.  Of course, most of us aren’t given access to powerful magical forces except in a metaphorical sense.  Deep Wizardry, like So You Want To Be A Wizard, is quality children’s literature; I’ll even go further and say that it’s good enough to merit your attention and reflection too, child or not.

With the exception of the “I think I read most of this before” section, my review of Deep Wizardry really is very similar to my review of So You Want To Be A Wizard.  I’m still more than a little bit in awe of Duane, she still writes excellent YA adventure with exceptionally mature themes, and she still does an incredibly good job of not talking down to her audience.  What I hadn’t really appreciated before is just how well her chosen storyline and protagonists map onto the experience of going through puberty and becoming an adult.  Call me stupid, call me slow, but though I noticed it in the first book I took another book or two to finally decide that it was more than just a fortuitous construction of the moment.  This, of course, has simply left me more appreciative of Duane’s writing chops, and her choice of subject material.

As per usual, there’s more after the break.

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New D&D Sneakily Poaches Inclusivity, Narrative

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I grew up playing AD&D, as my brothers introduced me to RPGs before I was 7.  I’ve since moved away from the various D&D systems, flirting with them occasionally in passing while I instead focus on other systems that I find more interesting; I’ve come to prefer more narrativist games for the most part, though my friend Zach’s super-old-school D&D certainly calls to me at times.  But with the release of the newest edition of D&D (5th ed? Next? Whatever we’re supposed to call it) I thought I’d give it a look.  I’d examined some of the playtest documents and made appreciative noises, so I thought I should take a chance.  I’m glad I did.  It seems like the new D&D has learned a few tricks from the games that pulled me away from it in the first place.

There have been a few things that have really stood out to me while I’ve been reading the new Player’s Handbook (PHB), two quite good and one that I’m not sure how to qualify.  These have nothing to do with the rules, I’ll talk about those later.  The first item is one which I understand has already been discussed elsewhere, namely the game’s specific mention of a player’s ability to construct their character’s gender- or sexual-identity, and statement that that’s a perfectly fine thing to explore in this game; the second item is D&D’s incorporation of distinct backgrounds, personalities, and motivations into character creation, including something called “bonds” which I can only presume has come from Dungeon World; the third item is the art chosen for the book, and its depictions of a diverse group of characters.  I’ll talk more about all of these, but let’s tackle that last one first.

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Into the Storm, by Taylor Anderson

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This book falls into a strangely particular sweet spot for me; there’s something about the alt-history technological bootstrapping genre that I find appealing, and the obviously idealized social dynamics presented in this book are endearing if not convincing.  Furthermore, S.M. Stirling’s cover blurb pulled me over the edge into reading it.  I was not quite as automatically engrossed as he apparently was, but Into The Storm has made excellent reading material while I’ve been laid up following an unfortunate paintball incident.

The basic concept is very simple, transposing an American WWI destroyer caught in action against the Japanese at the opening of WWII from our world into an alternate world in which (more or less) the dinosaurs never really died away.  The story is all about the destroyer’s crew doing their best to survive in a strange new world, and doing what they can to find friends who might be able to help them keep their ship operating instead of simply falling apart.  It feels a little like S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time crossed with Eric Flint’s 1632, but instead of dealing with a town or island it focuses entirely on a very small warship.  The crew is wonderfully convincing, right down to their malicious pranking and oddly neurotic idiosyncrasies, and I enjoy following all of their various perspectives as the story progresses.  The crew actually reminds me a little of the residents of an Apocalypse World hardhold or members of a Chopper’s gang.

Now, when I say “endearing if not convincing” up above, I don’t mean to disparage the author’s conception of hierarchical systems founded on an egalitarian society.  As it’s presented, it seems to work pretty well.  But the author’s clear preference for the system by which ‘the good guys’ operate is so transparent that I feel unable to accept it at face value.  I don’t have experience with living and working on a US Navy vessel, I have no idea whether or not Anderson’s description is anything like the truth, and I suspect that what Anderson describes is closer to the ideal towards which his hierarchical system strives rather than the reality.  I’m certainly aware of many failure modes that would prevent a hierarchical system from working nearly so well as it’s presented in the book.  I think of it as a variation on the likable / wish-fulfillment protagonist problem; it’s really not actually much of a problem, so long as we remain aware of the fact that we’re idealizing the subjects of our attention, be they characters or systems of governance.

Also, I found the gender relations of the human characters (and characterizations of the male vs. female human characters) to be pretty frustrating.  I had a hard time taking the characterizations of the male and female leads seriously, because they seemed so stereotypically 1940s to me.  At a guess, Anderson was trying to ensure that these things were appropriate for a group of people in the US Navy in 1942 (unsurprising given his previous work as a technical and dialogue consultant for movies and documentaries), and I’m ok with that for the most part even though it turned me off the book to some extent (some things, methinks, are better left in the 1940s).  But he doesn’t really explore any of the disconnect between the humans’ attitudes and those of their newfound allies in this first book.  If/when he does get around to exploring that, and looking at the ramifications of further association between their two cultures, I think that has the potential to be super interesting.  If he just glosses over that topic over the next several books, I suspect I’d be a bit disappointed.

So!  If you’ve read and enjoyed Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time, or Flint’s 1632, I suspect you’ll enjoy this book as well.  If you haven’t read them but are intrigued by the idea of a group of wanderers on the seas of time and space, doing their best to reestablish themselves safely in a dangerous and not-so-subtly different world, you’ll also probably enjoy this book.  If you don’t think you can tolerate some nearly-stereotypically-1940s gender roles, or some very nearly Apocalypse World-like shenanigans, maybe wait and see what I have to see about the next book before deciding whether this one is worth it.

Resistance, by Samit Basu

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When I wrote about Turbulence a little more than a month ago, I agreed with the book’s cover blurb in my demand for a sequel.  But while it’s hard to make something that is truly good and worthy of others’ consumption, it’s even harder to make something as good to follow the first.  Fortunately, I think Basu succeeds where many others have failed, and offers a sequel that not only delivers on the promise of the first book, but follows it appropriately in tone and structure as well.  If you want good superhero fiction, this is an excellent place to start.  Or, rather, Turbulence is a good place to start.  Then you should read this.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t read them in the other order, you’ll just spoil lots of cool stuff from the first book.

Like last time, I find myself in agreement with the cover blurb on Basu’s book, and yet again I think that the blurb misses something even more wonderful; I’m still convinced that Samit Basu is some sort of Bob Ross of words, successfully conjuring worlds out of thin air with the sparsest of descriptions.  Unlike last time, I took more than one day to finish reading this book.  Perhaps if my reading hadn’t been interrupted by working at an overnight summer camp I would have powered through this book as well.  I can’t tell whether I did not feel as drawn in by Resistance as I did by Turbulence because of those delays or because of something else, but I’m happy to give the book a pass given how much I enjoyed it anyway.

Suffice it to say that if you liked the first book, you’ll like this one too.  And if you haven’t read the first one but are down with non-American supers and women who aren’t just given the short end of the stick, you should definitely read Turbulence (and then Resistance).  If you like superhero stories at all, I suspect you’ll like Basu’s work here.  More on the details after the break…

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Pilferers of Pocketbooks

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I made two trips to the theater this weekend, two nights in a row, to see Guardians of the Galaxy.  At least I watched it in Burlington instead of Boston, and thus offered my wallet some protection from the box office’s depredations.  To be perfectly honest, I want to watch the movie again; the Guardians of the Galaxy’s punchlines are a delight, and I consistently missed the followup lines in the audience’s waves of laughter.

If you’ve enjoyed the previous high points of the Marvel movie franchise and are looking for more of the same with a good dose of silly, Guardians of the Galaxy is the movie for you.  It hits its timing wonderfully well, with a great comedy-action plot well-leavened by stupid and/or greedy and selfish characters, without leaving me feeling that anyone had the idiot ball for too long (or even at the wrong time).  On my first watch-through, I enjoyed myself but was almost disoriented by the movie’s pacing as I came time and again to totally new material (well, new to me).  The second time, it felt like the film fairly well flew along, flowing seamlessly from scene to scene in a rush of drama, action, and excellent comedic timing.  Like I said before, I’m interested in seeing it a third time, though next time I’d like to be able to hear the lines I missed the first two times around.

I liked the actors, I liked their interactions and side comments, and I thought that even the completely wooden Groot was wonderfully expressive.  More tidbits after the break, including a few complaints.

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