Thursday, August 19, 2010

Closed Until Further Notice

Thank you.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Authority, Book 4: Transfer of Power by Mark Millar, Tom Peyer, et al

Rating - 4: worth reading multiple times (buy it) (but see below)

I am in the uncomfortable position of giving a book my highest rating then telling you not to read it. On the one hand, this book executes a vision and a sense of life brilliantly, in both the details and the bigger picture. For the right audience, these story arcs are masterpieces. On the other hand, it is the comic book equivalent of cutting yourself, and no one should embrace or encourage that sense of life. It is utter debasement that is horrifying in its mix of dwelling in sadism and unreflective acceptance. I do not see how it works for an existing The Authority audience, who presumably joined under Warren Ellis's radically different themes, which presumably contributed to why the series was canceled immediately after this.

This fourth collection of The Authority collects the last two story arcs (eight issues) of the original series. As the cover shows, the big news is The New Authority, a replacement team of Authority knock-offs who are bound to the status quo that the original Authority worked to reform. By what bloody means does this transition take place, and who is this new team, friendlier on the surface but darker within?

The opening paragraph hit my two major points: very well done; why would you do this? This is the opposite of the first volume, taking us from Jenny Sparks's ideal vision and instead wallowing in the destruction of potential. It is dashing human aspiration in favor of pointless cruelty. It is the triumph of hate, in tiers as levels of vindictiveness succeed each other.

The New Authority is very well designed in its similarity and contrast with the original. You can look at each member and see his/her model, but you immediately get the sense of "not quite right." For good or ill, there did not seem to be enough time to develop all the characters, so half of them are exceedingly shallow, some hardly getting a full character trait (Machine, Street). The "ill" is how poorly the characters are developed; the "good" is that it would be more debasing to spend even more time with these people.

The Colonel gets the most characterization. He is a slave, eager to please its master while afraid of being kicked, rejoicing in its power over others and indulging in the carnal pleasures it fears will be taken from it. He is a sadist and a coward and is so beaten down that, given the reins of ultimate power, he could not dream bigger than further entrenching the established powers. He sets the tone for the comic under his leadership the way that Jenny Sparks did under hers.

I am torn on whether the other characterization is poor or if they are just that lousy of people. Probably both, with a bit more of the latter. Teuton is a caricature, Last Call is a more extreme inverse caricature. Rush had a few hints that were interesting enough to make me want more. She was her own sort of inversion, and I think that worked better when it was kept subtle rather than being made explicit towards the end. It was a bonus if you watched the art, and she had expressions other than inchoate rage. Loving The Engineer as I do, I was hoping for more from The Machine or much of anything.

The Retread storyline has too short a time once it comes into its own. As seems appropriate for that dimension, it is a series of swift reversals. A cycle of hatred and vengeance culminates in a sort of reset button. I want to say that it is not a good payout for the storyline, but given the arcs' theme of reinforcing the status quo, it seems entirely appropriate.

Should we contemplate for a moment the resurrection of Jenny Sparks and the implications of what went on around that lamp? No, let us walk away merely noting that much can be said about the transformations going on there.

Particularly from the perspectives of the ones going through them, which leads me to the explicitly debasing part of the series, in which torments are visited upon the original Authority. Each gets his own version, but you will notice that Shen and Angie get much the same treatment. It is probably a blessing that their treatment is passed over far too quickly. Contemplating that one would take the series's darkness beyond black.

The villains disagree about whether the abuse is for the evulz. It pretty clearly must be, even if some are in denial, because it cannot serve as an example for anyone, even the people experiencing it. The victim is mind-controlled and can become aware of what happened only if the control breaks, which is probably a very bad situation for the controllers; the victim is supposed to be dead, so you have limited chances to "make an example" except by showing it to selected targets as an explicit threat. If you want the victim to suffer, you need to leave him/her somehow aware of the debasement as it happens, as was done with Jack. But then, a recurring point is that the villains are thinking small.

If you really want a troubling evening, however, start thinking through what was going on with Angie and Shen. Seek counseling if that is not troubling.

The off-stage ending was a bit weak, as was the Krigstein appearance. Was that attack by future superheroes intended to be his, rather than just forgetting about that thread entirely? The New Authority fought it off well considering how much weaker than the original they appear to be. Considering how effective Midnighter was against them, the government-issue "heroes" were presumably intentionally weaker than the originals, and the ones with stolen powers never got a manual. Seriously, The Doctor can turn people into stone or flocks of birds, and he can commit genocide without breaking a sweat, but The Surgeon steals his powers and says he cannot take Midnighter? Seth's karmic fate was squicky, weak, and entirely inappropriate for re-establishing the "good guys" given the preceding paragraphs.

All I want to say about Seth is that he survived being crashed into a tank of anti-matter. That may strike you as a common comic book event, but consider for a moment a tank of positrons. Anti-matter and matter annihilate each other on contact, converting their entire mass into energy. That e=mc² equation? It applies fully here, so one gram of anti-matter yields about three Hiroshimas. Assuming that Seth has some kind of force field that kept him from becoming the matter half of that anti-matter reaction, he still survived however many kilograms worth of anti-matter detonating around him. I'm surprised the Carrier survived, maybe surprised the planet survived depending on how hefty those tanks are.

On another "thinking small" note, estimates of how much it would cost to produce one gram of anti-matter range from $25 billion to $100 quadrillion. (I'm pulling all these numbers from Wikipedia.) If the Carrier has just the six tanks shown in that frame, with one kilogram per tank, the fuel in that room is worth $150 trillion to $600 quintillion. We would need to think of new economies to make use of that kind of energy. Whatever else you might want from The Authority, even ignoring the value of a dimension-hopping city-sized vessel that enables teleportation as side-effect, that room is worth more. And The New Authority is told to look for fossil fuels in other dimensions. Those people are serious about maintaining the status quo.

The book is expertly done, but the villain protagonists are neither sympathetic nor charismatic, so there is not the drive to read about them. I am not sure if I will be carrying on with the series; the next volume or two seems to be what people think of as The Authority, a mix of darkness, power-tripping, and obscenity. There was supposed to be a Grant Morrison run in the future, but that seems to have gone only two issues.

Amazon link

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

Rating - 4: worth reading multiple times (buy it)

We have had The Authority as a recent series, a re-interpretation of the classic superhero team (mostly DC's JLA). This has similarities, but it focuses on individuals and is in novel form.

This is a superhero story about two outsiders. Doctor Impossible is a mad genius, fighting for world dominance and losing, but this could be the doomsday device that works. Fatale is a new member of the Justice League Champions, which reformed when Superman CoreFire disappeared and Lex Luthor Doctor Impossible broke out of prison. Doctor Impossible struggles with the world but mostly with his own feelings of inadequacy and social exclusion: the world's smartest man is still that high school nerd surrounded by jocks. Fatale has her own inadequacies as the new kid amongst a bunch of demigods, someone who was reconstructed with powers after life's disappointments almost ended in a horrific crash.

Tropers will love this novel. It knows all the conventions of the comic book world and alternates between deconstructing them and playing them straight. Batman Blackwolf is a billionaire genius in black; a master tactician, fighter, and inventor; and mildly autistic, hence the singular focus and deep analysis that puts his entire mind so effectively on a single subject. Wonder Woman Damsel is the alien princess who divorced Blackwolf as the original Champions fell apart. We get a mix of comic book "larger than life" and then reality ensues as people are popping pills, developing cancer from their powers, or aware that they are running around in brightly colored tights.

I am putting too much emphasis on the deconstruction. The book celebrates traditions even as it undermines them, and traditions are reconstructed. There are good reasons for capes and for villain team-ups. Magical and technological powers interact, well or not. Origin stories are key to understanding what makes characters tick.

And, as is appropriate, the origin stories are interlinked, with early implications that there are greater links and hidden mysteries to be revealed in the later chapters. Doctor Impossible says that he created CoreFire, his greatest nemesis. He also went to high school with several of the Champions. One begins to wonder if Fatale's background and shadowy funders will be tied in, because how perfect would it be if Fatale is wearing Blackwolf's technology or Doctor Impossible's?

Doctor Impossible's recurring background story and motivation is high school trauma, transitioning to college trauma, transitioning to acting out on a global scale. In the way that speculative fiction does, it distills many stories and motivations down to their core and then expands it dramatically. High school and superheroics are allegories for each other and for life more generally. Doctor Impossible gives us most of the setting background because he is obsessed with his past: who ignored him in high school, the obsessive research in college (yes, they called him mad at the academy), and the past battles and defeats.

A poignant emotional picture is looking at the lower tier of heroes and villains, mostly the villains, the ones just hanging on to the fringe of the scene. They are too proud or risk-seeking to be part of the mass of humanity, but they are devastatingly aware of how outclassed they are. Superhero stories told from the mere mortal perspective are one thing, in which the heroes are gods or forces of nature, but there is a distance there, a sense that you are looking into another world. Actually having superheroes and supervillains in your work life, where you are expected to face them even though they can literally kill you with their gaze, makes it far more personal, amazing, and horrifying. Doctor Impossible has very respectable powers but retains the shock of facing people who can throw cars and lightning bolts.

Fatale combines those a bit of the second tier with a bit of trauma, hers visible at a distance. She is constantly aware of how much of her is metal, constantly aware that she is a freak in normal society and a nobody in super society. She is on a team with the preeminent superheroes of the age, while the biggest pieces of her self image are (1) broken person, reconstructed with foreign matter; (2) fired government agent; (3) was even less before all that.

It is very much a human drama, with spectacle to make it larger than life. There are careers and couples, enemies and acquaintances. Some people were born lucky, others worked for everything, others have everything working against them, and everyone is suffering in his or her own way if only you could see it. Fatale's perspective is good for that; she is seeing the celebrity superheroes from behind the veil, where you can see past Richard Cory's glitter. She is the least oblivious to everyone else's suffering, so while Doctor Impossible is giving us background, she is giving us insight.

One detail I am very fond of is that Doctor Impossible has "malign hypercognition disorder." He is an evil genius. Is it just an American tendency that we must medicalize everything, give it a name and a diagnosis and some extra syllables? Like the fellow who thought he was just really anxious until he was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. Oh, there are pills for that.

The continuing high school drama can be a bit much, but it is the heart of Doctor Impossible's character. He is haunted, tormented. No one ever appreciated him, but he shall have his due. When in his villain persona, he likes to shout about how he is a man of Science! and otherwise driven by the compulsions of being a mad supervillain, which he ponders upon occasion. He knows his limitations and actually has a solid grip on reality, but he is driven to pit himself against the world and lose.

We see the spectacle and the self-doubt in a big fight. Both sides' perspectives are that they lost. Doctor Impossible was hit in the face a bunch of times and had to run away. The Champions hit him in the face a bunch of times but he still got away. Life is hard, especially on a global stage.

I like the characterization, but we do not have much in the way of character growth or change. There is a bit, but the cast is as static as the comic book characters that need to keep selling issues on the same shtick ten years from now. They get their moments in the sun, but they mostly remain who they were. We spend so much time learning who all these people are and were that we never get to see them develop further. We get a lot of origin stories.

As is often the case, the ending is the weakest part. The book is 90-95% great, but the climax is followed by an anti-climax and an unsatisfying denouement. Some pieces are introduced or explained a little too late, and some bits are tied off rather than wrapped up. The anti-climax and the denouement are both entirely appropriate for the genre and the characters, but they are not a great pay-off for the build-up.

There are editing errors. Charles Stross explains how these things creep in, but it feels odd when you see the characters say something wrong, not in-character ignorance but likely something left from an earlier draft. For example, Fatale refers to surprising Doctor Impossible at a funeral, which mixes two events. Maybe that fight happened in an earlier draft. There are not many typos, but you notice them in a professional publication.

To end on a positive note, the internal continuity is great. It is something you might expect in a comic book, where items from past years and series are brought into the latest story, but it goes beyond that. You get a mix of Chevhov's Gun and foreshadowing and running jokes. At some point, you realize that something is being telegraphed, not mocked. And then Mr. Grossman brings the pieces together and makes them pay off.

Amazon link

Monday, August 09, 2010

Transmetropolitan, Volume 1: Back on the Street by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Rating - 2: not worth reading (skip it)

It pains me to reject Warren Ellis, but I just don't hate everyone else (or myself) enough to really get behind Spider Jerusalem. It is a more colorful but even less hopeful take on cyberpunk.

This volume collects the first six issues of the comic series Transmetropolitan. Spider Jerusalem is Hunter S. Thompson in a cyberpunk setting. He is called out of retirement and back to The City, where he hates everyone and will bring Truth to their addled skulls.

If you're looking for a stylish version of chanting "hate hate hate hate hate," not quite AM or Kefka style, this does it pretty well. The glimmers of hope are mostly strangled, though, and it does not suggest any direction beyond a series of rants.

The first six issues are mostly episodic. I am told that the second year of the series kicks off a long storyline, so maybe it is just being episodic while establishing the setting and characters. We get a Two Minutes' Hate on each issue's theme of the month. Rants cover trendy social movements and iconoclasm, authoritarianism, government, mass media, and religion.

Basically, Spider Jerusalem is a horrible, depraved person using truth as a weapon against more horrible, depraved hypocrites. It is black-and-gray morality, suitable for cyberpunk but very vivid. Spider takes refuge in audacity: cursing up a storm, blowing up buildings, getting his way by punching and shouting, and wielding a bowel disruptor. He chain-smokes between doses of uppers, spends issues nude or in stolen towels, and has a two-faced cat that also smokes and pees on things. It is unclear how often Spider excretes on things himself, since that is not in-frame.

In The City, the politicians are corrupt, the media is corrupt, the businesses are corrupt, you see the pattern here. People tend to be abusers or victims, vicious or apathetic. The setting is also wacky, with one group splicing themselves with alien DNA, several new religions appearing daily, and the ubiquitous three-eyed smiley face.

Spider's assistant is a breath of fresh air. She is a journalism student, former stripper and bodyguard. She seems still on the surface of the muck that Spider dwells in, or at least she is not showing the psychological scars. Of course, moderate that by the setting: her idealism and love come across through coarse discussions of sex and an unhealthy relationship. She is suitably cynical, just not yet fully jaded. She is also the sane one of the pair.

The other moments of light come from Spider's winning. He is insane, audacious, and hate-filled because he is an idealist, believing in capitalized Truth, and that the truth will set you free. And if that truth sets some people free from the tops of tall buildings, they deserved it. And it works; the truth is sufficiently ugly and shocking to pierce the public consciousness and affect the issue of the month. That month; there is no reason to think that things are getting better, or ever could, but there might be a win along the way.

This becomes problematic when placing them alongside each other. On one page, Spider is decrying oppressive violence, while he is taking a rocket launcher to an unsuspecting bar on another. He is a champion of the downtrodden, when not also stepping on them and cursing their apathy and acceptance of their place at the bottom. Touching moments are alloyed with vomit, urine, and the phrase "balls deep." This could be used for an effectively jarring contrast, but here it is just discordant. Spider Jerusalem can be awesome, but he is not a serious person, so he cannot effectively deliver the moral of the story. Such as it is.

The art is wonderful. It is stylish, richly detailed, and perfectly complementary to the text. At times, it could bear a bit more of the story's weight, but Spider loves the sound of his own voice. Costuming is excellent, and it looks like the artist had fun with the assistant's outfits. The backgrounds are very busy and full of details. Ebola cola!

As a detail, I appreciate that the rocket launcher blew out the passenger window while being fired out the driver's window. That's why it doesn't have recoil, folks. Maybe it should have taken out car in the process, but if we accept the bowel-disrupting gun, I'll accept the relatively mild recoil adjustment.

For a bit of trippiness, Patrick Stewart reportedly wanted to produce a live version and offered to voice an audio version. Patrick Stewart plays a cyberpunk Hunter S. Thompson: can you dig it?

Amazon link

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Global Frequency, Volume 2: Detonation Radio by Warren Ellis et. al.

Rating - 3.5: worth reading, parts worth re-reading (borrow or buy it)

You're still on the Global Frequency. Miranda Zero leads 1,001 freaks, geeks, and security risks, a collection of experts that constitute a global rescue organization. They find threats and fix them. The twelve-issue limited series concludes.

Again, the series is entirely episodic, so we have six short stories. The feel is somewhat different because of stories with less dialogue and more visceral trauma. The Global Frequency team does not get away as cleanly; there are more noble sacrifices as part of the heroism.

This half is slightly less episodic because Miranda Zero and Aleph both get their own issues. They are central in their own stories, rather than supporting cast for the guest stars. Miranda is tough and sensible, while Aleph is enormously likable.

One issue is Japanese horror, with perfect tone. Not especially my thing, but crafted well. The big fight issue does not work as well in this half. Instead of a running firefight, it is just a drawn-out melee, without the supporting dialogue. The sci fi issue deals with orbital bombardment, which is a threat most of us don't know to worry about.

It's good. We have fewer fun guest stars than in the first half, but there are a few. We get to build a little with Miranda and Aleph.

I understand that there is a television series in the works again. That could be a fun show, with a big chance for being hit or miss. Unless they are vastly outnumbered, the hits are the important thing.

Amazon link

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon

Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)

I'm low on clever openers this week.

When Ofelia's colony is recalled from its planet, she hides and stays behind. They are not that interested in one old woman, and she is glad to see her demanding family and neighbors go. She has the planet to herself until, years later, another colonization attempt is made, one that disastrously finds intelligent native life. Now the natives are curious about where that original human colony might be.

Ofelia's story happens in four social contexts: with the colony and her family; after the colony, alone; after the second colonization attempt, with the natives; and once humans make third contact with the planet. It creates a sort of full circle.

She is a surprisingly spry septuagenarian. Fortunate too: of all the things that could go wrong when no one is there to help or save you, none of them do. No disease, no accidents, no predators.

Ofelia has a Heinlein-esque streak in her misanthropy. She just wants all these bothersome people and aliens to let her be. Or maybe "curmudgeonly old person" is a natural character archetype, just not usually the protagonist.

Ofelia is a rather unusual protagonist. You do not see many 70+ women starring in science fiction. She shares only strong self-reliance with those Heinlein heroes, instead succeeding through nurturing, care, and the home. We usually see heroes on a journey who will use violence to get the MacGuffin. She does share in that Heinlein anti-authoritarian streak, but at no point does a stand-in for the author have existentially unlikely sex.

Our first section of the story establishes Ofelia in relation to other characters, also showing why she will be happy to get away from them. We then spend the greater part of the story alone with her, watching her work past her self-imposed limitations to live in freedom with no one to judge or command her. The themes are personal, not political.

The writing is good, and Ofelia is an enjoyable character. We lack grand explanations and theories, instead focusing on pragmatics and details. It is a story about people, not ideas.

Her psyche and society are plagued with potentially problematic attitudes. If a science fiction story is not dystopian, it usually is past things like overt sexism, or perhaps it uses anti-alien prejudice as a metaphor. Ofelia's people seem to be from a Latin country where feminism never caught on over the centuries. The third contact group suggests that her culture is not atypical. While outer space has room for all kinds, it is hard to picture a space-faring culture with prejudices that seemed outdated a generation ago.

The science is also potentially problematic. While it is a colony, the technology level is rather low for space-farers, except for a convenient power source that never breaks down on an old woman who could not repair it. Some things exceed the speed of light, others not. Maybe that tech is just really expensive. It has a bit of that Firefly feel, and you wonder about the economics of the situation.

The economics are similar. Why would a corporation want a colony (with no manufacturing base or information science contributions)? What could anyone make that would be worth shipping between solar systems? After you read the ending, pause and think of the time frame, scale of operation, and costs involved in setting up that denouement. No.

The natives are likable, but I am concerned that they are too perfect. Is there any way in which they are not better than humans, either as a species or as individuals presented? The contrast is made explicitly at a few points. From intelligence to government structure to politeness, they seem to be biologically hard-wired to better fulfill every human ideal than humans do. Naivete seems to be their only flaw, and that is overcome in spades.

We have an enjoyable cast with Ofelia and the natives. The natives are only annoying to the extent that they resemble humans, and that is a fixable problem. We can enjoy Ofelia alone, especially in comparison to the departed humans. We do much the same with the quickly learning aliens, compared to humanity or their initial attempts to relate. The returning humans just look worse from every angle. You are not made uncomfortable for rooting against your species.

Ofelia gets to be a bit more nuanced, with problems and mistakes. She is strongly self-critical and points out those problems for the reader. This helps to create roundness of character in what might otherwise be a book of caricatures.

Characters drive the plot more than events do. The high points are character traits not crowning moments of awesome.

If seeing first contact between a female hermit and a race of inquisitive owlbears sounds good, this book is for you. If you need laser swords or an Asimovian theory of psychohistory, this will not fulfill your needs.

Amazon link

Excuse me, we ask one unarmed and unarmored character, did you just take an infant from its nesting mother, said mother being surrounded by its fellow large members of a predator species, and throttle it? That quite likely tops the stupidity of abusing prisoners at a supervillain prison (because those guys never escape nor are prone to vengeance, right).

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)

It is strange to realize that you are past pop science in an area where you have no formal expertise. I knew most of the examples cited in the book and have even read the publications behind some of them. I guess you pick up a fair amount of neuroscience as a regular reader of Less Wrong and Overcoming Bias.

Jonah Lehrer's pop neuroscience book looks at how the emotional and analytical parts of our brains succeed and fail.

Before this gets lost in discussion: it is an enjoyable read and good storytelling. It is good writing. It goes presents potentially difficult material clearly and simply through a frame of stories. The stories and interesting and compelling. Many of my comments relate to the limitations of the science being explained and the presentation thereof, but it is clearly an excellent read.

Here is the deal: you should not read this unless you read all of it. The chapters are potentially misleading in isolation. They neither build on each other linearly nor create stand-alone pieces. Each takes an argument as far as it can in one direction, and the next chapter moderates that by veering in another direction.

While this makes for compelling chapters, it may undermine the learning objectives. This is not a precisely calibrated work that makes sure you get the most accurate impression of the science, with all its limitations and disclaimers. For many readers, that is a plus. If you are interested in the neuroscience itself, rather than simply reading for entertainment, it creates worries about whether you should accept the argument of this chapter wholeheartedly.

You also do not get a neat package at the end. The human brain is not a solved problem, and you will not get a "do A in situation X, B in situation Y" decision tree that will solve all your problems. The end result looks neater than it is, but or author acknowledges the messiness explicitly; there is something that looks like "do A..." with the proviso "and there are a lot of judgment calls in here and no bright lines, good luck folks!"

For example, Mr. Lehrer recommends using your analytical mind for simple choices like which vegetable peeler to buy, where you can add up the most important factor or two. For more complex choices, like buying furniture or a car, you will tend to start adding weight to things that do not matter much and will end up making a worse choice, so be guided by your intuition. But buying strawberry jam is too complex a choice for the analytical mind, so be intuitive there. Unless you don't really care about strawberry jam, in which case analytically pick on the measure or two that matters to you. Or if it is a complex but novel choice, where your intuition has not had much experience, go analytical, although you may need emotional motivation.

It's messy, but it sounds clear-cut at the end of each chapter.

My big disclaimer down, this is very well written. It is an entertaining and engaging read. It tells stories and uses them to organize the narrative. Each chapter has one major story and illustrates the research with smaller examples. There are many good stories about brains that are not working properly, because we can see what makes things work by taking out a piece and seeing what stops working. There are brain injuries that lead to permanent indecision and brain tumors that lead to unbridled lust.

Willpower is a quantifiable mental resource. Brain damage can take it away. There is no separate "mind" that is independent. We can reproducibly change how people think, and it does not need to be as extreme as brain damage. Something as simple as asking someone to memorize seven numbers or think of his/her social security number has predictable effects. Be terrified of the meat-based computer on which you are a program.

Some of these cases dealing with the meat brain point out the limited applicability. One example looks at a shopping experiment and concludes that you can predict whether someone will pick an item or not based on mental activity in a pair of competing brain regions. The reasoning involved is more of rationalization for what your brain has decided pre-rationally. Well then, there is not much you can recommend for me if the thinking part comes after the deciding part. (This assumes that the science in question has been done properly, actually predictively rather than retrospectively creating a formula that "predicts" what already happened. Which also happens.)

Mr. Lehrer frequently contrasts neurology with economics, saying that we are not the rational homo economicus, although the case he makes is closer to economics than he knows. He says that the shopping experiment shows that we are not making a rational benefit-cost analysis, but what he describes the emotional brain doing is just that. The two areas competing are roughly "ooh, shiny, I want that" and "oh, expensive, I want to keep my dollars." If the benefit is greater than the cost, you buy the shiny.

He also frequently contrasts reality with a Platonic ideal of rational thought, which is an easier case to win. The strongest part of this case is arguing for the value of intuition as subconscious calculation. You cannot calculate three-dimensional curved vectors in a second, but you can catch a ball. The hard part is done in bits of your brain that have specialized and stored the results of practice, so you go with what feels obviously right. You do not think of driving as a series of actions like pulling levers and pushing pedals; you just drive to the store, and your higher functions are free to watch for problems like that guy pulling out in front of you, which you may have started reacting to before you consciously noticed it because something felt wrong about how the truck was moving. There are entire sections of your brain attuned to "this is not how it usually goes." Those are of value.

Being familiar with the research our author is citing, I am not the best person to tell you if he is explaining it well. I already know what he is talking about. If he left out something important, I will be less affected, and I might wonder if I am just being picky. For example, I worried that he was spending too much time on the destructive case, tearing down existing theories of mind while I was already on his side about the lack of pure, Platonic reasoning in the human brain.

One aspect missing that I rule "not picky" is how brain scans mislead us. One problem with human cognition is that we are more likely to accept anything if it is prefaced with "brain scans show." Something about the colorful graphics and assurance of science makes people think the argument is better. This book gives us words instead of pretty pictures, which reduces the effect, but basing arguments on brain imaging will create more agreement than the arguments merit, all things being equal. Beyond that, the meaning of the research itself may be overstated. See, for example, a paper that demonstrated statistically significant results from performing a standard psychological test with brain scanning on a dead fish. If your neurological research methods produce results with dead fish, you may need to refine your methods.

I feel odd having been harder on the scientific case here than in Mary Roach's pop science book. In that case, she spent more time telling stories, less making a positive case. Indeed, the problem there was the lack of a case being built at all. Here, I am more worried about the summative argument being compelling but misleading. It is because he has more to critique that I can dig in.

Amazon link

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Authority, Book 3: Earth Inferno and Other Stories by Mark Millar et. al.

Rating - 2: not worth reading (skip it)

This is not very good.

The third collection of The Authority includes the story arc "Earth Inferno" and three single-shot stories.

"Earth Inferno" is average at best. It has some good ideas but does not do much with them.

The political intervention is good, continuing to play out the notion that The Authority does things to change the world beyond fighting supervillains. It had a bit more flair in the Jenny Sparks days, but I cannot say if that is the author or the characters.

The Engineer continues to be good. Mark Millar is good with this character, and you love Angie. She is useful, getting involved and fixing things while demonstrating her new ability to be in more than one place at one time.

The villain is good. He has a look that could be Silver Age silly but instead comes across as dignified and slightly mystical. He exhibits and exults in power and cruelty. The unnecessarily coarse elements added to his background and characterization are appropriate to the comic, if a bit unfortunate in the sense of reveling in being a "mature" comic.

The Earth Inferno itself does not entirely work, and it takes up a lot of time. Maybe it is my own suspension of disbelief that is problematic, but I should not notice it while reading a comic book, and I kept thinking, "the planet does not work that way." If nothing else, trees do not spring from the ground like that. Oh well, it gives The Authority a sort of conflict other than punching people in the face.

The villain is wasted. When you have some explicitly that powerful, making him completely ineffectual is a problem. The book lampshades this by discussing how he lost last time, but he does not need to be at full power to write The Authority out of history. The ending is good, classic with a series-appropriate tie-off, but I expect more from the villain who is literally more powerful than God, whose threat demands the evacuation of a dimension. Introducing red shirts to sacrifice does not make up for anything, and having one of them be more powerful than Apollo/Superman makes one wonder how anyone else survived.

This relates to the continuing problem of power fluctuation. The Doctor can make his enemies out of existence, turning them into ravens or stone or music. He can destroy entire continents. And he can utterly fail at very basic things. And someone with the same power set and more experience can be similarly useless. Oh, and Apollo gets eyebeams to complete the Superman set.

I initially found it problematic that The Doctor is using heroin. If he can do anything he can imagine, he can just alter his mental state directly or cause whatever state he likes to actively exist. But if he really is in-touch with the planet as much as implied, maybe he actively wants to dull his senses and ability to access his abilities. Still, overdosing?

The single stories are just poor. The first is explicitly a big-lipped alligator issue, fighting zombies for no purpose and with no explanation. Bad guys show up, they fight, done. Generic comic book story. The second is weak characterization of The Engineer, yet another version of the difficulties of not being normal. You have seen this better elsewhere, with superheroes or not.

The third is good but a retread. It is Jack Hawksmoor's characterization, touring him through The Authority's first arc as he ruminates. It covers no new ground, but it gives time to reflect, which does not usually appear in The Authority's cinematic style. And, surprise, it was written by Warren Ellis. Well, that explains the quality. It is too short to make the book a 2.5.

With respect to the art: I don't like it. The Doctors work well under this art style, but the rest did not. My main recurring question was, "What happened to Apollo's face?" And it is not even an issue of a differing art style. His face looks differently mutated in many different places. He ranges from Superman noble to clunky brute, and putting one of the worst as a cover picture does not help. Maybe he takes a lot of punches to the face and needs a while to heal.

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Monday, July 05, 2010

Global Frequency, Volume 1: Planet Ablaze by Warren Ellis et. al.

Rating - 3.5: worth reading, parts worth re-reading (borrow or buy it)

This series is entirely episodic, so I will not have much to say.

You're on the global frequency. Miranda Zero has a network of 1,001 specialists around the world. If your phone rings, you are the right person for this job because of your skills and/or location. The fate of the world might be decided in the next hour. Go. This volume collects the first six issues of the twelve-issue series.

Each issue is a different story. The only two recurring characters are Miranda Zero, the leader, and Aleph, the communications hub. We get a new cast, a new problem, and maybe even a new type of story each issue. We have memetic alien invasions, a rampaging cyborg, and a parkour run across London. One issue is a running shoot-out while another has no action at all. This might be hit-or-miss for you, except that Warren Ellis is very good.

The character sketches, to the extent that they exist, are rather good. We have one issue to develop and resolve the story in addition to introducing the entire cast, often while including a briefing on the sci fi element of the month that motivates the story, so there is not a lot of time. Within that, characters manage to become distinctive and interesting. Given the length, we do not have time for characters to become terribly deep. They can be enigmatic in a way meant to suggest hidden depths, but the best characters come across as snarky fun. There might be other kinds of fun possible, but Warren Ellis's writing seems to tend that way.

Artists vary along with the issue, so there is no one thing to comment on there. I cannot tell to what extent the tone of the stories are set by their art, since I have no contrasting version. Perhaps some artists were chosen for particular stories. The styles seem strongly supportive, contributing well. The cyborg story has intensely detailed skin and faces, while the one in Scandinavian snow has thicker lines and a far less action-packed feel than the shoot-out. The art could be allowed to carry a bit more of the weight; even when it is doing the job, it is supported by text, although the shoot-out issue does a great job of advancing the story on two tracks, with the pictures working one and the text another.

Very worth reading. Also bite-sized for your occasional reading convenience.

Amazon link

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Authority, Book 2: Under New Management by Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch, Mark Millar, and Frank Quitely

Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)

More awesome but less good than the previous book.

This volume collects The Authority, issues 9 through 16. The Ellis era concludes when the Earth's creator comes back to clean the place out. Mark Millar's run begins with the battle for Jenny Quantum and the political leadership of the world's nations, fighting against stand-ins for Marvel superheroes.

Structurally, the volumes would have been better split at issue 12. That would have brought all the Warren Ellis issues and Jenny Sparks arcs together. I presume there is some publishing reason to favor 6- or 8-issue collections rather than 12-, but as a reader, 4 or 12 issues would be better in this case. Even for those who do not care about when a writer leaves a comic, there is a clear break in the middle of this volume.

The pacing is right. I complained about that in the first volume, how events were insufficiently decompressed because massive battles were being resolved in single frames or mostly off-page and inferred. The assault on London was good pacing, but the rest of that volume was a bit rushed. This volume gives events time to unfold. Events remain a bit abrupt when the battle moves inside God (not spoiling that further, even if it is already well-known).

The last Ellis arc makes you love The Engineer. Her joie de vivre is uplifting. The first Millar arc starts giving Swift more of a role and personality, having her take over as the team's moral compass (such as it is) and making her more important as Shen (the person) than Swift (the hero). Which makes sense, given how very much she is not one of the team's big guns.

Both arcs in this volume share a problem with conveniently changing power levels. Maybe Jenny Sparks was building up that charge for a while, so we'll give her the epic conclusion. Apollo continues to be the major violator here, with him variably being knocked out in one-shot and then coming back to take out the guy that one-shot him, his entire team, and two other teams, all at once and without running low on power. There is the convenient mechanic of his being solar-powered, so you can always say he had a low charge, but given the difference it makes and how often this comes up, he should not be hanging out with a low charge. Midnighter ranges from "pretty badass" to "successfully fights all the X-Men at once." And The Doctor can somehow be turned off (?!).

On a plot hole/fridge logic note, that bit about The Doctor becomes relevant when he cannot get back to the ship. The ship lets them open doors anywhere on Earth. What, did he open his door a block away from where he wanted to be, walk the rest of the way, then walk back instead of opening a new door there? Bad call; even if he was high at the time, the rest of the team remains coherent.

The evil Avengers are well done. They are ridiculously over the top yet not entirely without subtlety or nuance. They are coarse, crude, cruel, and even more complete monsters than The Authority, which creates a necessary contrast. Their leader is amusingly cranky.

I note that we started each Ellis arc with the villain engaging in some violent atrocity. It sets the stage. The first Millar arc opened with The Authority slaughtering people. Granted, they were the bad guy's military, but it sets a different tone. Also, as with the end of the previous arc, they are clearly no threat to The Authority; if The Authority wants to take down the evil leader, they can teleport past the nation's military or just ignore incoming attacks that they can trivially deflect or dodge.

This volume takes seriously the notion of making the world a better place, not just defending against super-powered threats. "A better place" might vary by the author, but The Authority is getting involved in political affairs. This will bear greater fruit in future volumes.

Finally, we see a bit of their having personal lives. The Authority do not have secret identities, although Angie apparently has an apartment in New York still. Instead, they have their own flying, inter-dimensional city, and they have huge parties. That is one way of keeping things on a grand scale.

Concerning Frank Quitely's art, I rather like the design of the re-done Marvel heroes. That must have been fun to make them different but recognizable.

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