May 24

Gunslinger

Art by Roman Chaliy, https://www.artstation.com/artwork/Vb658

He was brave to the last, but this didn’t save him… from unlife, that is.

(Art by Roman Chaliy)

May 18

Chamber of Chills

chamber of chills, 1950s horror comic

Most horror comics of the 1950s are nostalgic rather than horrifying, yet every once in a while I come across an image that is truly startling in its rawness. They were the decade’s way of dealing, sociologically, with the repressed horrors of WWII.

 

May 17

Cecaelia

A Caecilian (or octo-mermaid) from X-Ray Art by Benedetta Bonichi
The Cecaelia is an octopoid mermaid who, instead of having a fish’s tail, has the arms of an octopus.
The villain of Disney’s The Little Mermaid was one. 

(X-Ray Art by Benedetta Bonichi)

May 10

The Lifeform

The cultured alien lifeform had an innocuous beginning, but a bloody end.

 

May 10

The Lonely Apollo Pioneers

Apollo 11 moon rocket

Returning last week from a trip to Florida, I have to say the highlight of my trip was seeing, at last, Kennedy Space Center. For a child of my generation this was a place that gained its initial familiarity on B&W TV screens (or color, in wooden consoles, if you were well-off or indulgent) with the news broadcasts of trips to the moon. It seemed a small, straightforward place on that long-ago screen. Like a football field, perhaps, with bleachers to watch the proceedings. In the years since, with continued broadcasts though the shuttle years, and my own research, the reality of it was not so compact; yet still, as a real-life visitor I was unprepared for the vastness.

The place is BIG, and sprawling, and very alien. Merrit Island, where Kennedy Space Center is located, is also a wildlife refuge where I saw gators, manatees, flamingos, spoonbills, dolphins, and wild parrots. The terrain is flat, the vegetation semi-tropic, the soil pale and bleached. Growing up in a decaying city of the U.S. Northeast, and later living in the lush but cool emerald-green Northwest, it was very alien to me. I couldn’t help but think if those same pioneers thought it alien as well. Of course, they were military test pilots, stationed and training in many different areas of the US, and so might be assumed to be used to changes of locale. But they still must have carried within them the local prejudices of their childhood homes, for a certain climate or terrain. Coastal Florida might have been an unworldly experience for them, a preparation for the unworldliness of outer space, and the moon itself. In effect, it was a subtle preparation.

Being shuttled around the place on an air-conditioned bus as I took the special tour, I saw for myself its vastness and loneliness. Strapped into a capsule at the apex of the Saturn V rocket, they must have been very lonely as the support personnel deserted them for the launch. That’s another thing I found out. Everyone cleared out of the vicinity for a certain radius, less the whole thing explode, like this:

 

Note the melted cars.

Seeing the place, for the first time I truly understood the immensity of the American space program, the sacrifices it required, and its dangers.

The visit was pricey, coming to around $120 for the basic admission and the enhanced tour, but that was par for the course for Florida attractions, and well worth it for the history. I also fulfilled a bucket list item.

May 03

Dumbo

Dumbo, by Austem Mengler

Not all the great pachyderms became extinct.
Some turned into ghouls.

(Dumbo by Austen Mengler)

 

Apr 26

OBE

Artwork by Shintaro Kago

This is one out-of-body experience that must not be repeated.

(Art by Shintaro Kago)

Apr 19

Nuckalavee

http://ambersandj.deviantart.com/art/Horse-364821704

Appearing as a wild horse flayed alive, the Nuckalavee is the most horrible of all the demons of the Scottish islands.
Its name may be the origin of “Old Nick” a moniker often used for Satan.

(Art by Ambersandj on Deviantart.com)

Apr 18

Storyboarding Dystopia, Part II

Silver Blood on Silver Queen's mouth

Now where were we? Ah yes, superhero comics and dystopias.

No one expects a lot of logic from these. For example, Wolverine’s claws magically suck up into his forearms when they are not needed, somehow without damaging the muscles in his wrists. That’s cool, and it’s a comic book where graphic departures from reality are a given. In a science fiction book, though, it’s a requirement of the field that departures be explained, or at least hinted at.

This ties in with the sociological and political background of Red Queen, in which Princess Culture, born in the 1990s as a marketing tool to little girls, is bearing fertile fruit. So many teen dystopias feature Kings and Queens and royal balls…  and gowns… that it’s disheartening, even being echoed by teen writers on Wattpad and similar sites. Again, no hint in the story of how all this came to pass. Which is a shame, because explanations actually enhance the enjoyment of the plot, by giving some context and worldbuilding.

Moving into the middle third of the book, commoner Mare is taken under the wing of the aforementioned Silver royal family and tutored to become a proper Silver Lady (lessons in dressing, eating, etiquette , etc… there’s a trope for it somewhere) while the wicked Queen, whose power is reading minds, keeps an eye on her. This section has been described as A Game of Thrones for teens but it’s more like I, Claudius (Has the general public really forgotten the classics in favor of easy pop-cult references?) a book I read at age 13 and so would not have been impressed with this take on it. There’s a few well-written scenes of the psionic combat in these chapters, and things get interesting when Mare is recruited by her husband-to-be into a Red rebellion plot, foreshadowed when she met the rebellion’s leader in her home village. By interesting I mean the story became less of a chore to read, and I wanted to see how things panned out.

Part of that interest, I am ashamed to say, came from the depictions of the girl-hate.**  Many female readers hate it; it’s a trite way to create drama on the part of the heroine. But all the same, it acts like porn, striking both girls and former girls on some deep, primal level. There’s a desire to see it played out, to see the victim of the girl-hate striking back at her rival and humiliating her. Girl-hate that fails to be played out to this end is frustrating, and causes a loss in faith in the writer on the part of the reader. It’s a cop-out; the writer has manipulated us but not given us the reward we expect. At the same time, the girl-hate must also make nods to realism. For an author, balancing these expectations is no easy task.

The problem with Red Queen is that the girl-hate comes at the heroine from everywhere: her Silver peers at court, the evil Silver Queen, her etiquette tutor, whom she girl-hates back, and even the rebellion’s leader, Farley, who looks down on her for being useless, because she is. The author explains that the Silvers pretty much hate everyone, which I can buy, but on the other hand, the four male Silvers who are close to the heroine (both Princes, a history tutor, and her man-at-arms) don’t hate her. They like her and are willing to give her a chance, while the other male Silvers, if not as welcoming, are neutral. There’s no catty hate coming from them. This stark division highlighted the trope, exposing it as antifeminist instead of having fun with it.

By this point, other things had begun to annoy me about the characters, plot and background as well.

  • The heroine’s family and childhood friend who were introduced in the beginning of the book. They were dull and unnecessary, and, frankly, in a high concept novel no one wants to hear a ton of backstory before the action starts.  In a Fish Out of Water plot, which this book is, it’s better to get the fish on land ASAP; you don’t need a ton of backstory to feel for the main character. This doesn’t mean the main character shouldn’t have a family or friends, only that their time in the book should be limited.  There were a ton of characters in the book anyway so it’s better to dwell only to those immediately affecting the narrative.
  • The heroine did not read as a bona fide dweller in this fantastic world. She was more like an amateur actress thrust into it, playing a role prescribed by the author. She didn’t have to emote all the time; what she said and how she said it, or what she didn’t say… and how she acted… tells the reader as much as or more than her continuously shouting her state of being to us. Readers like to draw their own conclusions, not have them force-fed.
  • The heroine’s continuing hatred of and disdain for all things Silver. Logically, if she’d been raised in a serf situation from birth, she wouldn’t even have an opinion about them. They’d be Just the Way Things Are in her world, as the two classes barely interact. Plus, it’s more likely than not Silvers would use propaganda to keep the commoners in line, as in North Korea. Or they would keep Reds in walled ghettoes, as apartheid South Africa or Nazi-dominated Poland.
  • The heroine was not doing things. Plot events happened to her by accident or coincidence. By happenstance she meets a rebel leader, a prince who gets her a new job, and discovers she has a superpower. By the same token, she makes an enemy and gains a fiancé. All without decisions or actions on her part.
  • The heroine joins the rebels too easily, they accept her too easily, and they get in the royal palace too easily, despite the Silvers having superhuman powers, a heightened sense of vigilance, and spy cameras.

All this made the book feel both much longer and much shorter than it should have been. The book was long and short on themes as well, some of which raised interesting questions that should have been given more exploration.

What makes the human, inhuman? That’s one, and it’s a humdinger. Is it a matter of easy, unlimited power, as the Silver’s cruelty suggests… and what does it mean for heroine that she also has this power? A line or two indicates that she enjoys it, but this is not gone into, nor does she censure or celebrate herself for having that thought.

Another theme is war is bad, but we’re hit over the head with it so obviously, it doesn’t carry a lot of weight… also the fact that none of it makes sense. The Silver nation in the book is engaged in a drawn-out war with another Silver nation, and both sides, in spite of their awesome psionic powers and modern technology, draft useless Reds to use as cannon fodder, and not only that, arm the very people they are oppressing and go into combat beside them. Not very bright. Things would be interesting if the other Silver nation had a different political structure, or treated its Red citizens differently, but as far as we know, all the countries are the same, with monarchies. Furthermore, the Reds don’t get anything special from serving. Even Medieval serfs and common-born Roman soldiers might get a parcel of land out of it, or a title if they do well. The war is explained as being over natural resources, but honestly, a race of people with near-omnipotent superpowers don’t need a lot of resources. Those with nature powers can farm and fertilize, and those with water powers, irrigate; those with telekinetic and metal powers can mine. It would be easier for the Silvers to do this themselves instead of maintaining a large population of regular humans to do it.

A third theme is that power corrupts and makes its users selfish, which the Silvers certainly are. But what is not shown (and what the author may not have been capable of showing) is that it also divides and prevents them from working effectively together, so visible seams appear in their so-called perfect society.

** Girl(s) that try bring a girl, or other girls, down by sneering and mocking them for no valid reason. Used as a plot device.

(To be continued)

Apr 14

Storyboarding Dystopia, Part I

Silver blood on a Red Queen's hand

I am fascinated by YA Dystopias, even though a lot of them are execrably written. Somehow, though, they always manage to sucker me in, giving me the come-on with cryptic, pretty covers and high what-if concepts: What if all young people had a disease that caused them to die before age 25? What if society had gone to politically correct extremes, banishing all uncomfortable situations? What if a ruling elite forced the children of commoners to compete to the death? (Bonus points if you recognize these books.)  They remind me of science fiction cautionary tales from the 1960s and 70s that were meant for adults in which society’s current problems were expanded to extremes. In Soylent Green, it was overpopulation and depletion of resources. Rollerball dealt with violence in sports, and Logan’s Run, hedonistic youth culture run amok. Adventure stories, all, but with a message, and a thoughtful extrapolation of how these future societies might actually work, which made them interesting both then and viewed from the present.

These sorts of tales have since winkled their way down through the decades and demographics and transformed themselves. These days, they’re not so much cautionary tales as backgrounds for a young person’s maturation and moral choices, served with a generous side of romantic angst and soapy drama.

Yet the tales always let me down, not just for being terribly written and characterized, but for how badly they fumble their basic premise.

Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard, is one of those dystopias that appears to take its high concept to the max. Mare, a teen on the cusp of turning 18 and being drafted into the army, lives in a future world divided between Reds and Silvers. Reds are ordinary folk, while Silvers possess superhero-like powers over a single element like metal or water, and have silver blood. I’ll get to the implications of that later. The Silvers are the ruling class, with an anachronistic, European-style monarchy of Kings, Queens, and noble families who lord over the commoners cackling with evil glee, while the heroine, in a first-person present voice that does the book no favors, continuously reminds us how awful and evil the Silvers are. It’s a little like reading a Jackie Collins book: everything is placed before the reader by the author through the characters, who in unsubtle terms tell the reader how they should feel about all of this. Which might be fun if the book is trashy, but for me, it’s like being tied down in a high chair being force-fed pabulum.

This was a shame, as the implications of such a world, as unrealistic as it is (those superhuman powers are never explained, at least in the first book) would truly be dynamite, if too juvenile and unsophisticated, for adult SF. But they aren’t, and neither is there an explanation anywhere of how the present became this odd, glamorous future.

In fact, a lot of the book reads like a movie novelization — the author studied scriptwriting — in the way each scenes is set and events progress, the present tense third person of the script replaced by an “I”  with a tacked-on emotional and reaction track. Which would be great, given the material, for a movie, anime, or graphic novel (which I’ll get to later) but not so great for an at-heart SF book which demands more finesse.

The first third of the book, which sets the background and the stakes, was difficult for me to get through. It’s overstuffed, with a stalemated war burdening the common people, a lack of resources for them such as electricity, an underground rebellion, and the heroine’s home life, all of which were hammered over the reader’s head. But I did want to see where the real story began, so I continued.

The plot takes off when Mare is given a job as a servant in the Silver’s summer palace by the Crown Prince, Cal, whom she met in disguise at an inn. On her first day there she witnesses the Silver’s Queenstrial, a competition in which all the young marriageable young ladies of the noble houses display their powers before the aforementioned Crown Prince, whom the heroine was very surprised to recognize, to demonstrate their bloodlines and fitness to rule as his wife. This was actually a good section, as most of the action scenes were, although the arena certainly gets torn to pieces a lot — for example, the metal controller (called a magnetar for some reason) tears out pieces of the foundation and tosses them around like chopsticks. But it was a cool idea, and very movielike in a Michael Bay way.

The heroine then suffers an accident and falls into the arena, hitting the electric shield used to protect the audience from the combatants. She expects to be fried instantly, but it’s revealed she also has a superpower… to control electricity…such a thing never seen before by the Silvers.

It causes much consternation, for the Silvers, who the author tells us are jealous of their power, do not want acknowledge that such powers can manifest in those with Red blood. The girl whose power display Mare interrupted is also put out, such so that she hates her for the rest of the book. (Some reviewers have an issue with all the girl-hate in the novel, but for me, her hate is justified in a way — Mare stole her moment of glory.)

And so we come to the book’s first major plot hole. So, how do the King and Queen come up with an excuse for an electricity-using Red? They tell everyone that Mare is really an orphaned Silver, born of war heroes but raised by Reds, who has only now discovered her true heritage and power. And, oh, she’s going to marry the younger brother of the Crown Prince, so the royal family can keep an eye on her.

All this was very silly.

As an adult I might have gotten into the soapy nature of the drama if it was written better, but it was just so… arbitrary and tedious, in spite of the yowza psionic powers combat. First of all, how can anyone be expected to believe a lie like that, or the liar to expect them to believe? Yes, it is a different society in the far future, but science and common sense still exist. In order for it to make sense, Mare must not have never ever, skinned her knee, had a nosebleed, watched a baby tooth come out, scraped or cut herself, bruised, or menstruated.

Let’s go further into what having Silver blood actually means.

Mammal blood, and in fact all vertebrate blood, is red because it carries hemoglobin for the transfer of oxygen to the tissues of the body. Hemoglobin contains iron, thus it appears red. Hemoglobin is very efficient at what it does. There are other types of blood, such as copper-based hemocyanin that mollusks and arthropods use, but none are as efficient as hemoglobin in transferring oxygen, and would never work efficiently for a creature of a human’s size.

Hemoglobin has the property of creating the pink or ruddy look to human skin where blood flows closely against the surface. Sure, some veins look blue, but that is an effect of the light through the layers of skin. They aren’t really blue. Prick them and they’ll gush red. In addition, its relative myoglobin, which is also iron-based, makes vertebrate internal organs look pinkish or red. The two thus work in conjunction to keep the body oxygenated.

The story did do a lip service to that idea by stating the Silvers are pale, and that when they blush, they turn even paler. But really, it would be a LOT more than that. Take away the redness of hemoglobin-based blood and replace it with a silver protein that does the same thing, and you will have a very odd-looking human being.

To begin with, the Silvers themselves would look like drained corpses. The pigments in the skin would still be there, but without the red underlayer, complexions would have a gray tone. Parts on a normal person that are pinkish, even for those with dark skin, would be grayish — this includes lips, the tongue, the inside of the mouth, nipples, and genitals. The area beneath the fingernails and toenails, and the palms of the hands and feet, would be gray. Bruises might manifest as blotches of white. I don’t think a regular human would find them alluring, unless they had a death fetish.

Yet the story acts as if Mare can pass herself as Silver with only a bit of makeup, and the Crown Prince pass as commoner also with some makeup. Nope. All either one of them would have to do is open their mouths, and people would know. In Mare’s case, one could also look at her eyes and see the red veins there. Much drama is made of her problem of not cutting herself to reveal her red blood, but, really, she’d never have a chance of concealing herself in the first place. This is just sloppy science, and young readers deserve better.

The author — or the editor — could have done some research, and made some changes. Perhaps the Silver’s blood only turns silver when it is exposed to air. Or the blood is red, but has silver flecks in it. This would account nicely for the Silver’s appearance and tie in to their powers. A book, even a soapy teen novel, is different medium than a comic or anime that relies on cool visuals; it engages the mind, and needs some internal logic to buttress its creations.

(To be continued)

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