Thursday, October 25, 2012

'American Gods', By Neil Gaiman

For November, the Men in Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Club will be reading a real modern classic: ‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaiman.

In June of this year, ‘American Gods’ turned ten years old, but it is ageless and tirelessly appropriate for our modern world. What could be more poignant today than a story that holds itself up as a light to our innermost thoughts and fears about religion and faith, our gods and our idols?
Gaiman’s novel does just that.
The main protagonist of the story is Shadow. Just as he is to be released from prison he finds that his wife, and his only thought for his entire sentence, was not only cheating on him with his best friend, but that both have been killed in a car accident. Lost in an existential crisis and alone in a world that has left him behind, Shadow grudgingly accepts a job as a bodyguard for “Mr. Wednesday”, a glass-eyed conman who may be more than he seems.
Accompanying Mr. Wednesday (who is really the Norse god Odin Allfather) across the United States, Shadow learns that the Old Gods are real, and not really gone but clearly forgotten. Mr. Wednesday, who is gathering the Old Gods together, is getting ready to wage a war against the New Gods, represented by internet, mass media and modern technology.
Woven into the book are a series of vignettes which figure heavily with mythological creatures and early American beliefs, giving a well researched look at the history of our most sacred superstitions and myths. American Gods tells the story of human obsession with mythology; our idols and heroes, our martyrs and saints.
Gaiman’s deities are well constructed and each in their own way is unsympathetically god-like. Cold and remote, interested in their own affairs more than the plight of humanity, the gods seek only to establish or, in the case of the Old Gods, reestablish their rule over the worlds. They will stop at nothing, even using humans as pawns.
Shadow is a modern lost soul, like John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’ from ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. While surprised to find that the gods are both real and powerful, his cynicism often carries him when his faculty for faith fails. His experience also eloquently illustrates our own dilemmas with a lack of evidence for belief, questions about faith versus religion and our personal cynicism toward the beliefs and superstitions of our forebears.
In the novel, America is a character unto itself, as well. Strewn with the remnants of old faiths carried here by early settlers and later discarded in the light of the New Gods, the country is dark and gritty, steel hard and forbidding. As Wednesday and Shadow move across the desolate landscape, one is reminded of Virgil and Dante as they quest through the underworld of Hades in ‘The Inferno’.
American Gods is richly humorous; weird, fantastic in some sections and down-to-earth much like our own myths. The story is unfaltering in its look at our mythologies; amazingly sympathetic of all faiths, the novel is both diverting and challenging. American Gods is a modern faerie tale; it is also a fable with a very strong moral. What we believe shapes not only our own lives, but also the face of our nation. Spanning the country and its history, it is illuminating, well researched and terrifically entertaining.
A war between the gods is coming. On which side will you stand?
Even ten years later, it’s one for the ‘must read’ pile.

Join us to read this book.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

'At the Mountains of Madness' by I.N.J Culbard and H.P. Lovecraft

[For the next few posts, we will be reviewing various versions of Lovecraft's works. For October we are each reading a different short story or novella. In order to get a head start on some of his more popular works, I thought that it would be fun to find a few different variations of his works and review each. The following is the first.]

The recent adaptation of H.P Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, by I.N.J. Culbard (Eye Classics, 2010) is distinctly blase’. Although one would think that a graphic novel about any of Lovecraft’s work would be designed to be suitably dark and vaguely unsettling, this work-up is unfortunately rather straightforward and calm.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the work of that Culbard did. It is not an easy task, I’m sure, to draw a story based on any of Lovecraft’s tales, and even less easy to adapt his thick prose style to such a medium.
However, it seems that Culbard missed an opportunity to provide an artistic additive to Lovecraft’s ‘underlying sense of vague horror’ and thereby make it more frightening.
It is apparent, to this reader anyway, that Culbard’s attempt was to create the defining version of Lovecraft’s story. His attempt, while faithful to Lovecraft’s vision is undercut by the style of his art. It almost seems that under other circumstances, Culbard should be drawing for children’s books or cartoons.

In fact, it is this aspect of the graphic novel (or rather, a novella) that makes Culbard’s work so unsatisfyingly pedestrian.
Seeing that Lovecraft’s works were created for pulp magazines and that genre supports itself with tales weird and fantastic, weird and fantastic art would also be welcomed as a booster to the style. It certainly was in the days when those tales were being consumed regularly. And even now, other artistic renditions of Lovecraft’s works have been successfully developed to create a terrifying visual enhancement to the story adaptation.
In general, Culbard’s vision is not poor, it just doesn't hold up well to scrutiny by a Lovecraft fan. The art simply shows the events in a cartoonish style, a style that does not convey scary at all. If anything, it conveys indifference.
Had the art been truly disturbing, it would have added to it. Instead, the artwork actually detracts from the story, making it seem rather silly and quaint.
Wading through Lovecraft’s prose is not an easy task. Readers must be prepared for the long haul, and it takes patience to continue when he meanders in his thoughts. Nevertheless, he doesn’t meander without purpose. He simply tells us what we need to know and as readers, we make him our tour guide for the length of the story.
What Culbard has done well, however, is to pare down the story into a manageable length while not sacrificing any of the important parts of the whole. His abridgment is exceptional.
Culbard’s art isn’t bad at all, it just doesn’t fit. So with his adaptation which keeps all of the points of the story and conveys it well, the art falls short and the whole book fails as a result.
Initially this book might seem to have the potential to be as frightening as something like Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth (1989) by Grant Morrison and art by Dave McKean. McKean’s art enhances the story so well, that it is often difficult to turn the page. Certain scenes are brutal, and so cunningly drawn, that we forget we’re looking at something someone drew and painted.

It never loses its possession of the definition of graphic novel, however varying that definition may be, and it successfully creates a whole new level for other graphic novels to aspire to.
There are other versions of Lovecraft’s works out there rendered beautifully into the graphic novel format. Culbard’s version, is not one of them however.
In conclusion, this version of At the Mountains of Madness is actually a surprisingly good introduction into all things Lovecraftian. If you’re not sure you’re ready for a darker version of this story, this is ideal to get you off and running. And since you can come at Lovecraft from any angle since his stories really aren’t set in any particular chronology, this version would be particularly excellent for becoming more at home with the Cthulhu mythos and the ‘cosmic horror’ which H.P. Lovecraft so excellently imparts to his terrified readers.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Map of Time, By Felix J. Palma

The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma is not an easy book to review. The plot is too thick, there are too many characters to contend with and far too much intertwining of three distinct plots to set it down as a synopsis. 

Suffice it to say, then, that The Map of Time is a book about HG Wells, Jack the Ripper, time travel, Bram Stoker, Joseph Merrick, AKA ‘The Elephant Man’ and poor Mary Jane Kelly, the Ripper’s fifth and final (we think) victim, among others, inhabit the stage of this series of events. As the the book opens, we find a young Victorian man, Andrew Harrington about to take his own life, because it turns out that he fell hopelessly in love with Mary Kelly (Marie Kelley), though now that she’s been killed, all hope is gone.
But this forms only one trunk of three major plot trees whose characters are all intertwined root to twig.
Palma’s ultimate question, however; his overarching philosophical query is much more simple than his story. What happens if we alter time? He sets his characters in motion, in a world where time travel is possible and allows us to see the ramifications of time travel, no matter how noble or altruistic the ideal which acts as impetus.
The reality of the universe within which the story takes place is a simple one; time travel is possible. However, imagine our universe, as we look back on Victorian England as the narrator describes it for us, with the realization that the consequences of many of the story’s possibilities being the loss of Dracula by Bram Stoker, or even worse since he’s a major character in the story, Wells's The Time Machine never being written.
Would that we could hope to find something in our own lives as dire, that we would come to the brink of rewriting history in order to restore our loss, with no thought of the ramifications.
However complex the stories within the the three parts, the novel never fails to keep you reading and it rates as one of the best examples of well written Science Fiction of our new century. Palma’ writing, even translated from the original Spanish, is so elegant, so beautiful, that it is easy to find oneself reading a sentence, phrase or paragraph over and over.  More so than is beauty, however, is its inherent intelligence. It crosses so many genres and fields of study, from literature to physics, metaphysics to philosophy,  romance to war and leaves the reader feeling not only smarter but also ready and piping to read The Time Machine, Dracula, more about Jack the Ripper and Joseph Merrick. 

Don’t let the length fool you though, you’ll be through with it in no time, and when you’ve gotten to the end, don’t be surprised at your intense desire to start again.
The Map of Time is available at your local Randolph County Public Library branch, and is our topic of discussion for The Men in Black Sci-Fi Book Club, this Thursday (8/16/12) at noon at the Asheboro Public Library in our Meeting Room.

Friday, June 8, 2012


The genius of Ready Player One, the new Sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline, is not its technological development or even its imaginative setting. Its genius is based solely on the decade of the ‘Me Generation’; the 1980s.
The ‘80’s changed a lot of things, and saw the beginnings of many new ideas and ideals that we now take for granted. The development of music videos, video games, internet, email, electronica, the end of Communism and it provided the setting for the formative years of the children of Baby Boomers. These facts and the effect of the social media of that time, video games, movies and music, form the backdrop and become a character in Cline’s masterpiece.
It is the year 2045, and Wade Owen Watts, our hero, is an expert on the entire decade of the 80’s. Everything from pop music to movies, from television to comic books to video games; especially video games Wade knows, even though he was not alive then. He knows, because James Halliday, his hero and the creator of the virtual reality world called OASIS, a massive immersive multiplayer video game, grew up during the ‘80’s and those years influenced everything he ever did.
Now, the Great Recession has plunged the entire world into turmoil, and most people either work or go to school in the OASIS, which has always been free.
Wade also knows, now that Halliday has died, only a sure knowledge of that decade will win the ultimate prize, an Easter Egg of huge proportions that Halliday placed deep in the universe of the OASIS. This prize is Halliday’s fortune, and complete control of the OASIS.
However, Halliday’s death, and the quest for the Easter Egg has flooded the OASIS with searchers, called ‘gunters’. Among these searchers is one group working for a private technology company called IOI who, by winning would secure the OASIS as a purchase only system. And, they will stop at nothing to do so. Only Wade Watts, known by his avatar’s nickname Parzival, and his friends Aech, Art3mis, Diato and Shoto, can stop them.

Although the book is full of exposition and explaining the setting and filling in the backstory takes up the first third of the book, it is impossible to put down from the onset. Cline’s style is elegant and precise if not a bit wordy.
The characters are likable and thoroughly developed and easy to root for. They are complex and well written. Even ‘Sorrento’ the CEO of IOI and main antagonist of Wade/Parzival and his gunters, is perfectly hateable.
The book contains many, many references to the entire decade of the ‘80’s, and even someone who grew up during that time may find it necessary to do a little research.
Overall, Clines’ work is imaginative and thoroughly enjoyable. Much like writers from the late Victorian period, even in the two years since its first publishing, Ready Player One seems prophetic. Our addiction to modern social media seem like an embryonic stage, which will ultimately mature to a ‘full immersion’ internet realm.
While Cline’s book is in many ways a story of a nerdy boy who winds up being the king, a stereotypical storyline as old as the legend of King Arthur, it is also a cautionary tale. It takes one possible outcome of our current and recent history, and rolls it out before us, to show where it is we’ve failed. Like all Science-Fiction and indeed all fantasy, this fiction serves as a social commentary, not on what the future holds so much as what the outcome of our current state of affairs can be.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Princess of Mars: Classic Sci-Fi.

A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel of extra-terrestrial adventure was originally supplied to The All-Story magazine in 1912 as a serialization of a novel that had been recently accepted for publication. Initially it was called 'Under the Moons of Mars' and written with a pseudonym, Norman Bean.

The story which centers around the strange Martian exploits of a confederate Civil War veteran called John Carter.
Carter finds himself inexplicably on Mars, after experiencing a kind if 'mental transference'. He is almost immediately captured by the 'green race' of Martians called Tharks, who marvel at his immense strength and agility.
He rises to a place of honor among them, and soon falls in love with a captured princess of the humanoid 'red race' called Dejah Thoris, who is, in fact the Princess of Mars.

Initially, Burroughs worried how his writings would be accepted, as standard 'realistic fiction' was the norm, and novels of fantasy or Gothic style were unpopular and looked down upon by the general readers of the age.
However, his popularity with the 'Tarzan' novels secured him into a position of respect and readability which provided him with more acceptance than he or his publisher expected.
He wrote eleven novels within the series and enjoyed much popularity during their initial release due to a late Victorian Era fascination with the planet Mars brought about by the book 'Mars' by Percival Lowell.
Burroughs' story deals with several major themes, each hotly debated at the time of its publishing. The question of race is heavy in the story, as there are divisions among the humanoid Martians, based on skin-color, but also based on physiological differences. The Tharks having four arms, and being fifteen feet tall, and non humanoid are not recognized as being part of the community of humanoids dwelling there.
There are also the 'great white apes' and other livestock, which all heavily portray earthly counterparts.
The other questions raised by the book are those common to the turn of the twentieth century literary period, namely, politics, borders and countries, technology, politics and love.
Although not strictly a Science Fiction work, being more a 'planetary romance' popular at the time for using alien landscapes and monsters as the setting for human love, the work deals heavily with technology and social commentary; two themes found in almost every example of Science Fiction writing.
Men in Black Book Club will be meeting to discuss 'A Princess of Mars' on Thursday, April 19th at 12, noon in the Asheboro Library Meeting Room.
Feel free to join as at that time.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Starship Troopers.

Robert A. Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers, Is a Science Fiction classic for many reasons. Not least among these is the controversial way that Heinlein uses the book to comment on the idea of militarism, and military service.

The book is centered around the life and experiences of main character Juan “Johnnie” Rico and his exploits in the Terran Federation Mobile Infantry, as he and his comrades fight against the ‘bugs’.
The novel is mainly about the everyday experiences of a ‘grunt’ in training, service and ascension of rank through excellent performance within the structure of the military establishment and the relationships between officers and their colleagues of both higher and lower rank.
Johnnie examines through his narration, after the attack of his home by the ‘Arachnids’ the alien enemy on the planet Klendathu, the voice of society as it first quietly supports an anti-war mentality and how it then changes to that of pro-war policies and movements.
Heinlein’s work on this book is believed to be a defense of his philosophy regarding the use of Nuclear Weapons, and military science in general.

The novel is an essay of sorts, rendering Heinlein’s philosophies in a hypothetical format.
Interestingly enough, Starship Troopers is on all of the U.S. Military branches academy’s reading lists as required reading. Oddly, many of the things that Heinlein wrote about are now considered normal parts of military service, such as being mainly volunteer oriented service, as opposed to conscripted.
The book is full of references to historical wars, and even in its use of slurs towards the Arachnids of Klendathu, Heinlein shows a similarity to the slurs used by American soldiers to its many enemies in war.
Regardless, it is an essential Science Fiction read, as it is the basis for many subsequent Sci-Fi ideas. It is one of the pinnacle books of the genre.
The book is available to borrow from Randolph County Public Library.
Feel free to join us for our next meeting, on Thursday, March 15th in the Meeting Room downstairs.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

World War Z and the Zombie Survival Guide

This month's Men in Black Book Club books are World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War, and The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, by Max Brooks.

Brooks, son of famous comedian and movie director, Mel Brooks, wanted to create a scenario within both books that seemed completely real and feasible.

The books differ from one another quite a bit in their style and approach. In the survival guide (published first), he attempts to give the background of the zombie virus, highlight important outbreaks throughout history and give a comprehensive plan for surviving a zombie outbreak.

The Zombie Survival Guide gives all of the appearances of a nonfiction reference book, and aside from the zombies, is completely accurate.

In the second book, World War Z, Brooks takes a completely different approach. He writes from a first person perspective, interviewing  key players in the conflict, looking back in an attempt to identify the main issues which lead to the collapse of global integrity in the face of the undead plague.

Together, both books serve to enhance the realism of an otherwise fictional situation.

As is the case with zombie literature and film, it is an ideal format for making social commentary. And Brooks does just that. He places mainstream politics, government, economy and religion under scrutiny, when he puts fictional pressure on the foundational aspects of security, safety and response to emergency situations.

The books are both available to borrow from Randolph County Public Library.

Feel free to join us for our next meeting, on Thursday, February 16th in the downstairs Meeting Room.