Monday, July 31, 2017

Valerian Directed and Written by: Luc Besson

Directed and Written by: Luc Besson

Hello and welcome, now usually I don’t do movie reviews, although I did do a guest review for Fantastic Four… Which we are not going to talk about.  Ever Again  Nor do I really intent to make a habit of it, however given that I did do a review for the Valerian and Laureline comic and I did see the movie with my editor Dr. Allen,  Hello everyone.  I am going to inflict myself upon you all. We thought it might be interesting to do a brief movie review, we will be talking about the movie as a stand alone and as an adaption of a prior work.  As such this review will have two grades.  First let me talk about Luc Besson.

Mr. Besson was born in 1959, in Paris France to a pair of diving instructors who divorced and remarried when he was 10, leaving him feeling isolated.  We almost didn’t get Luc Besson the director, he wanted to be a Marine Biologist but an accident at the age of 17 rendered him unable to dive.  As he was sitting there wondering what do with his life, a friend invited him to a movie set and he was convinced.  He was gonna make movies and he did.  Mr. Besson has to his credit films like Nikita, Leon: The Professional, 5th Element, Lucy and now Valerian.  Which is what we’re going to talk about today.

First off, the film looks amazing, the visuals are great.  The setting of most of the film, Space Station Alpha aka the city of a thousand planets is awesome, it’s like Babylon 5 only insane and on drugs.  Specifically LSD. I will concur that, like with The 5th Element, the visuals were pretty good, and I liked the degree of stylization in dress and architecture.  On the surface [read:the world that the elites live in], it looks like the sort of neon-techno orgy that a decadent society free from all want would look like...and the seedy underbelly looks exactly like the sort of seedy underbelly a society with that high a GINI coefficient would produce.  

Sadly, the writing doesn’t match the visuals.  The plot is fairly mediocre and while not executed badly, it’s not carried out with any great level of skill either.  This is a story you’ve seen several times before and you’ve seen done better.  The world-building was substandard as well.  With something like Babylon 5, you know why the station is there, what it’s purpose is, and can get a feel for the political landscape inside a few minutes. I was left wondering “Why is a space station that was cobbled together over the course of centuries and then sent to drift through space (without propulsion… in 400 years it should still be in Earth’s neighborhood, not seventeen lightyears away) seemingly the center of galactic governance?”.  Nothing is ever forthcoming in that respect.  I’m actually pretty annoyed about the treatment of a minor character who was brought in to solve a problem that she wasn’t really needed to solve and then dies… For no reason I could figure.  That was just so transparent that it knocked me right out of the movie. Honestly, she was the only character I gave a damn about as well.

The acting is not great either, a big problem for me at least is the relationship between Valerian and Laureline which I found vague and not very well explored.  They’re clearly in a physical relationship of some type (some sort of weird “friends with benefits” thing with a side order of resentment, miscommunication, and what looks a lot like workplace sexual harassment because both have become--and then stopped being--more attached to the other at different times) but I’m often asking why given the sheer amount of doubt that Laureline expresses in Valerian and the hostility. Their relationship just wasn’t something I could really believe in and considering that a lot of the movie hangs on it… That’s a bad thing.

On the military side, Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be agents in some sort of special forces.  They’re not police given that they conduct operations outside of their national boundaries without the permission of the host government, not to mention their military ranks.  As a Marine, I’m going to get up on my high horse and rant about that for a bit.  Their ranks make no damn sense.  Valerian is a Major, for… reasons and Laureline a sergeant.  However, Laureline is the one with a “fancy Ivy League education” (given her behavior in the movie, I’m left wondering just what her degree is in, underwater basket weaving?) which in most if not all 1st World militaries is a fast track to the officer corps.  Frankly Valerian acts more like a Sgt Major and Laureline acts like a Lt with anger issues (She gets very violent, to the point of beating a captive man unconscious). Military ranks are not just pretty words!  They mean things!  It would have been better if they were just referred to as agents or something for the whole movie.  I don’t expect most people be to be bothered by that but it annoyed the piss out of me. Also consider the level of competence on display.  I have no idea how Valerian even survived training, let alone made it to the rank of Major.  Good initiative and capacity to think on his feet, but his planning threshold is about five seconds.  That does not a good officer make.  

We basically have a visually staggering world with hints of a great setting with characters that are fairly unlikeable and a plot that isn’t really worth it.  This movie isn’t a terrible movie, the plot is serviceable like a microwave dinner and the acting is well done enough that you can believe people were paid for it.  So this isn’t Batman Vs Superman (If you disagree that it was an objectively bad movie, go back to your hole, you are alone in this world.{I take no responsibility for the comments of my editor})  But that doesn’t make it a good movie either.  Sadly Dr. Allen and I have discussed and we must give this movie a grade of C-.  Go see Atomic Blonde instead. For my part, instead of giving this movie a grade, I would call it aggressively mediocre for “Immortan Joe Declaration” values thereof.  The movie screamed “WITNESS ME!”, and that is my only response.

Now let me talk about it as an adaptation.  Now, changes must be made when translating a story to a new medium.  For example, in the comics Valerian and Laureline travel time as often as they do space the movie drops that, perhaps to avoid confusion.  Although I feel an audience that watches Dr. Who and Back to the Future could figure it out.  That said I can live with that change.  I can also live with Laureline being changed from a redhead to a blonde (we live in an era where characters have their gender and race changed and as often as not it’s a good change[Black Heimdal=Awesome] , why whine about hair color?).  Keep in mind as well that I am not a well-studied fan of this series, having only read to Empire of a Thousand Planets (which I liked!) but from what I’ve seen this is what the movie and the comics have in common:  There’s a pair of agents named Valerian and Laureline who operate as paramilitary protectors of their society.  They work in space.  This is everything the comics and movie have in common.  

Massive changes have been made to the setting, gone for example is Galaxity and instead we have the United Human Federation which is shown to us as a rather milquetoast science fiction society.  The relationship between the characters has changed, Valerian is made into kinda of a meathead bro instead of the crafty agent I saw, in the comics. Yeah he was two-fisted but he was also capable of cunning (as is proper for a manly hero in the pulpy Age of Chrome).  Laureline’s personality is more violent and confrontational than in the comics where she tends to be disarmingly charming, and while capable of violence, tends to prefer to out think her enemies.  Now some of that is an artifact of their times, as the comic started in the 1960s but I do think more effort should have been put in to retain what made both the setting and characters different and interesting.  I mean consider this; before the comic was published the name Laureline didn’t exist, the creators made it up.  Now thousands of women have that name.  That’s a real world impact.  Frankly this series, even from the little I’ve seen, deserved better than this.  As an adaptation I give Valerian a D+, Mr. Besson would have been well served to get a professional writer for this.  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, July 28, 2017

Valerian and Laureline: Empire of a Thousand Planets by Pierre Christin art by Jean-Claude Mezieres

Valerian and Laureline: Empire of a Thousand Planets
by Pierre Christin
art by Jean-Claude Mezieres

It's 1965, Salt Lake City, Utah, United States of America. Two young men from France meet, they've met before, playing together in cellars during allied air raids in World War II but this time instead of hiding from bombs, they're building a metaphorical one. One of them teaches French literature at the university, while the other was an artist in training. One was inspired by the Mad magazine school of art and the wide open spaces of the American West, still full of natural beauty not to mention the visuals of films such as This Island Earth or Forbidden Planet (that's right, yet another staple of science fiction inspired by Forbidden Planet). The other was inspired by Asimov, Van Vogt, Vance, and Wyndham as well as by his education at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and his PhD in literature. From the minds of these two men, something new was about to be born.

The comic series Valerian and Laureline is a French science fiction series that was first published in Pilote magazine (which ran from 1959 to 1989) but outlived the magazine to have it's final story published in 2010. The series has a visual influence on a number of series including Star Wars (while some deny it, the design director of Phantom Menace at least admits to keeping albums of the series on set) and 5th Element. Mr. Mezieres was awarded the The Grand Prix de la ville d'Angoul√™me, a life time achievement award considered one of the greatest awards in the French comics industry. The European Science Fiction Society award was given to both men in 1987 for their work on the comic as well. The series is about the adventures of our two title characters as Space-Time agents for Galaxity, the central government of humanity and much of the galaxy. In this future, much of humanity has slipped away from reality, living in “dreams” while a small group of technocrats keep all the lights on and an even smaller group of agents keep the timeline and the galaxy safe for dreaming. It's kind of interesting to see the idea that a civilization would lose itself in simulations was being advanced in 1967 even if they don't use the same language to describe it that we would. In the volume I read, maybe it's just me but Galaxity comes across as an empire tittering on the brink, it's people live isolated from reality while a shrinking class of people are constantly working harder and harder just to keep things going. The idea of imperial collapse and changing of the guard seems to be a theme in the series as I think y'all will soon see, but let me get to the specific story.

Valerian and Laureline are sent beyond the borders of human space to Syrte the capital of the Empire of the Thousand Planets. The planet itself is a vision of extremes, within the massive imperial palace where only the elite of elites are even allowed entry while out in the swamps not even three days away people live in abject poverty, forced to hunt massive predators for their skins to survive. It's a world with a massive space port that reaches out to dozens of worlds but the majority of the inhabitants have to make do with much less advanced technology, many of them using beasts of burden and muscle powered tools with the most advanced thing they'll ever see being a solar powered paddle boat. Still if you can get to the capital and visit the market you'll see wonders beyond reckoning. The world is in decline and ruins dot the surface, infrastructure decays from neglect and poverty spreads while the ruling class distances itself more and more from the common people. The only exception to this is a group of mysterious masked beings known as the enlightened ones, healers with an understanding of mind and body beyond what anyone else in the empire has ever seen. They live in a temple fortresses, emerging in small groups to minister to the people for short periods of time before disappearing again. They are ruthless towards opposition and have systematically crushed all opposing centers of power, at the cost of much of the learning native to the empire but they are now the power behind the throne on a empire crumbling out from under them.

It's into this situation that our heroes arrive, sent to see if the Empire will be a threat to their own people or if peaceful relations can be established. When a chance meeting in the marketplace turns the enlightened ones into their enemies, they find themselves pulled into the empire's internal politics and have no choice but to intervene. If they would live they must navigate the politics of an alien empire simmering with resentment and discontent that could explode into violence at any moment. Still, they have the training, they have the talent and they have the drive to not only work for their own well being for the people of the empire... If it's even possible to anymore.

The story itself has aged more or less decently but has clearly aged. To be blunt on the matter audiences of the modern day are a bit more demanding than those of 50 years ago and plot twists that were groundbreaking back then are now normal. There's a bit of deus ex machina in the story as well, as our heroes at time seem to get what they need through sheer luck more than anything else. I'm not so sure a modern writer could get away with that. The art is also an artifact of the time, reminding me heavily of some of the comics of the period or newspaper serials where the physical characteristics of the characters are exaggerated. While I'm not very bothered by it, I can't call it great work by modern standards either. I'm a Burroughs fan though so the datedness of the story doesn't bother me overmuch. The characterization is straightforward if simple. Valerian is a man of action who focuses on the mission first and everything else second. Laureline is focused mainly on helping Valerian and in this story acts mostly as his sidekick, that said unlike a lot of female leads of the time period she isn't relegated to the damsel in distress but is able to even save Valerian at times and be of real help on the mission. Which honestly gives it some bonus points. That said we don't get a lot of deep investment into the characters. I can't tell you much more about them then what I already have. This story is a pretty fun (if dated) space opera and if you’re aware of the state of fiction in the late 1960s, you appreciate the work for what it is.

Between the inventiveness of the settings, the two fisted action, and the fact that I can see the seeds that became a lot of our modern science fiction... I did enjoy it. Going back this early isn't something I recommend for everyone but if you’ve got a taste for going back to our roots (Editors note: To the “Age of Chrome!”?), give this book a try.  To be clear it wasn’t the only work doing these things back then, but at the time it was not the common trend.   If I had read this in 1967, this would have gotten a B+ very easily or even an A-, as this is a series that stands out for it time.  Time marches on however, Valerian and Laureline: Empire of a Thousand Planets by Pierre Christin gets a C+ from me but an enjoyable one all the same.  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Blood of the Lamb: The Expected One By Mark E. Rogers

The Blood of the Lamb: The Expected One
By Mark E. Rogers

I'm a book nerd and my chosen poisons tend towards fantasy and science fiction. I've defended both genres from critics as a whole repeatedly both in this review series and in other venues. I do feel, however that there are problems at times. One of the great strengths that both of the genres have is the ability to get us to look at a problem or an issue without raising our defenses by changing things enough to allow us look at it in a new light. This is often done with political or social issues in fantasy or science fiction, you see this books ranging from Harry Potter to the Goblin Emperor for example. The execution varies from masterful to anvil droppingly awful but one thing modern fantasy seems to shy away from is theology.  I don't just mean the theology of modern religions but even most fantasy religions are fairly shallow. There are plenty of religious allegories in modern fiction, Harry Potter died for the sins of the Wizarding World and rose 3 minutes later not that long ago. Man of Steel was fairly happy to use religious symbolism. I think this is because most people aren't very learned in theology.

In recent history, religion in the United States has become politically charged with the Christian Fundamentalist Churches all but demanding sovereignty over these questions. Their own very sparse and harsh theology has produced people who are in my experience often unaware that there are other works out there to read beyond the Bible.  If you're wondering I honestly recommend starting with The City of God by Augustine, as that's where a lot of western theology starts. You can never go wrong by starting at the beginning.  Speaking as a pastor's son, many of the lay people could stand to actually read the Bible.  This is not exclusive to Fundamentalist Churches to be fair, nor is a problem exclusive to Christianity. There are deeper levels you can go to, questions that theologians have been dueling over for thousands of years and it's there that we rarely go. Now some do go there, Scott Baker has staked out some interesting ground in his own series which is one of the reasons why despite so many people being outright horrified by that series, they keep reading it. I was bemoaning this to a friend, when he suggested an old series called Blood of the Lamb and that's what we're here to talk about today.

Today’s author Mark E. Rogers, was born in 1952 in New Jersey and wrote his first book while a high school student, The Runestone that would eventually become a movie in 1991. Mr. Rogers would graduate the University of Delaware in 1974 as Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelors of the Arts Degree. Mr. Rogers would come to be known primarily for two things, the Samurai Cat series, a parody work featuring a Samurai cat on a mission to avenge its master's death, and his artwork. However, when you peek beyond that you see a long list of novels, many of them dark, that grapple with moral and theological themes and pull no punches in doing so. The Expected One is honestly the first work of his that I've ever read but I find myself looking at the others as well. Sadly Mr. Rogers is no longer with us, having passed away in a heart attack in 2014 while hiking in California. He is survived by his wife and his 4 children. He is also fondly remembered by a number of friends who have written moving tributes of a man they considered to be thoughtful and intelligent. I want to say he is also survived by the work he left behind but if amazon is any indication his work is slowly disappearing. It is a sad and simple fact that only tiny amount of fiction writers will continue to have their work published after death, as publishers will prefer to devote time and energy to new writers who can produce more work. This is a sad and terrible thing in my mind but I honestly lack a solution to this. To get away from that subject, however, I think it's time we actually start talking about the book we're here to review.

This series takes place on a fantasy world that is similar but at the same time very different from our own. On this world is a group of people who are called the Kadjafim, an ethnic group united by it's shared religious belief in a single God and their waiting for a foretold Messiah. The religion of the Kadjafim is kept by an order of wizard priests known as the Sharajnaghim. They maintain the doctrine and rituals of the religion and are the final authority of the religion. However they are not sovereign, 20 years before the story begins the great Silver Horde of Batu Khan swept over the lands and conquered all before them. While he demands yearly tribute from the Sharajnaghim, Batu Khan is fairly hands off towards them, perhaps in gratitude for their aid against the Black Anarites, worshipers of a being that the Kadjafim consider a demon. The people of the Kadjafim are not content under the fist of Batu Khan however and rebellion seethes under the surface, even if it is punished quickly and brutally. However in addition to mere secular rebellion has come over the years an increasing number of men claiming to be the Expected One, the awaited Messiah of the Kadjafim. The Khan declaring that he is not a religious authority and would not wish to offend God, has given the Sharajnaghim the responsibility of ferreting out and trying these heretics. If the Sharajnaghim declare you to be a false Messiah, you are handed over to the Khan and executed.

It is in this setting that word arrives that a man known as Essaj Ben Yussef has been preaching in the backwater regions and performing miracles while referring to himself as the Son of Man. Despite the disquiet in the order in performing a role as the Khan's appointed hatchet men, 3 young members are dispatched to investigate Essaj and his claims to prove his miracles and to test his preaching to find fraud and heresy. Let's talk about these 3 young men a bit, first up we have Sharif, a handsome young man who is well gifted in magic and physical combat. Sharif is brave, earnest, devoted to the order and honestly not very good at intellectual pursuits. That's okay though, because he's mostly on this trip to bodyguard our other two characters. The first off is Erim, who while not as physically capable as Sharif is frighteningly intelligent and an expert in doctrine. His job on this adventure is to test Essaj's religious arguments and preaching and see if he can expose any heresy or weak points. Erim does have a weakness, however, when it comes to good food, good wine or good women, which I'll circle back to in a bit. Our last member of the trio, Nawhar stands opposite to Sharif and Erim in many ways. Nawhar's body is wracked with bad joints and skin that constantly itches, Nawhar has turned to religion for solace in the face of this and has become something of a zealot. He's a genius zealot however with a high skill in sussing out false miracles and trickery. As the confrontation between them and Essaj leaves them unable to disprove his miracles, miracles which seem to become increasingly unbelievable the longer they stay in his presence and attempts to discredit his theology founder, we see cracks in the friendship of these 3 young men. Erim begins to doubt that Essaj is a false prophet. Sharif finds himself rocked to the core and fearful of the future.

However there's also the question of whether or not the Sharajnaghim can really claim the authority to make these decisions anymore. Generations of wealth and authority have brought corruption, politicking and those more concerned with material gains than religious duty. Mr. Rogers shines here in showing this very subtly and not hitting us over the head with it. We see the members of the Sharajnaghim have grown disdainful of manual labor, we see that they grown lack in enforcing proper behavior in ceremonies (allowing a student to drink wine and celebrate in between tests for promotions when he's suppose to be meditating and praying for example) and have breaking their vows, such as vowing to be chaste but having mistresses and wives. The corruption is further shown realistically in that these aren't necessarily bad or faithless people, most of them even those who break their vows still have very real faith and belief in what they're doing and create rationalizations and excuses for their oath breaking. This is how corruption works in the real world, it doesn't turn everyone into a cackling super villain, even good people will indulge in it if encouraged by people they respect and if it's made the norm. That's how even the best of us can be caught up in it and it can bring down even those who aren't part of it. Nawhar for example sticks to his vows to the very letter but in doing so lets pride and anger cloud the reason for those vows in the first place, placing him in jeopardy of destroying the very thing he would protect through sheer narrow minded pigheadedness.

This isn't the only story line in the novel however, back in the home temple of of the Sharajnaghim someone has unleashed a Demon to hunt down and kill masters of the order. This plants seeds of doubt between the masters as it raises the real possibility that the demon that is hunting them in their very homes was summoned by a Master of the Sharajnaghim. Meanwhile they also have to contend with the possibility that the Black Anarites have sent this Demon to destroy them and end their long war. I have to note another thing I enjoyed here was the use of Demons, a lot of fantasy series turn Demons into basically another monster to fight and conquer. This kind of drains the horror from the concept and can leave one thinking that there's not much difference between a Demon and an Orc expect ability. In this book series however, the theological weight of Demons is restored. Demons are objects of horror, tormenting their victims physically and mentally. Displaying knowledge about them that you would think it would be impossible to have and using it to prey on people's mental and emotional weaknesses. The Demons in this book are elevated from a monster to figures of terror and secrets and that is a lot closer to the core idea of a what a demon is for me.

As I'm sure a lot of you have guessed by now, this is an alternate retelling of the gospels. Set on another world where the Biblical fall didn't happen until the 2nd generation of mankind, this means that mankind has access to more gifts than in our world. In this case being magic. This isn't a straightforward one to one transfer of the gospel to a different world however, the geography and history of this world is very different. For one thing there are no Romans, but there are Mongols who set up a massive empire. Essaj is of course the stand in for our Lord Christ and Jesus' teachings remain fairly intact if not engaged in-depth in this book.  The theology of the Sharajnaghim is given more time and space in this book, given that is important for the trial that Essaj is going to find himself on, I'm okay with it. Most of the miracles are taken straight out of the gospels, I won't spoil which ones but the context in which they occur and and the order they're traditionally in is changed. Very little time is spent on the disciples which I found to be a shame, since they're fairly big parts of Jesus' story. The book is fairly unflattering to them, showing them as very focused on their status and on who Essaj favors more. This is honestly kinda accurate to how they were before the Death and Resurrection so I shouldn't nitpick too much here.

The book was an excellent change of pace for me, while there was plenty of action and daring deeds, there was also space for debate on religious beliefs and discussion on just where the space between doing your duty and being a hide bound fanatic lie. That said, the book is also rather thin to my taste given the subject matter being a mere 230 pages, still Mr. Rogers’s sense of plotting and pacing allow him to cover a lot of ground in a few pages, something that modern writers could use a little bit more of, even if I think the book could have used another 20 or 30 pages. Still this is the first book in a series, so I suppose I can't fault it too much for leaving room for the next book. I am going to penalize it for not completing the stories told in this book, however. While entertaining and interesting to read, none of the plot lines are brought to completion so I can't say I read a complete story here. Still despite that, I am giving The Expected One by Mark E Rogers an A-.

Next time, we take a peek at one of the longest running science fiction comics out there when I review Valerian. Keep reading!   

This review edited by Cameron Johnson

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Jennifer Morgue By Charles Stross

The Jennifer Morgue
By Charles Stross

I covered Charles Stross in my review of The Atrocity Archives, so I will just suggest if you want to know more about this chap, you read that review. The Jennifer Morgue, published in 2006, is the second novel of the series the Laundry files. Let me go ahead and sum up the concept behind the series. Lovecraft was right. Humanity is an over clever ape in a cold hostile multi-verse, where creatures and beings beyond our imagining lurk beyond the walls of our universe and in the dark corners of our own. Math is magic, combined with computer technology the right mathematical formulas and geometric creations can not only defy the natural laws of our world but can catch the attention of those inhuman beings. With their attention usually comes terror and death. Robert “Bob” Howard (which is in and of itself is a nice reference for me) is a drafted member of the Laundry, the more-secret-than-top-secret British agency whose job it is to not only delay and maybe even prevent the extinction of humanity but to keep most of us from finding out what is actually out there. The more people who know that this stuff can actually work, the more likely it is that someone will actually kill us all (by accident, or on purpose). I usually disagree with secrecy at all cost in stories like this but Mr. Stross has built a convincing case, in that letting this stuff become public is like handing out the plans to nuclear bombs and then making sure all the parts are cheaply available in your local corner store (plutonium is 20% off for repeat customers!). Since I'm very partial to living in a civilization with indoor plumbing and climate control... Or just living in general, I'm against that idea. Anyways let me get to the novel itself.

Humanity is not the only intelligent species on the planet. There are older, colder civilizations that dwell on our planet. Visitors from unknown stars that came to our tiny blue orb before our distant ancestors learned the secret of fire or flint. In prehistoric times they settled the parts of the Earth that they wanted, built cities, waged wars and did great deeds and they are here still. We evolved and grew on the part of the planet they do not consider worth having, we literally spent the infancy of our species unknowingly in their shadow in places they would deem worthless wasteland. They are indifferent to us and given their abilities that is something to be thankful for. The most well known of them is code named BLUE HADES by the Laundry, an aquatic civilization that signed a treaty with the powers of the world. They promise not to cause our extinction and to remain aloof from our affairs and we promise to stay in our reservation. Which is in this case means the dry land and the top layers of the ocean they have no interest in. Their rivals or perhaps their enemies, are a chthonian race of creatures known by the code name DEEP SEVEN. Not much is known because there has not been a lot of contact with DEEP SEVEN because they live deep in the Earth's crust. Whatever wars they fought with BLUE HADES would have ended before humanity discovered writing at the latest which is lucky for us because the type of weapons that these creatures would have used against one another would have been beyond our understanding and our ability to protect ourselves from. Those weapons are still beyond our ability to protect ourselves from.

In 1975, in the Caribbean sea, a United States agency attempted to retrieve something from the bottom of the sea. They used what was state of the art technology at the time, however they were foiled by the defenses that BLUE HADES had set up. It was an expensive lesson in leaving well enough alone but it was one that was learned. The United States made no additional attempts, neither did any other nation. In the opening years of the 21st century however, there's always someone who thinks that whatever the government fails at, private industry can succeed at. Enter our villain Ellis Billington, software billionaire, who through the use of magic, creative accounting and the joys of selling to the government and setting the prices via regulatory capture is a man with too much bloody money. Unlike most of the men before him, he doesn't get involved in politics or charity; Mr. Billington prefers more arcane pursuits like trying to conquer the world by retrieving artifacts of an advanced alien race from the ocean floor. However he has a problem, that being that just about everyone else on the planet (excluding a very small number of allies and employees) are very much opposed to him becoming planetary overlord. This includes the US paranormal intelligence agency, the Black Chamber, an organization that our main character Bob views with dread and loathing. Considering who he works with and for... That's saying something. Mr. Billington didn't get to where he is without a certain level of intelligence and cunning however, so using resources both mundane, esoteric and morally vile, he has assembled a protection which means that the Black Chamber cannot touch him and nor can conventional law enforcement. Unfortunately for him, he had to leave a gap in the protection for it to work and it's into that gap that Bob Howard is heroically pushed. For the record readers, I do mean pushed.

Joining Bob on this mission are Pinkie and Brain, former roommates, techies and sorcerers without peer as his support team. Additionally he is joined by Ramona Random, a bombshell blonde to die for, who is also a field agent (aka assassin) for the Black Chamber. Joined by a magical ritual that has them sharing literal headspace (literally), Bob finds himself having trouble sorting out which thoughts and which emotions are actually his. On top of that is the fact that Ms. Random is hiding a number of her own secrets and definitely has her own agenda. He's barely briefed, out of his element, working a budget governed by the principals of austerity and is the only guy on the board who doesn't know the script. Which might be the only hole card that he has. He's gonna need it along with anything else he can scrape out of the white sands and deep blue sea. Oh, he also needs to wrap this up before his girlfriend Mo (also a member of the Laundry) comes looking for him and gets herself into the firing line.

Stross takes this opportunity to write a send up on James Bond films using the dark humor and lovecraftian universe of the Laundry Files. It's honestly well written, funny and at times thought provoking but there's a serious problem here. The book spends time trying to make Bob Howard into James Bond (with Bob fighting the plot every step of the way, God bless him) and I honestly found myself hating that. There's good reason for it, Mr. Stross has made sure that it makes perfect sense and I've certainly seen worse but... It comes down to I picked up this book because I wanted to read about Bob bloody Howard, not James Bond. While I don't mind send ups, this gets rather intrusive and undermines the fun of the book for me. Another problem is Ramona just doesn't work for me either. On paper she's an interesting and sympathetic character, as a person who has been denied her Constitutional rights by an accident of birth (something that is more relevant in 2017 then I am really happy with bluntly) and by the fact that she clearly working in a job she doesn't want to be working in. But I find myself left entirely cold and just not really caring all that much about Ms. Random which is likely unfair but it is what it is.

I did find some of the commentary on corporate culture and government work interesting, but I also felt that Bob didn't quite grasp some things. There's a point in the book where he points out that the government would never let him have an Aston Martin but will gleefully hand him a million dollars worth of malware, which once he uses it will likely escape out into the open market and lose value. My view of that is well yes of course they won't give you an Aston Martin Bob, you don't need it to do your job. You do however need that malware and you'll likely fail without it. It sucks but it's the same reason I couldn't get a damn 5 dollar seat cushion on the LAV I worked out of during the invasion but Uncle Sam happily slapped armor worth thousands of dollars on my pale hide to keep me alive. That said Bob does have a point in that the penny pinching forced onto our government services is often penny wise and pound foolish. There's a damn reason the Veteran Affairs office hasn't been able to computerize its records: because Congress looks at the price tag, groans to itself and thinks that they're not authorizing that big a bump in the budget it's a bloody election year and the donors will kill them. Never you mind by refusing to just bite the bullet they actually stack up expenses as money now has to be shelled out to maintain paper records which requires a bigger workforce, more space and means that the sheer effort to do anything is increased which leads to even more costs down the line! Never you mind the human costs of such things in veteran health and sanity, no one ever asks about that during budget meetings because it doesn't show up on a spreadsheet! *cough* Right, review book, don't political rant.

Now we do get to see more of Mo, the professor who stumbled into things man was not meant to know and who Bob rescued in the last book. She has grown between the books, picking up new interests and knowledge and becoming rather dangerous herself in a lot of ways and I think this is the root of my frustration with the book. At the end of the last book I was excited to see Mo and Bob working together, I thought they bounced off each other rather well and really wanted to see that in the field as it were. Instead I get Bob operating on his own as a mushroom (kept in the dark and fed... yeah) and it's not fun to read for me. It's not that this is a detective novel where there's a mystery and Bob has to piece it together, it's that everyone else knows what's going on and doesn't tell Bob and we have to follow along in the wake. I might also be outside the target audience in that I've never been a big Bond fan. I've seen the movies of course, the more ridiculous ones like Moonraker often tend to be my preferred ones but even as a 12 year old I can't say I ever approved of James Bond. I tend more towards guys like Captain America and John Sheridan or... Bob Howard and I hope in the next book to see Bob Howard being Bob Howard. Still the book is well written and very well researched, so I am giving the The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross a B-.

Join me next week as we look at something a little more theological.... The Blood of the Lamb by Mark E Rogers. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Blue Beetle: Shellshocked (Vol: 8) by Keith Giffen and John Rogers Art by Cully Hammer

Blue Beetle: Shellshocked (Vol: 8)
by Keith Giffen and John Rogers
Art by Cully Hammer

I was actually a little sad when I got this graphic novel because when I opened it up, I saw it used to belong to a public library. I'll admit to a fair amount of book greed but it's never a happy event when a public library collection is made less. Admittedly ending up in my library is better than what happens to a lot of books that are rejected from public libraries. They end up shredded and burnt. So on the balance I suppose I can call this a good deed (but seriously support your local library, you won't know you need it, ‘til it's gone).

Anyways, about the Blue Beetle, this is a hero that has been through a lot of changes. I'm going to provide some history here before I get on the review because I think it's kinda necessary. Keep in mind this isn't an exhaustive look. Blue Beetle was originally created by Fox Comics waayyyyy back in 1939, back then the source of his power was originally a special vitamin but this was dropped in favor of him getting his powers from a mystic scarab from Egypt. Dan Garret, rookie policeman, was the secret identity of the first beetle.  He would have a set of powers that were defined as whatever the writers wanted him to have at the time, and he would star in comics, newspaper, and radio before the character was retired in the 1950s when Fox Comics went out of business and sold the rights to Charlton Comics.

Charlton Comics chose to re-image the Blue Beetle as Ted Kord, a student of Garret's who took on the responsibility of the Blue Beetle when Garret was killed fighting a supervillain but who did not have the powers of the scarab. The creator of Ted Kord was Steve Ditko and he tended to prefer writing about men without superpowers at the time. Ted Kord appeared as a back feature to Captain Atom in 1966 and got his own comic in 1967. Charlton Comics was bought out by DC comics in the 1980s who brought over the characters in the Crisis on Infinite Earths event in 1985. While he did get a solo series that managed to run for 2 years, his character didn't really take off for many people until he joined the Justice League and met Booster Gold. The two of them would prove to be grade A comedy material and even today remains a favored duo among the fans who remember that era. I do encourage y'all to check out those comics as the series is something of a semi-forgotten gem, under all the 80s cheese. Of course, in this world, nothing good and fun can last so after finding the scarab again but before figuring out how to unleash it's power, he's murdered. I'm not going to go into by who or how because y'all don't want this to be a 3 page rant with enough curses to peel paint. Instead let's get to something awesome that came out of that crap. Jamie Reyes.

Jamie Reyes first shows up in Infinite Crisis 5 in 2006. His solo series would start up 2 months later and would have to write around this event while creating an origin for the character and expanding(and in some ways retconning) the Blue Beetle mythos. These were actually the first Blue Beetle comics I ever read, so for me in a lot ways Jamie is the Blue Beetle and always will be. Jamie Reyes is a Mexican-American from El Paso, his mother works at a hospital and his father runs a car garage. They both clearly love their children and are struggling to ensure they have the best life possible, which was a part of the comic I honestly liked. They were fairly strict but it was because they didn't want their kids ending up on drugs or in a gang which were real worries in their neighborhoods. Jamie comes across as a good kid who wants to do the right thing and protect his family and friends but is, like a lot of us, often frustrated by the sheer amount of gray in the world and how often his role models and authority figures prove to have clay feet. I'm in my mid 30s and I can still relate to that and I'm sure a lot of y'all could too. Beyond his family Jamie has his friends Paco (a burly somewhat smart mouthed fellow Hispanic kid) and Brenda, a red haired, very smart, very talented girl with a terrible home life. I have to admit Rogers and Giffen show how talented they are when they make this clear in a single page, where Paco and Brenda get into a fight. Paco yells she's lucky boys don't hit girls and she yells back Father's do. It's a quick, efficient exchange that establishes the supporting characters while making you desperately wonder why DC comics has no Child Protective Services! The character work in this novel is pretty great, giving you a firm grounding on who all of these characters are and how they relate to Jamie and giving you a sense of who he is as well.

Unfortunately, there's a lot that isn't great. Due to having to work around Infinite Crisis the plot of the book suffers greatly. I'm also annoyed by the decisions of the writers to abandon linear storytelling in favor for jumping around all over the place time wise. You have to read the book 2 or 3 times to figure out the chronology of events as they are presented out of order with little to no identification. This is a problem because some of these events are separated by about a year. That's not a good thing and makes for confusing readers when they have to guess at the sequences of events. Additionally there's the sin of too many of other characters showing up in Jamie's story. For example, you open the book with Jamie trying to fend off Guy Gardner, aka the Green Lateran who got an even rawer deal than Kyle somehow. Guy doesn't really contribute to this novel beyond that, basically just having a fight and flying off at the end of it. You have The Stranger pop up and pop out with no explanation for who or what this guy is (I knew but I've been dealing with comics for over a decade now, if this had been my first experience I would have given up in confusion) and you have another character (no names to avoid spoilers) bopping around but he doesn't interact with the cast until the last panel! This makes for a very crowded and confusing experience and it's not a good way to launch a character.

Now this is just my opinion but in an origin story you need to give a character space to breath and time to find his or her footing on their own. Unless it's a team character of course but then just apply that to the team at large. I'm not against comic book characters having relationships with characters from other titles don't get me wrong but you need to give them the space to be their own characters so they don't get defined by their relationships to other more established characters. Additionally, their origin story should be able to stand on it's own and demanding that I hunt down an entirely different series just so this story makes sense is at best dirty pool. This should be Jamie's story, instead it feels like a small piece of a bigger story without any clear links. The character work is great and I enjoyed it but the plotting and the storytelling is rough at best and all over the place at worst. Combined, this makes for the mirror opposite of last week review, where the plot was well done but the character work scant and thin. I like Jamie Reyes so I would love to give his first graphic novel a good grade but... It's not to be. Blue Beetle: Shellshocked gets a C-. Better luck next time.

I think I need to go back and read a novel. Next week, the Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen