Exploring Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities

Broadway Books (US) 2014

By JJ: It’s been more than a year and a half since I first read Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs. Like a lot of other Filers, I was absolutely blown away by that book when it came out – and I’m still pretty unhappy about it having been bumped off the Hugo ballot by the slating nonsense; otherwise, according to the nominating stats, it would have been a Hugo Finalist in 2015.

And Worldcon voters weren’t the only ones who liked it: City of Stairs was a Finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Society’s Robert Holdstock Award, and it came in second on the annual Locus Magazine Readers’ Poll for Best Fantasy Novel.

I hadn’t got around to reading its 2016 sequel City of Blades yet, but was definitely going to do so before the 2017 Hugo nomination deadline – so when I recently had the opportunity through NetGalley to get an advance eARC of the third book in the series*, City of Miracles, I decided to do a re-read of the first book before diving into the sequels.

The Divine Cities are the legacy of a previous age, when six Divines – entities with godlike powers, each with distinctive personality attributes and their own dedicated followers – reigned over segments of The Continent: “Olvos, the light-bearer. Kolkan, the judge. Voortya, the warrior. Ahanas, the seed-sower. Jukov, the trickster, the starling shepherd. And Taalhavras, the builder.”

Broadway Books (US) 2016

During the many centuries of their reign – a sort of Golden Age – the Divines manifested numerous miraculous acts – some of which their followers were able to subsequently perform themselves. They created many objects and living entities in which were embodied miraculous properties and capabilities.

But there was a dark side to this Golden Age: the Divines, and the Continentals, had subjugated the inhabitants of Saypur, a land across the ocean. Saypuris were servants and laborers who provided much of the bounty of food, natural resources, and technology from which the Continentals benefited. Despite this, the slaves of Saypur were denied access to miracles.

And as oppression always does, this injustice inevitably resulted in the rising of a mighty Saypuri adversary, who studied the Divines for years and eventually determined a way of defeating them.

One of the Divines had disappeared many years before the battle with the Kaj, their fate unknown. The rest of the Divines are believed to be dead, killed by the Kaj’s secret weapon – and most of the miraculous acts and objects tied to the Divines have lost their special powers.

What’s more, the Continent’s majestic capital city of Bulikov underwent a massive transformation at the moment of the Divine deaths. In an occurrence now known as The Blink, huge portions of the city, its skyscrapers, other buildings, and residents, simply ceased to exist; other buildings are now warped and twisted versions of their original forms, and there are now-useless stairways, arches, and bridges which trail off into the air.

Broadway Books (US) 2017

It’s been a few hundred years since the death of the Divines, and the Continent is now “administered” by representatives of the Saypuri government who live in the conquered land.

This is the setting where we first encounter one of the most intriguing protagonists I’ve encountered in a while: Shara Thivani. Supposedly a low-level consular official, she is actually a secret intelligence operative attempting to discover the truth about the death of her former teacher and mentor.

In turns arrogant and humble, harsh and kind, foolish and exceedingly clever, Shara is a contradictorily appealing character. In conjunction with her unlikely allies – the huge, indestructible warrior Sigrud, and the astute but taciturn Governor Turyin Mulaghesh, she stubbornly unravels the mysteries and the conspiracies to uncover a world-changing revelation.

Mystery, spies, magic, and an elaborate, fascinating world: I found it an irresistible combination – one that kept me up at night when I should have been getting sleep for work the next day.

City of Blades is on my 2016 Hugo Nomination list for Best Novel, and next year this series will be on my list for Best Series.

* in exchange for an honest review — as if they were likely to get anything but an honest opinion from me, the more fools they  😉


Jo Fletcher Books (UK) 2014

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett [Divine Cities #1]

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions – until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself – first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it – stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem – and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.


Jo Fletcher Books (UK) 2016

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett [Divine Cities #2]

A generation ago, the city of Voortyashtan was the stronghold of the god of war and death, the birthplace of fearsome supernatural sentinels who killed and subjugated millions.

Now, the city’s god is dead. The city itself lies in ruins. And to its new military occupiers, the once-powerful capital is a wasteland of sectarian violence and bloody uprisings.

So it makes perfect sense that General Turyin Mulaghesh – foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumored war criminal, ally of an embattled Prime Minister – has been exiled there to count down the days until she can draw her pension and be forgotten.

At least, it makes the perfect cover story.

The truth is that the general has been pressed into service one last time, dispatched to investigate a discovery with the potential to change the world – or destroy it.

The trouble is that this old soldier isn’t sure she’s still got what it takes to be the hero.


Jo Fletcher Books (UK) 2017

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett [Divine Cities #3]

Revenge. It’s something Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is very, very good at. Maybe the only thing.

So when he learns that his oldest friend and ally, former Prime Minister Shara Komayd, has been assassinated, he knows exactly what to do – and that no mortal force can stop him from meting out the suffering Shara’s killers deserve.

Yet as Sigrud pursues his quarry with his customary terrifying efficiency, he begins to fear that this battle is an unwinnable one. Because discovering the truth behind Shara’s death will require him to take up arms in a secret, decades-long war, face down an angry young god, and unravel the last mysteries of Bulikov, the city of miracles itself. And – perhaps most daunting of all – finally face the truth about his own cursed existence.


Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett

(Fair notice: all Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit non-profit SFF fan website Worlds Without End)

Other works by Robert Jackson Bennett:

The year is 1919. The McNaughton Corporation is the pinnacle of American industry. They built the guns that won the Great War before it even began. They built the airships that tie the world together. And, above all, they built Evesden – a shining metropolis, the best that the world has to offer. But something is rotten at the heart of the city. Deep underground, a trolley car pulls into a station with eleven dead bodies inside. Four minutes before, the victims were seen boarding at the previous station. Eleven men butchered by hand in the blink of an eye. All are dead. And all are union. Now, one man, Cyril Hayes, must fix this. There is a dark secret behind the inventions of McNaughton and with a war brewing between the executives and the workers, the truth must be discovered before the whole city burns. Caught between the union and the company, between the police and the victims, Hayes must uncover the mystery before it kills him.

It is the time of the Great Depression. Thousands have left their homes looking for a better life, a new life. But Marcus Connelly is not one of them. He searches for one thing, and one thing only: Revenge. Because out there, riding the rails, stalking the camps, is the scarred vagrant who murdered Connelly’s daughter. One man must face a dark truth and answer the question – how much is he willing to sacrifice for his satisfaction?

Vaudeville: mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd, a world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions. But sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville for one reason only: to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change. Because there is a secret within Silenus’s show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their lives. And soon… he is as well.

Some places are too good to be true. Under a pink moon, there is a perfect little town not found on any map. In that town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things. After a couple years of hard traveling, ex-cop Mona Bright inherits her long-dead mother’s home in Wink, New Mexico. And the closer Mona gets to her mother’s past, the more she understands that the people of Wink are very, very different…


Robert Jackson Bennett was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He moved to Austin, Texas, and studied at the University of Texas. Bennett is a two-time award winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, an Edgar Award winner for Best Paperback Original, and is also the 2010 recipient of the Sydney J Bounds Award for Best Newcomer, and a Philip K Dick Award Citation of Excellence. City of Stairs was shortlisted for the Locus Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Robert Holdstock Award. His seventh novel, City of Miracles, will be released on May 2, 2017 in both the US and the UK. Bennett lives in Austin with his wife and sons.

Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions — #8

By Chris M. Barkley:

Stuff I’m Nominating for the 2017 Hugo Awards, Part Three

Best Series (Special Category)

The Expanse by James S.A. Corey featuring Leviathan Wakes (2011), Caliban’s War (2012), Abbadon’s Gate (2012), Cibola Burn (2014), Nemesis Games (2015), Babylon’s Ashes (2016).

Seriously, is there any series in recent sf literature that can match The Expanse? It is probably the most well-written, exciting, riveting and audacious series of novels the community has ever seen or likely to any time in the near future.

Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (who write the series as James S.A. Corey) have created a universe filled with intrigue, war, horror and a ton of surprising plot twists and revelations that have landed each subsequent volume on the New York Times Best Sellers list and in critics and fans hearts as well.

With each novel, the evolving conflict between a United Nations ruled Earth and Moon, the militaristic Mars, the asteroid dwelling Belters and the Outer Worlds grows in intensity and wonder as the ever-growing cast of characters are drawn together and cast apart with alarming frequency.

This isn’t the fairly clean and antiseptic future depicted here; it’s hard scrabble, dirty, dangerous and as fatal as anything George R.R. Martin has written in the guise of a hard science epic. The television adaptation of the novels on the SyFy network (which also happens to be the best sf show currently on television) is easily comparable to Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Doctor Who.

Needless to say, The Expanse will be my only entry in this category.

 

Best Novel

Version Control by Dexter Palmer, Pantheon Books, 495 pages.

On the surface, Dexter Palmer’s second novel, Version Control, seems at first to be an attempt at those pretentious literary novels pretending not to be a pretentious sf novel. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Philip is a physicist in a small fictional New Jersey town. He has just invented a “causality violation device” , which he prefers you NOT to call a “time machine”. Rebecca, his wife, works as a customer service rep at a digital dating service called Lovability, a hyperbolic version of Match.com.

As Philip’s experiments progress, Rebecca begins to notice that objects and people around her are not quite right. In her mind’s eye, events are ever shifting and changing causing her to believe that everything is on the verge of spinning out of control. And then she starts receiving messages from a Lovability customer that seem to confirm their reality is unraveling and they are the only two who are aware of it happening. And then, things take a truly terrifying turn for the worst.

Palmer’s layered plot takes a while to get started but once it does, it becomes a captivating and terrifying tale of science gone awry. And it’s easily the best novel about time travel in the past decade.

Best Novel

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, Crown, 352 pages.

Over the past fifteen years, Blake Crouch has built himself a growing reputation as a crackerjack writer of crime thrillers (Good Behavior, Abandon and Run) and sf-tinged novels (the Wayward Pines trilogy, which was adapted for television and ran for two seasons during the summer on Fox).

His bestselling breakthrough novel is Dark Matter, which features another scientist in peril. Jason Dessen is a failed scientist who had a theory about multiple universes. Unfortunately for him, he has been abducted and taken into an alternate universe where his family does not exist. Desperate to Return to his true home, Dessen finds himself being chased from one reality to the next by forces who will do anything and literally go anywhen to ensure he does not talk.

Although the pace is lightning fast and the plot holes pop up like potholes in the springtime, Crouch’s story just hooks you and demands you keep reading to the end.

 

 

Best Novel

All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Tor Books, 313 pages.

All The Birds in the Sky is a strange and wondrous amalgam of a novel that touches on and combines the worlds and manners of fantasy and science fiction in the same novel. Usually, an author chooses either one form or another. Combining both is an audacious and dangerous act of literary larceny, which Charlie Jane Anders pulls off brilliantly.

Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead were very close friends in their childhood years. Then Patricia grew up to be a witch and Laurence grew up to be a mad scientist. Their world is coming apart at the seams and each is convinced that either science, or magic, will be Earth’s salvation.

Their story is unlikely, enthralling, scary, sexy and terrifying. A novel like this may come around only once in a generation or so and we are damned lucky to be reading it and considering it for a Hugo Award.

Best Novel

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, Harper Voyager, 441 pages.

Every now and then, a reader (like myself) will come across a novel that is SO DELIGHTFUL and fun to read, that you never want it to end. Becky Chamber’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is such a novel and fans and critics have been clamoring for more since its publication.

Just consider the opening paragraph:

As she awoke in her pod, she remembered three things. First, she was traveling through open space. Second, she was about to start a new job, one she could not screw up. Third, she bribed a government official into giving her a new identity file. None of this information was new, but it wasn’t pleasant to wake up to.

The “she” in question is Rosemary Harper, the newest member of the Wayfarer, an interstellar ship that opens up hyperdrive tunnels to new worlds. Along the way, we meet and get to know Rosemary’s shipmates, Ashby, the captain, Lovey the ship’s AI, Doctor Chef (who provides both functions!) and Sissix, the pilot and Jenks and Kizzy, the onboard techs.

As the year-long voyage progresses, they all engage in various adventures and get into trouble. It’s all very picturesque and a bit cozy, reminiscent of the sort of stories Murray Leinster, James H. Schmitz and Clifford D. Simak used to write for Astounding and Analog for John W. Campbell, Jr., but with a more modern sensibility.

And the best news is that her second novel in this series, A Closed and Common Orbit, was just published in paperback. So get out to your local bookstore and enjoy!

Submitted for Your Consideration

Margot Lee Shetterly

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1237)  Perhaps the book many of us were reading for Black History Month [February in the U.S.] was Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (2016).  More accurately, if less poetic, the figures weren’t so much hidden as unrecognized: vital mathematics, and black women mathematicians, in the work of the United States National Aeronautics & Space Administration, and its predecessor the Nat’l Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, from World War II aircraft production through the Space program.

Since much of the work was at Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, it was done in the teeth of race and sex prejudice.  If you were black, or a woman, or both, mathematics was not for you.  You were discouraged from starting it; regardless of interest and ability, discouraged from pursuing it; regardless of achievement, thwarted from a career in it.  Employers who needed mathematicians turned away from you.  You might be hired as a schoolteacher.

Shetterly focusses on four black women who did it anyway, Christine Darden, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan.  There were dozens more, maybe a hundred.  Johnson inter alia verifying the calculations for John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth in 1962 eventually received the Medal of Freedom; Darden got a doctorate in mechanical engineering; Jackson became manager of the Federal Women’s Program at Langley; Vaughan was appointed to head Langley’s West Area Computers, which then meant people, later machines, that computed.  Shetterly in 2013 founded the Human Computer Project to archive the work of all such women during the early days of NACA and NASA.

Hidden Figures took six years.  In the NASA technical-reports database she could see the progression of aeronautical research and development from the 1920s.  At the National Archive she might find some cardboard box that had obviously gotten wet and nobody had looked at since 1946.  Her 265 pages are followed by five pages of acknowledgments, forty-five of notes; her bibliography starts with ten archives and thirty-three personal interviews.  Her father was a Langley research scientist, her mother was an English professor at historically black Hampton University.  Jackson worked three years for Shetterly’s father.  “As a child,” says Shetterly, “I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did” (p. xiii).  By 1984, only 2% of all U.S. engineers were black — but 8% of all NASA engineers.

“This is not science fiction” opens Chapter 17.  Shetterly is quoting President Eisen­hower’s preface to a 1958 Introduction to Outer Space by his Advisory Committee on Science.  Six chapters later she is with Star Trek.  At the end of its first television season in 1967 Nichelle Nichols, who played communications officer Lt. Uhura, turned in her resignation so she could go back to acting on Broadway.  That weekend during a civil-rights fund­raiser she was asked to meet her greatest fan — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  “It was the only show that he and his wife, Coretta, allowed their children to watch, and he never missed an episode….  ‘You can’t leave the show,’ King said to Nichols.  ‘We are there because you are there….  This is a unique role that brings to life what we are marching for: equality’” (p. 243).  Nichols stayed.

I can hardly rejoice at either of these views, that “the reverie of space travel” is “the purview of novelists and eccentrics” (p. 175 — what a conjunction!), or that social significance is our merit.  We have, I’ve argued, been poisoned as much by one as the other.  A more pervasive sor­row of this book is that it’s full of clinkers.  The next sentence after the eccentrics is “The only thing that rivaled Americans’ fear of the Soviet Union’s incipient prowess in the heavens was their wounded pride,” with its off-key incipient prowess, erring reference of their to heavens, false metaphor of wounded pride rivaling fear.  Two pages later, with alas much in between, is a “three-dimensional Cartesian plane”.  But as Eugene McDaniels sang in 1967, “Try to make it real — compared to what?”  In the circumstances these are minor.  The author is an archeologist, and a good one.

The Voices of Martyrs by Maurice Broaddus: A Lis Carey Review

broddus-the-voices-of-martyrs-cover1

The Voices of Martyrs by Maurice Broaddus
Rosarium Publishing, ISBN 9780996769259, February 2017

By Lis Carey: One of the fun things about reviewing books is that you can be offered a book for review that you might never have noticed on your own. For me, this is one such book.

It’s a collection of short stories with settings ranging from ancient Africa to the slave trade, to the Jim Crow era in the US to alternate histories and the far future. Some are clearly science fiction or fantasy, while others have the barest possible fantastic content. Even those with little to no fantastic content, though, are written from s background and viewpoint that is outside my cultural background or usual reading experience. It’s as challenging as any “unknown world” in science fiction, the more so because of the knowledge that it reflects the experience and cultural background of someone really living in the same world I do, and living that alien life here.

The protagonists here are men and women, young and old. There’s even one white viewpoint character–the captain of a slave ship, who expects to make his fortune on his one distasteful journey, and go back home to his wife and child. There’s a woman cast out from her tribe, but determined to right one terrible wrong. A woman becomes a soldier in the service of a new imperialism, and a young man who thinks he’s just out for his weekly night on the town, who discovers he’s destined for something much more momentous, and so is the music he loves. The settings feel real and palpable, and if the characters are not people I know, they certainly feel like characters Broaddus knows.

This isn’t a collection to be rushed through; it’s best savored more slowly and thoughtfully. But read it you definitely should.

Highly recommended.

 

Filer Review: Meditations on James Gunn’s Transcendental and Transgalactic

Transcendental (2013) and Transgalactic (2016), by James Gunn

By JJ: One of my favorite types of stories is the galaxy-spanning, epic space opera with strong character development — and a good mystery pretty much seals the deal for me. So the synopsis for Transcendental pretty much had me at “Hello”.

The book opens in a dingy spaceport on a remote, forsaken planet a thousand years from now. Humanity, when it finally developed the technology to travel to the stars, discovered that the space beyond their solar system was already amply populated with numerous alien races who had forged a peaceful Galactic Federation — with little room for human expansion. The appearance of violent, territorial, and acquisitive humans was perceived as a threat to the rest of the galaxy, and a bitter war was fought which finally ended in an uneasy truce, with humans joining the Federation.

All races have both societal and personal “pedias”, devices with encyclopedic knowledge to which they refer constantly. The high-level societal pedias have taken over most of the basic manual labor tasks, as well as all of the intensive calculations required to run technological devices. Personal pedias provide a constant source of up-to-date information which assists individuals in decision-making. Beings from all races have come to depend on these artificial intelligences, and do not question or doubt the competency or benign intent of their AIs.

Riley, a special-ops soldier during the war, is now at loose ends; he no longer has the excitement-and-danger-driven purpose that he craves. He, along with numerous other aliens, is here in the spaceport to board a ship which is to set out on a pilgrimage. Rumors have been flying around the galaxy about a Transcendental Machine — a technology by an ancient race purported to transform beings who enter it into vastly-enhanced, elevated, and powerful versions of their previous selves. It sounds ridiculous — but the stories swirling around the Federation of a “Prophet”, someone who actually went through the transcendence process, are so convincing that many people have decided it’s worth risking everything to find out whether the stories are true.

But Riley has a secret: he’s been provided with an augmented personal pedia with special powers to read information about the people around him, and paid an exorbitant amount by a mysterious employer to serve as a spy on the pilgrimage ship — to determine which of the other passengers is the Prophet, to kill them, and to destroy the Transcendental Machine. Such a device, if it exists, would enable the race possessing it to enhance their abilities and tip the balance of galactic power in their favour. So each race has a strong motivation to attempt to gain the device for themselves — or if that proves impossible, to destroy it so that no other race gains the advantage.

Once aboard the ship, the passengers discover that they are entrusting their lives to a poorly-maintained, unreliable ex-warship — with a crew that seems strangely even less capable than the pilgrims. And it becomes clear that Riley is not the only one on the ship who is hiding a secret, and that there may be several different outside agencies attempting to control or destroy the ship.

Spaced throughout the action in both books are Canterbury Tales-ian interludes in which various human and alien characters talk about their lives, their species, and the history of their race in terms of the Galactic Federation. Action junkies may find these interludes disruptive to the flow and pacing of the story; however, I found them quite interesting and engrossing. The author has put a lot of thought and imagination into the worldbuilding — not just of the alien races, but also of what might have been the human history of the next thousand years.

The science underlying both the basic and the more fantastical concepts in the book seems fairly solid to me. A professional physicist, engineer or astroscientist might find flaws in the scientific worldbuilding — but I found it realistic enough that I was able to suspend disbelief and just roll with the story.

The second novel, Transgalactic, picks up where the first left off — with some new mysteries, and a new storyline rather than a rehashing of the first book. Immediately after reading each of these books, I felt really satisfied — despite the fact that each ends with storylines ripe for future development. This is something I can only say about around half of the novels I read — so it is no small achievement for a book to attain that status.

I wish very much that I had read Transcendental back in 2013 — if I had, it would have been on my Hugo nominating ballot along with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, Robert Charles Wilson’s Burning Paradise, Philip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise, and Ramez Naam’s Nexus (I didn’t read Linda Nagata’s The Red: First Light or Anne Charnock’s A Calculated Life until 2014, or they would have been vying for a place in that lineup as well).

I don’t think that Transgalactic is quite as strong on its own as its predecessor; however, it is still very good, and it is going on my Hugo nomination longlist for now.

You can read an excerpt of Transcendental here, and an excerpt of Transgalactic here.

Meet Carl Slaughter

The prolific Carl Slaughter is bringing his love of books and interest in their authors to File 770. (Your TBR pile is fated to grow!) His first interview, “Steve Bein Tells the Origin of the Fated Blades”, posts tonight.

Carl Slaughter has a degree in journalism and radio/tv.  For several years, he was editor of ESL Book Review. He was a stringer for the Associated Press.

He wrote many reviews for Tangent before moving to Diabolical Plots as a reviewer and later an interviewer. He conducted 50 plus interviews for Diabolical Plots before moving to SF Signal. He contributed 70 plus interviews and features for SF Signal.  He developed new features for SF Signal, such as author, book, and series profiles.

For the past 14 years, he has traveled the globe teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in 6 counties on 3 continents. Carl has traveled to 18 countries and counting. (He’s tired.) His essay on Chinese culture was published in Beijing Review. His essay on Korean culture was published in The Korea Times, as was his expose on the Korean ESL industry. His travel/education reports about Thailand occasionally appear on the Ajarn website.

Review of Glen Weldon’s “The Caped Crusade”

the-caped-crusade-9781476756691_lgBy Martin Morse Wooster: It’s a Saturday afternoon, and you’ve just finished watching Batman v. Superman.  You’ve watched 2 ½ hours of punching, kicking, explosions, crushing, and snarling—lots and lots of snarling.

The music of Junker XL throbs through your brain like a migraine, and you hope that for the Justice League movie, Zack Snyder would choose someone more soothing—Junker L, perhaps.

Your brain is filled with questions. For example:  Bruce Wayne can have stubble, because, well, he’s a billionaire, and he can dress any way he wants.  But why can’t Alfred look professional?  Did Zack Snyder go to Jesse Eisenberg and say, “I loved your work as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.  Now give us the insane version.”

You sit through the credits and there’s a special set of acknowledgments—Mort Weisinger. Gardner Fox.  Len Wein.  You ask:  Who are these guys?[1]

In The Caped Crusade, Glen Weldon will tell you.

Weldon, who writes and comments about comics a lot and who has previously written a book about Superman, has written an entertaining and very readable history of Batman. If you want to know more about Batman’s history, this is a good book.

It should be noted that Weldon is gay, and loves to speculate about the decades when Batman was gay and the decades when he was really gay.  He also very much enjoys a typo in  the 1940 comic that introduced Robin that gays will find hilarious but which I won’t repeat because, well, it’s his joke.

But Weldon’s assignment is to tell Batman’s history, and this he does very well. He explains that Batman is a “nonpowered super hero,” the one comic book character people can daydream about being.  He also shows that the creation of Batman was a collective effort.

Bob Kane argued that he created Batman by himself, but Weldon shows that many comic book writers and artists added their part.  Bill Finger was the most important collaborator, designing Batman’s uniform (dark, to make him a creature of the night), and, most importantly, writing the issue of Detective Comics which shows the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne and young Bruce Wayne’s vow to spend his life “warring on all criminals.”  Gardner Fox (who also wrote a lot of heroic fantasy) created much of the Gothic background of Gotham City.  While Bob Kane thought up the idea of a boy sidekick for Batman, it was Jerry Robinson who named him Robin the Boy Wonder, because as a child Robinson loved N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations for Robin Hood.  Finally, National Comics editor Whit Ellsworth decreed that Batman would never use a gun.

But despite this collective effort, Bob Kane’s supremacy still lingers: while Superman is officially credited to “Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster,” the Batman credit, for what I am told are complicated legal reasons, is “Bob Kane with Bill Finger.”

Weldon carefully shows Batman’s continuing evolution. Batman is the one DC superhero besides Superman to be drawn continuously for 75 years.  Most DC superheroes were suspended in between the late 1940s and 1956 in favor of sf adventure stories.  Batman in the 1950s fought robots and aliens, accompanied by Ace the Bat-Hound and Mogo the Bat-Ape.  Most of these sf elements were discarded by 1960.

In the comic books, Weldon shows Batman’s evolution. In the 1970s, the books produced by Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil reintroduced the darkness of the classic Batman.  Many comic book fans consider the Adams/O’Neil period the best Batman series.  In the 1980s and 1990s Frank Miller made Batman nasty.  Finally, between 2006-09, Grant Morrison had a “massive, slowly unfolding, meta-mega narrative” in which all of Batman’s adventures, including his ones where his battles with the Bat-Mite and the ones where he teleported to distant planets, were all true.

Weldon spends about half of his book discussing Batman on television and the movies. He credits four actors with excellent work in Batman films and TV shows.

The 1960s Batman TV series, he thinks, works primarily because of the voice work of Adam West.  Go to YouTube and look at Adam West and Lyle Waggoner’s screen tests and you’ll see that West has the rare skill of being authoritative and goofy simultaneously.  That’s a very rare skill—Leslie Nielsen and Patrick Warburton can do it, and I can’t think of anyone else.  But West’s excellent voice skill is the reason why, in his eighties, Seth Macfarlane gives West plenty of work on Family Guy.

In Weldon’s view, the 1990’s cartoon show Batman: The Animated Series is the best version of Batman ever.  The reason, he believes, is the voice work of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker.

Finally, Weldon says that Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight was a “unique and unforgettable cinematic creation” thanks to “Ledger’s tiny , highly specific choices.”  Most of the time the Joker is the ultimate extrovert, who proves the timeless rule that clowns are always laughing on the outside and crying on the inside.  Ledger makes the Joker as an introvert, and subtly conveys that everything the Joker says is a lie.  Weldon thinks Ledger’s Oscar was well deserved.

The subtitle of The Caped Crusade is “Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture,” and Weldon discusses fandom at length.  In the 1960s the producers of the Batman TV series courted the editors of comics fanzines, telling them that many of the scripts for early episodes (but not later ones) came from the comic books.  Fannish pummeling of Joel Schumacher’s egregious Batman and Robin (1997) made Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News one of the web’s first superstars.  Weldon’s discussion of this period reminds me of a joke I once heard—that the most terrifying words in the English language were “a film by Joel Schumacher.”  Today, fans interact with Batman in all sorts of ways, including cosplay and fan fiction.

The Caped Crusade is a well-written, highly entertaining look at Batman which I very much enjoyed reading.

[1] Mort Weisinger, who sold sf fiction in the 1930s and was editor of Thrilling Wonder Stories between 1936-41, was editor of the Batman comics in the 1940s and 1950s.  Len Wein wrote Batman between 1979-86, when he introduced Lucius Fox (played by Morgan Freeman in the Christopher Nolan Batman films) as Batman’s first black character.

Benford Reviews Bandersnatch

Bandersnatch coverBandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings by Diana Pavlac Glyer, illustrations by James A. Owen (Kent State University Press, 2016)

By Gregory Benford: I recommend this excellent study, from which I learned much: about the Inklings, and how creative intersections fuel greatness. I can’t think of any depiction of group inspiration that makes it point so specifically, citing text, and so well. How unpredictable a collective of agreeable creators can be! I’d never have guessed that C.S. Lewis and Tolkien began writing their great series of novels—Out of the Silent Planet etc; Lord of the Rings etc) on a resolve to both write imaginative adventure, and decided on subject (space travel vs time travel) on the toss of a coin! What if it had gone the other way?

Bandersnatch’s more valuable lesson is showing in detail the way the writing community of Inklings worked in a range of ways, encouraging but not getting into critical derogation. Writers might well extrapolate from that to get more from their own creative communities, workshops and even online groups.

Albatross by MacAvoy and Palmer: A Lis Carey Review

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Albatross by R.A. MacAvoy and Nancy Palmer.

Sanachie Press, ISBN 2940157997915, February 2016

By Lis Carey: Dr. Rob MacAuley is a brilliant physicist from the Outer Hebrides. He’s also on the run, convicted in absentia of terrorism and murder. It’s an absurd charge against a gentle and largely apolitical man, but it’s a symptom of a Britain grown ever more paranoid, that has split from the EU at a cost its leadership could have calculated but didn’t, and where the Scottish Parliament was dissolved eighteen months ago.

Rob is, through no fault of his own, a figurehead, or perhaps mascot would be a better word, of the Scottish Separatist movement.

Oh, and he has this odd thing he does, when startled or alarmed, that he calls “flinching,” and that someone else might call moving from one spot to another without crossing the intervening distance.

Thomas Heddiman, American, machine intelligence specialist, anti-human trafficking activist, and karate expert, has a whole different set of problems. He’s currently volunteering his services to the Edinburgh police for reasons not apparent to those he’s working with.

Their paths are about to cross in a most unexpected way, in a Britain growing increasingly dark.

Thomas is very close-mouthed about what his real purpose is. Rob is sending letters under false names to physicists all over the world, asking questions that he hopes will nudge them toward the same breakthrough he’s made. He doesn’t want to be the only one who has the ability to publish and share his Unity Theory, so that it at least can’t become a weapon for just one power.

This is an engaging and challenging book, with diverse and fascinating characters. The time is just about a quarter century in the future, and it’s a recognizable but different world.

Those who fondly remember Tea With the Black Dragon will find some themes in common, but they are very different books. If one insists on placing it in a genre category, it’s fantasy.

I should probably admit, in a spirit of full disclosure, that I feel that R.A. MacAvoy hasn’t written nearly enough. I’m not previously familiar with Nancy Palmer, but regardless of any other contribution she made, another MacAvoy novel is something to be grateful for.

Go read it; you won’t regret it.

I received a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Non-Spoiler Reassurance About “The Dark Knight III”

DK3_MR_1_variant_MillerBy Daniel Dern: For comic book fans who were concerned that The Dark Knight III: The Master Race — Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello’s 8-part comic book/graphic novel follow-up to Miller’s graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns (“TDKR”) and its sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again — would somehow involve Nazis, I can happily report that Issue 2 (which came out this week) seems to point strongly to that not being the case, with another likely candidate for that title-starring position.

DK3-CVR-comps-KubertD-d895a-600x923(If you haven’t read tDKR and tDKSA, it’s worthwhile doing that first. Not essential, but helpful.)

Of course, it’s not impossible. But I think it very unlikely. (Remember, this is DC, not Marvel, so at least we shouldn’t have to worry about the Red Skull putting in his oar. OTOH, it’s not unfinessable.)

That said, I’m two issues in, I’m happy so far.

(At $5.99 each, I’ll respect people who want to wait until it’s done, and out in trade paperback, and then borrow it from their library.)