(Comic) Book Review: Giganto Maxia by Kentaro Miura

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Giganto Mexia by Kentaro Miura – Available Here

One hundred million years ago lands us firmly in the center of what is commonly known as the Cretaceous period, and what is more uncommonly known as the “DEAR-LORD-GOD-FUCK-NO-PLEASE-DON’T-MAKE-ME-GO BACK-THERE” period. It is a time where the Tyrannosaurus, Spinosaurus, and Carnotaurus bro-ed out to pretty much kill and conqueror with the same enthusiasm I bring to my thrice daily caffeine injection. And while those formidable carnivores laid fear into the corners of the grounded world the Thalassomoden (imagine the mind of Charles Bronson locked in a Brontosaurus proportioned predatory fish) and Tylosaurus (imagine a shark mated with your worst nightmare and then grew fifty feet long) dominated the ocean like my fiancée dominates an excel spreadsheet.

I start this review off with that particularly colorful description because Giganto Maxia is supposedly set 100 million years in the future. So the above paragraph to present day in terms of evolutionary potential is up for grabs. When I read things like that I get excited. It is literally a blank check for every terrifying and bizarre thing a creator can think of.

This excited me when I first heard about. I read Miura’s dark fantasy epic Berserk with a fervor I had for few things in middle and high school. Its strangeness and horror were something so new and compelling to me that I immediately fell in love. So the question I so looked forward to finding answered was what fresh hell hath nature deigned to throw into the lap of the dregs of humanity?

Answer: Giant, carnivorous waterbears, and anglerfish that now live in sand.

Oh. Good.

Don’t stress yourself too hard, Miura.

Throw in some respectable art and a by the number me-too Attack on Titan and you are left with a pretty, but uninspired thing that reeks of writer’s block.I’m increasingly certain that whatever creative coherence Miura had as a cartoonist has been lost to age, commercialism, and  an utter failure to understand the demands of both story or genre.

You can tread water for as long as you like, but eventually, you have to come to shore or die at sea and I’m not sure what will be more embarrassing for Miura.

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Book Review: United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

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United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas – Available Here

Look, I saw a book with a giant mech on it and proclaimed itself about the United States of Japan. This was worth a laugh, an ‘ah, how silly’, because indeed it was silly. But then something changed. I saw an endorsement on the top of the book by none other than Ken Liu. Now, you may or may not know, but I have a sort of infatuation with his work. I may have problem, but I’m not here to talk about that right now, I’m here to talk about United State of Japan, because after reading Ken Liu’s endorsement I bought a copy.

What I wanted: A fun alt-history with lots of mech fights and anime-on-paper moments (I mean for the love of god there is a mech on the freaking cover, how could I not?). I wasn’t expecting some hyper-literary masterpiece.

A video game battle to the death that occurred literally out of nowhere and a teenage girl pilot destroying her military opponents with ease because his mother was greatest pilot that ever lived and through the power of trope was able to transfer those powers. These absurd, stupid things were my favorite because they were what I expected them to be: nostalgic schlockiness on par with Ready Player One, but written in a less sophomoric fashion.

Unfortunately this book tries to do something different. It tries to be thoughtful, it tries to be philosophic, it tries to be human. If it had done these things well, created characters that didn’t feel like narrative cudgels with delusions of independence, it might have worked out. But high concept plots and well-written characters rarely find themselves properly entangled, a writer is usually infatuated with the human or the world around it. A writer that can mesh these two things in even a semblance of balance is a bibliographic unicorn, a writer that fails in the effort is all too common.

There is a tendency among readers and critics to compare this to Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. It is a superficial comparison with about as much weight as those that declare things like ‘Writer Z is like X and Y had a child’. People see the World War II alt-history aspect and lunge to it and hold it because, I guess, people are uncomfortable with the notion that not every novel has a corollary lurking in the wild. The Man in the High Castle, for as much as I don’t care for Dick’s work, was more infatuated with concepts, people were the instruments in which he played with them, and love him or hate him, he knew what he was doing. It told a fascinating story and avoided pulling the camera too far away from his focus. There was a fog of mystery and that was never really left the novel, which worked because the details weren’t necessary and Dick knew enough to not let his imagination run too far off course (the fact that he was writing something like a book every two months probably helped ease the impulse).

Tieryas seems to want to spend as much time as possible exploring the world he has created, pushing us into restaurants and varicolored districts of human experience with characters that are neither interesting nor capable of moving more than a few notes from their manufactured baseline. There are, by necessity of plot, considerations of propaganda, authoritarianism, and the rest of the Orwellian laundry list of dystopic government tendencies, but they never rise above the less than compelling realizations that they are bad and distrusting them is probably good.

I saw a pretty looking mech on a book cover. I built a novel in my head. It was Code Geass with a decopunk shine. I wasn’t mad that I didn’t get it. If I got every book I wanted I have a feeling I would quickly grow to hate reading. In this case however, the book in my head, however vague, was better. Unhindered by dreams literary recognition, it was a book that knew what it was and didn’t take itself too seriously. The United States of Japan has a handful of neat moments haunt a book that is neither campy enough to be schlock nor cerebral enough to be considered thoughtful.

“Life is all about lies. It’s about what you can stomach.” ― Peter Tieryas, United States of Japan

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Book Review: Death’s End by Cixin Liu (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #3)

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Death’s End by Cixin Liu; translated by Ken Liu – Available Here 

“Life is not a fairytale.”

This is the operative truth at the heart of this novel and Cixin Liu is willing to wield a four dimensional hammer to make sure that particular nail gets hammered home. This book is brutal. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian brutal. Except, unlike in Blood Meridian there is no wrapper around the violence, no roving Judge Holden in which to pin a terrifying, but fundamentally human aspect. Here, humanity is a cub dumped half-born onto a Mad Maxian highway.

There is no proper way to truly delve into that metaphor without dumping the organs of the book onto the table. Just bear in mind that what the synopsis indicates as the plot is about as on point as me saying Salem’s Lot is about a priest with a drinking problem.

It comes up, but it’s hardly the point.

The book wanders from tragedy to galactic tragedy. Where many space opera s veer gloriously into the hopeful and indulgent “Humanity, fuck yeah”, Cixin Liu looks down from the back of a fog-hidden leviathan at the children playing in the dirt of the forest and simply smirks, “No”. Gone are the thoughtful worlds built on species as equals. Like it or not you reside in the dark forest and if you want to hold a light to universe you will have to pay the debt paid by every careless prey.

Death’s End hit me the same way that I imagine Philip K. Dick hits others. It not only bends you, but threatens to break the doxa that you never knew you took so much comfort in. It is challenging, it is thoughtful, and I am exceedingly grateful that Ken Liu took the time to translate this wonderfully imaginative series. Well, two thirds of it anyway.

“If we lose our human nature, we lose much, but if we lose our bestial nature, we lose everything.” – Cixin Liu, Death’s End

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The Hither and Thither of Friends

The world is a strange place. People ebb and flow from you life with an almost unnatural fluidity. I say unnatural only because it is unwanted, as really there is little else more natural in all of existence. You find your friends, you let them go, sometimes you find them again, others the world may not be so accommodating. In the place of nostalgic fun there is only a preoccupied silence, a ceaseless wandering from one point to another trying to piece back together just how I found comfort in solitude in the first place.

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Book Review: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #2)

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The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, Translated by Joel Martinsen – Available Here

The first third, perhaps half, of this book is weak, bordering on tedious. Broadcasting its movements like the overconfident failings of a twelve-year-old. Where The Three-Body Problem was a science fiction mystery, The Dark Forest rests firmly in the Action/Adventure territory. This is partly out of necessity, but if you are going to have a constant looming threat and need to prepare for it making it four hundred years away tends to take away the immediacy that the genre demands. So while urgency is attempted, it fails. Sure, there are ideas and plans hatched and thwarted, but it never really manages to land any solid and remarkable moments. The main character, such as he is, spends the first half (at least) of the book just sort of ignoring the issue and is about as developed as a potato with a degree in tubery. Still, it does take some time to indulge in small bits of philosophy and there are even some varyingly effective character moments.

But then, recognizing necessity, Cixin pushes us forward in time enough that everything old is new again. It is here the novel finally manages to shake off whatever lethargy has it by the ankles and something truly marvelous happens. The book gets good. Incredibly good. A more grown and arrogant humanity makes preliminary first contact with a Trisolaran probe. A dazzling, gut wrenching, and horrifying first contact that culminates in what is perhaps the most soul crushing thing I’ve read this year: The Battle of Darkness.

I will say nothing about it because it works best in the place it draws its name.

The rest of the book runs by quickly, its conclusion as sudden and unexpected as it needed to be. Handled any other way it would have been a conclusion written by a writer exhausted, but here, in this book, it manages to be exactly right.

In many ways, this book inverses the one that came before it. While the first ½ or 2/3 of The Dark Forest is rather rudderless if not simply weak, the last of it lands with such a concussive blast that what came before ceases to matter. It is a dark but searching tale of life on other planets and the potentially, and perhaps, necessarily horrifying nature of alien contact as well as the ripples it spawns throughout time.

“The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life—another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.” – Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest

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Book Review: Mockingbird by Walter Tevis

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Mockingbird by Walter Tevis – Available Here

It took Walter Tevis 17 years from the published of his utterly sublime novel The Man Who Fell to Earth and the publication of his next novel Mockingbird. In that intervening time he had developed two relatively full-time jobs: professor and alcoholic. This is not to dismiss the man or his work because of a mental illness. Hell, I’m half convinced that longing to write for a living is a mental illness in its own right, but there is so much missing in the book that I am far more interested in than classes and cognac that informed his world in those years than I am in pretty much any aspect of the writing on display here. It’s like an architect decided one day that he was done making plans and starting digging in the dirt to find the truth he was looking for. The entire thing reads with the snarling agedness of an author who has seen the world changing and out of a mixture of confusion and distrust of all things he doesn’t understand decided to write a book to undermine and, all things going well, destroy it.

Mockingbird is a strange combination of Brave New World and Idiocracy. It seems to want to make some grand statement about the importance of reading, art, and humanity, but is simply too dumb to pull it off. Sure it has the literary name dropping with the likes of Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot in the look-what-I-chose-from-the-library scenes but that is cheap and in this case, about as subtle as your literature teacher setting fire to your copy of the latest Dan Brown book before banning you from the classroom. Which makes a sort of sense because the Mockingbird itself was apparently formulated in his mind as he was a professor and watched as, to his mind, fewer and fewer kids could, would, or cared to read. He decided this was a fine point to start a story, and (I’m guessing with no ideas as to what the hell would happen once he got started) typed out a bunch of words about how readings is illegal and no does it anyway because all anyone does is watch TV and smoke pot all day (not kidding).

It is a simple 1-dimensional world that, for the first 70 to 80 pages could be forgiven because, well, it was only the beginning,  we had 200 pages to go. There are some neat, surreal moments of smiling self-immolation among the populace that had they been explored and considered by the intellectually awakened characters in any way could have made a book that tied his themes together and remained a story of consistency instead of what it is: a novel the decides to add a whole new voice to the story at page 80 and then cast its main character to the opposite end of the country because someone needs a spiritual awakening and goddammit you can’t do that without misery, loneliness, and turmoil.

There’s a prison break, survivalist melodrama, high-handed religious awakenings, all of which serve the biblical fiat on personal transformation:  I work hard, therefore my body becomes hard, I know bible verses and I am a newly baptized literate Christian and that gives me the moral high ground in this land of stoned idiots.

Honestly, I’m still sort of reeling from this. None of it really makes any sense to me. The book has moments of good in it, ideas that work, but so many of the notes are either flat, wrong, or an octave and instrument away from what they should be that my mind is honestly racing trying to pin down every single issue I had with it and which one broke me as a reader the hardest.

There is a sex scene that is initiated by reciting the alphabet back and forth with one another as Paul is teaching Mary Lou to read, which was just one of those ideas that I imagine you write while drunk and sort of refuse to every touch again because of how satisfied you were at the time of writing it. But, that’s more weird than aggressively upsetting, no, I suppose the most obvious comes somewhere near the middle of book when Bob Sopporth, the world’s smartest and blackest robot is talking to his now kinda sorta hostage wife, Mary Lou about this that and the other thing. At one point she asks Sopporth why people stopped reading. The robot considers this for moment and then basically says, “I don’t know.”

The more astute of you will notice that earlier in this book they mentioned that reading was in fact outlawed. Both characters know this. It is mentioned numerous times. And Paul, the main character who taught himself to read despite this and then offered to teach other was told to promptly go off into an underground library and die watching silent films. It is a stupid conversation. One that serves the authors premise but not the novels established rules. This is somehow both lazy and self-indulgent. You can make some half-hearted allowances that come forth assuming you operate on the assumption that Sopporoth’s later revealed, and utterly nonsensical plans make this fall into a realm somewhere close to “I…I guess.” And “Shut up and grab me the rum, being near you is making my head hurt’.

Also, Mark 9 robot Sopporth doesn’t have a penis. The highest class of robot humanity ever made, complete with a modified human consciousness uploaded into his brain, doesn’t have a penis. He can feel love, but no one thought that sex might somehow come up in any of this. He, in fact, doesn’t seem to have any stress outlets at all. He just works 23 hours a day without joy and as the last of his kind utterly alone in the universe. Loving and hating from afar. I know that it adds to his tragedy but all it would have taken was one of the men in the engineering room to look at the hyper-masculine figure they were constructing and the ten-year-old boy in every man in that room would have pointed out that particular issue.

I am now beginning to feel like if they had just started giving robots genitals and a selective number of human tasks that released dopamine into their brains, the book wouldn’t have happened at all.

So to spite Tevis and the book that took him nearly two decades to write, I offer the following morale to his story: Always give your robots a penis.

“It all began, I suppose, with learning to build fires—to warm the cave and keep the predators out. And it ended with time-release Valium.”
― Walter Tevis, Mockingbird

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Book Review: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1)

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The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu – Available Here

The first chapter of the book was wonderful. I mean, it did absolutely nothing to prepare you for the rest of the book, it triggered some things, but its haunting historical truth and the human madness dancing across the pages were so perfect I read it twice. I relished it, backtracking pages like rewinding a film to see the moment the world falls apart. From there things gallop with a mad physicists enthusiasm for the iconoclastic.

A mounting distrust of science permeates the entire book. They are planted in strange moments and given the odd interjection of these comments I assumed they were personal beliefs cast on to the page like prideful slabs on armor. I started keeping a tab of every time someone made an oblique and incorrect reference to agricultural sciences (GMOs are cancer, pesticides are so bad I have to bathe my vegetables for two hours before the kid can eat them, a massive misunderstanding of microwaves, as well as Einstein’s meaning when he used the word ‘god’, etc, etc, etc.) It became rather jarring, like having what may become your new favorite meal intermittently has pieces of glass ground into the foie gras.

Despite my misgivings, I kept reading, at first because the prose were perfect and any story whose premises lies in fraying the edges of astrophysics is going to be relentlessly interesting to me. After a series of suiciding scientists and a countdown timer projected into your brain you’ve got me firmly planted in my seat mouthing the words, “How in the hell?”

And so it goes for the first 2/3 of the book. It’s wonderful, almost perfect. Characters are revealed as enemies and then through the saintly act of finding common ground become allies. The plot is fleshed out flesh out through bar room bickerings and drunken heart to hearts, which is, to my mind, the most honest most of us ever become in this world.

Next, a bit of information: The Three Body Problem is a long-standing mathematical conundrum that doesn’t seem to have a proper answer. It’s predicated on being able to perfectly predict the motions of three (or more) bodies interacting through an inverse square force (which includes gravitational and electrical attraction and possibly some other things I’m not a proper scientist). It is a hypothetically solvable problem, but the intelligence and power needed to do so is so astronomically large and its potential uses of so little immediate interest that it is rarely given much consideration. Which makes sense, as it seems a frivolous waste of energy when an asteroid or a famine could kill us rather immediately.

Anyway, the crux of the novel takes place inside of a VR video game called, naturally, The Three Body problem. It in this game we are brilliantly showed a physical problem that no amount of mathematically planning and duct tape seems to be able to fix. It is a land called Trisolaris where there are times of chaos (when the suns are all gone) , and there are times of peace (where one sun hangs just enough to make the world entirely habitable), and then there a times when two or three suns appear and once and civilization melts away to ashen screams and an entire civilization falls to the side of memory.

I love this sections because each one felt so strange, mixed as it was with rogue AI and in-character VR suited players, it was surreal and fascinating to watch such a fragile society build and rebuild itself over the course of digital eons.

Then just into the last third of the book the action gets suddenly and seemingly artificially kicked up to 11, as though the author become frustrated with what he was wandering towards and simply wanted to rush forward and get to the high concept murdery bits. And by giving into that urge he indelibly altered a once slow detective narrative into a pop action novel where the hero being dragged, almost if by magic, to each and every single important plot point from here to the end of the book.

The book sprints to its ending, sometimes well enough, and sometimes with a frustrating lack of skill. We are given a handful of massive information dumps and all the pieces are shoved into place and the truth of the now very, very real Trisolarians are going to invade our planet and they’ve got super smart protons that can ruin any chance we expanding our scientific skill set in the 415 years in-between now and the time they arrive (again this part is fantastic and I love it for its visual intensity alone). Moreover, they now have them quantumly entangled to they can receive any and all information that we convey in speech, email, or literally anything else.

This is a daunting series of events, but one I would have not happened, at least to this point, so quickly. The Trisolarians started off as a strange group whose worlds were being consumed and they needed a way out. This is a very rational, indeed empathetic thing for the reader grapple with. Sure we can fear them, but their world was literally threatening to kill them, I’d want to leave to.

But then they shake all of that off and spend a handful of chapters on the Trisolarians who viciously destroy every non-malevolent notion of their cross-system search for a new, less volatile home.

Alien uncertainty relegated to common, human style villainy.

The first portion of the book had done so well at being unique and digging around the tropes and expectations of the invasion concept, yet by the time the novel is done we are left with the same tired certainty that yes, the big monsters from space and evil and they are coming forest.

Great, I’ll get my space suit…I just hope they aren’t bugs.

If it sounds like I’m being hard on the book it’s because I am. I am disappointed because with only a few minor tweaks and one major one we could have had a classic on par with Solaris. And even with the broken want the book is so enrapturingly strange, so competently written, that issues of fact, historical character are and remain small.

But then I suppose the fate of the entire human race does that to most things.

“The creation myths of the various peoples and religions of the world pale when compared to the glory of the big bang. The three-billion-year history of life’s evolution from self-reproducing molecules to civilization contains twists and romances that cannot be matched by any myth or epic. There is also the poetic vision of space and time in relativity, the weird subatomic world of quantum mechanics … these wondrous stories of science all possess an irresistible attraction. Through the medium of science fiction, I seek only to create my own worlds using the power of imagination, and to make known the poetry of Nature in those worlds, to tell the romantic legends that have unfolded between Man and Universe.” ― Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem

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