The Invisible College

16 10 2008

The first issue of my self-published comic book is here! You can find it in the comics link under my little section of the site. I recently printed a stack of issues to hand out to friends and fellow comics-ers at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD, and the folks at Robot Martini have just posted a review of it in their blog. It’s the first time I’ve ever been reviewed for creative work in a public forum.

A Little Brother review of sorts…

20 08 2008

…and some thoughts about security and science.

I know Jacob already wrote on this book several months ago, but it was so good, I couldn’t resist talking about it again. It’s been hanging around on my hard drive while I’ve been rushing around doing other things (but with Pi-Con coming up this weekend, an event at which Cory Doctorow will be in attendance) I just had to start reading. I read it in a two several-hour sittings, and I really didn’t even want to split it up that much. I just wanted to keep reading and reading until it was done.

I know that if I start I could go on for hours about the book and never get on to the rest of the post, so I’m going to try to control myself, so I can turn some of the energy that this book gave me into other projects that don’t involve blogging. So all I will say is that this book is important. I want everyone in the world to read it. Everyone.

A concept has been coming to me in pieces over the past couple years, well probably over the whole span of my life, through books, movies, conversations, and news stories. Most recently Little Brother, Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, Kenneth Bower’s The Starship and the Canoe (a biography of Freeman Dyson), and Bruce Schneier’s Beyond Fear.

The concept is simple. The more people know, the more their quality of life improves. People who have proper access to the understanding that humans know possess are healthier, happier, and more secure. This all happens on a sliding scale, of course. “Developed” nations are certainly ahead of “developing” nations in quality of life, but almost no one in America is as healthy, happy and secure as they could be.

I was trying to figure out why people are generally content with their level of scientific and security-oriented understanding (which, when it comes down to it, is really the same thing). The answer is simple, people are worrying about other things. Most kids in America are worrying about getting through a school day without getting beat up, made fun of, looked at the wrong way, scrutinized or punished by well-meaning and misguided adults. They are blameless. Most adults are worrying about getting to work, getting a paycheck, getting food on the table, caring for children or family members, finding time to relax, party, and have sex. They are also blameless.

I think most people living in America today grew up with this concept of science as a force (for good or evil, or both) which operates outside their sphere of living. It’s something that other people are doing. This is dangerous in several ways. When scientists are those uncaring people steering us toward oblivion on a wasted Earth or in the event horizon of a black hole, they are remote sources of anxiety which paralyze us into a willful indifference. We escape into the palpable mundane of day to day life. Conversely, but no less dangerous, is the concept of scientists as those heroes out there somewhere thinking about all the things we can’t be bothered to think about, solving all our future problems. They divert asteroids and invent green technologies. This way of life lulls us into a false sense of security. The comforting thought that we don’t need to pay attention because things will sort themselves out in time. This is a way of thinking that has much in common with age-old human tendencies toward religion. It elevates scientists to gods and angels who have the power to divert any disaster as long as we put our faith in them.

I think the truth is that all these aspects of science coexist. There is the danger, the mind-numbing fear of uncertainty, and there is the hope. The combined efforts of Sagan, Schneier and Doctorow have revealed to me is that even the most well-funded science programs in the world, with full support from public and private institutions (which is far from the reality) would be useless if the general public did not concern itself with science. Many, perhaps most, of our politicians don’t fully understand the scientific issues that our society is grappling with. It would be irresponsible of us to expect them to. They are politicians. They know politics. But they are public servants and they (theoretically) represent us. If we don’t take the time to understand the scientific issues that confront us, and demand that they pursue courses of action that represent our needs and rights, then we can hardly be surprised when things go foul.

This is the beginning of a much larger discussion, but I’m running out of steam and attention span, so for now, I will end.

Do yourself a favor, read Little Brother. You don’t have to know anything about crypto or science. You just have to be someone who cares about freedom.

Review: Iron Council by China Miéville

19 08 2008

China Miéville is a brilliant writer. This was not a difficult conclusion after reading Perdido Street Station.

Miéville visualizes and commits to paper ideas that could never occur to mere mortals. His world of Bas Lag is so rich and full of amazing scenery — an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ place, yet strangely compelling. Everything bizarre disjointed and imperfect, yet meshes to create a layered and interesting world in which nothing is ever simple or black-and-white. In fact, there are few moral judgments made at all. Everything is shades of grey. It’s magic steampunk to the max. For the best description possible, read the Science, technology and magic section on wikipedia:

“New Crobuzon’s technological capabilities are decidedly steampunk: difference engines, advanced clockwork “constructs”, helium-balloon airships, firearms, primitive photography and coal-powered trains and ships all abound in the three Bas-Lag novels.

Where science fails… magic steps in. New Crobuzon harbors a large population of magic-users — broadly referred to as “thaumaturges” — who are capable of earning a substantial living from their craft.”

I’m one of those people who runs around imagining a fantasy world unfolding over mundane scenery. Anything to add richness or feed me with ideas is welcome, even sought out. I can not get enough of Miéville. Perdido Street Station was amazing, and then I read The Scar which was not quite as good, but still filled with amazing imagery. Iron Council, the latest book set in this world of Bas Lag, was a veritable travel journal across the continent and back. The ideas and images were amazing and terrifying and new.

Despite this glowing recommendation of Miéville’s writing, I don’t actually recommend Iron Council. If you’re a casual reader of fantasy the beautiful and alien images in his writing won’t be enough to string you along for very long. When I said it read like a travel journal, I mean it. If I actually told you the plot of the book it would spoil the first two hundred pages of people running around to find it. It picks up around the last fifth, as actual life-threatening motivation is introduced to the characters.

The book is also plagued by one of Miéville’s major flaws — the inclusion of what are essentially gamesmaster controlled NPCs. These overpowered deus ex machinas characters drive the plot forward when the protagonist can’t because he’d be flattened by some terrifying slug monster from beyond reality or the army of terrifying fish-men. It’s a problem in The Scar and a worse problem in Iron Council. When these characters step in, it seems almost like the author is rolling dice to figure out what happens next, because their actions are sometimes so random and unexplained or overpowered compared to the more mundane elements of the world. It rarely makes much sense.

If you haven’t read any Miéville, I recommend starting with Perdido Street Station, though folks who read The Scar first seem to recommend that. If you desperately need more, I suppose you could read Iron Council but don’t say I didn’t warn you. There are times where you’ll have to force yourself forward through the beautiful-described plodding non-plot. At this point, I don’t expect any brilliant stories from Miéville, but if he wrote a Bas Lag codex or encyclopedia, or other supplement to a role playing game, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

Review: The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

15 08 2008

Okay, first of all I’m sorry for the serious downtime this week. I’m job hunting, and Lindsay is off assistant-teaching at a trapeze camp in Pennsylvania. It’s really cool and we’re both kind of stressed out in weird ways. However, we enjoy your continued reading. We also enjoy your commenting! Let us know you’re here.

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

Secondly, I read The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers. Way back in high school, I read Expiration Date, another Powers book about a kid and Thomas Edison’s ghost. It was really awesome — maybe some day I’ll get around to re-reading it and reviewing it up here. A few weeks ago, I was trying to read Earthquake Weather, the sequel. Same kid, but this time, he’s potentially the Fisher King.

While I was reading it, everyone kept saying, “Yeah, that one’s good. But you gotta read The Drawing of the Dark!” I haven’t finished Earthquake Weather, but Drawing ended up back in the house. So I read it today.

I’m kind of annoyed at Powers for recycling the same story, but he’s really good at telling it so I can forgive him. The Drawing of the Dark takes place in the sixteenth century (1500’s). The Turks are invading Europe, but the real driving force is that the evil Eastern forces see that the Fisher King is really weak and are moving to take over. It’s all up to Brian Duffy, an Irish mercenary to save the day — ironically by making sure a three-thousand year old brewery doesn’t get destroyed.

The Drawing of the Dark is really worth reading. Not only does Powers tell the story really well, with clarity and humor, but he also manages to blend gripping action with exposition in well measured doses. I am a fan of good action scenes, and this book has plenty of them. Of course, it can’t all be action scenes, because then you the reader get tired, and the characters realistically can’t fight that long.

One cool thing about the book is that it reminds me of a young adult novel I read in elementary school — The Emperor’s Winding Sheet — the only book to ever make me cry, ever. It’s about an English boy who becomes the Emperor of Constantinople’s servant while the city is being taken over by the Turks. Powers’ book is an extension of that history. I don’t actually know if the Turks attacked Vienna, but they very well could have and it certainly would fit into my made up version of Europe’s history (largely informed by the true and factual Girl Genius, of course).

The major problem I see with The Drawing of the Dark is that it’s short enough that you can practically read it in one sitting (but I suppose I should be happy that it’s short, because yanno I haven’t finished Earthquake Weather yet). If When you read it, be sure to savor it.

So yeah. Go out and buy or borrow The Drawing of the Dark. Well worth the read. You’ll want to prance around like a swashbuckling mercenary afterward, which is awesome.

Oh, one other problem with the book — there’s so much beer that it makes you want to go drink one. Be sure to have a bottle (or three) handy. Make sure it’s good, because the beer in the book is supposedly some of the best and most magical stuff in all Europe.

Book Review: The Plain Janes

5 08 2008

For those internet natives among you who have an average of 1.7 seconds of browsing time on each post or page before you need to clink on a link to a video of a dog riding a skateboard on YouTube, I will sum up the rest of this review in plain english:

The Plain Janes is a brilliant comic book. You should read it.

Okay, you can go watch that skateboarding dog now.

The Plain Janes is a comic book (for lack of a better term, a graphic novella) with a simple message: Art Saves. The plot blurb at DC Comics website is accurate if a bit bland:

When a transfer student named Jane is forced to move from the cool confines of Metro City to Suburbia, she thinks her life is over. But there in the lunch room at the reject table she finds her tribe: three other girls named Jane. Main Jane encourages them to form a secret art gang and paint the town P.L.A.I.N. — People Loving Art In Neighborhoods. But can art attacks really save the hell that is high school?

The book is quirky, fun and downright inspiring. The main characters are people you would want to meet and be friends with. It offers the comfort of a familiar setting and seemingly standard plot-line which it then deviates from in delightful ways. The book was more intricate than I had been expecting, and inevitably the characters must respond to the tensions of a terror threat culture in addition to navigating teen relationships and the often horrid institution that is high school.

The book is part of the Minx line of graphic novels being published by the mega-giant DC Comics, but it’s got indie heart. Upon reviewing the line-up I believe the Minx is attempting to target teen girls, with offerings from many female comics authors. Personally, I think this is fantastic. One of my biggest dreams for comics publishing is a proliferation of different voices and genres.

Final thoughts: this is a book that should be in every high school, college and public library in the nation. Someone should be waiting at the doors of high schools to hand them out to freshmen along with the schedules and planners. This is the kind of book that could save lives.

And I can’t wait to read the sequel, Janes in Love.

You can read the first 18 pages of the book on the DC/Minx web site.

Continued Correspondences from my Love Affair with the Great British Author Neil Gaiman (and more recently Terry Pratchett)

1 08 2008

Neil – Oh dear, how embarrassing! I came across this unposted letter while finishing up my most recent one. I shall post them both together, and I apologize for my forgetfulness.

July 3rd 2008

Dear Neil,

I have, as promised, moved cautiously from our one-afternoon stands to timidly attempting a weekend getaway (encouraged by my trusted relationship-advise-giving friends) with Nerverwhere. Though I did believe this particular adventure of yours was overall quite predictable (really, I knew almost exactly how the weekend was going to go after the first couple pages!) It was definitely satisfying. There were a few minor surprises but most of the enjoyment came from the way you described and really showed me the ins and outs of your imagination. Your ability to create worlds is astounding, and your attention to little details and the bits of humor you bring to our time together are much appreciated.

That being said, I am still cautious about entering another long-term relationship with you. Though the combination of the current success of our weekend fling and my lack of plans for the rest of the summer is damaging my resolve to stay away from your longer writings…

Yours occasionally,

– Lindsay

July 31st 2008

Dear Neil and Terry,

You sure know how to show a reader a good time! I must admit I was a bit skeptical at first… my attempt to find someone other than Neil to spend some time with (Terry, that’d be you) didn’t quite work out as planned. I found myself so intimidated by your section of the bookstore, Terry, that it was much easier to go with the partially familiar and pick up both you and Neil in Good Omens. As it turns out, you two are so much fun together (as I’m sure you’ve both heard before) that I felt entirely at ease with both of you no matter where we went or what we were doing! (On the subway, camping, anywhere! Though I have yet to try the bathtub as you both seemed to suggest… ahem.) You guys kept me laughing out loud all week. I even wrote down my favorite exchange:

In fact the only things in the flat Crowley devoted any personal attention to were the houseplants. They were huge and green and glorious, with shiny, healthy, lustrous leaves.
This was because, once a week, Crowley went around the flat with a green plastic plant mister, spraying the leaves, and talking to the plants. He had heard about talking to plants in the early seventies, on Radio Four, and thought it an excellent idea. Although talking is perhaps the wrong word for what Crowley did.

What he did was put the fear of God into them.

More precisely, the fear of Crowley.

The plants were the most luxurious, verdant, and beautiful in London. Also the most terrified.

In addition to which, every couple of months Crowley would pick out a plan that was growing too slowly, or succumbing to leaf-wilt or browning, of just didn’t look quite as good as the others, and he would carry it around to all the other plants. “Say goodbye to your friend,” he’d say to them. “He just couldn’t cut it…”

Then he would leave the flat with the offending plant, and return an hour or so later with a large, empty flower pot, which he would leave somewhere conspicuously around the flat.

The plants were the most luxurious, verdant, and beautiful in London. Also the most terrified.

Pure brilliance.

I did find the end of our time together a little, thrown together? Hasty? Dissatisfying? Or perhaps I was just a little distracted by the end of our week together. I do wish I could pursue a long-term relationship with both of you together (please?) though I understand if you would rather not continue to be involved with each other and I hope I can continue to see both of you separately in the future. The week I got to spend with both of you was splendid, and I shall treasure it always.

And Neil – I think I’d like to try something new with you in the future, I’ll keep you posted ^.~

Yours more frequently,

– Lindsay

Review: New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear

29 07 2008

On a weekend trip to visit my grandparents in upstate New York, I read New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear. It’s a collection of episodes about an ancient vampire-detective named Sebastian and Abigail Irene Garrett, forensic sorceress for the Crown. They go about solving all sorts of mysteries, mostly magical and gruesome. In this alternate history, the sun never set on the British Empire. At the dawn of the 20th century, tensions are heating up overseas in the colonies between the royalists and those who advocate for home rule. It is an exciting time for the first vampire to arrive in the New World.

The collection reads almost like a fantasy-based Sherlock Holmes novel, or maybe a very sophisticated Encyclopedia Brown book, with magic. In each episode, Abigail Irene, Sebastian, and the rest of the cast are faced with a challenging mystery, usually a messy and magical death. Using state of the art sorcerous techniques and good-old gumshoe investigating they invariably figure out the answer. It’s pretty fun to read if you like that sort of thing, and might remind you of various incredibly formulaic detective stories, almost.

Unlike Holmes, Brown or other traditionally episodic detectives, the characters of New Amsterdam have highly complicated and constantly changing relationships with each other and other powers in their world. Their actions in one story have reverberations down the rest. Relationships between characters change as they solve mysteries, which affects the way they approach problems. While each story stands on its own, the overarching narrative and character arcs make what could be just another detective story come to life.

I want to focus on this point a little more. Taken individually, each story in Bear’s New Amsterdam is interesting, if formulaic. The characters are detailed enough that in no story are they entirely flat or completely predictable, though they do have their patterns. I’ve read a number of similar episodic detective stories, but this is the first one that has a complicated character arc unfolding over the course of the larger narrative. It’s so complicated and subtle that I didn’t realize a character had been growing toward a particular point for about three stories until one line which made me go, “Woah. That makes sense!”

Bear’s vampires are another of those super erotic types, definitely ripe for gross cliché. Yet, I think she handles them well. Instead of sexily seducing young pretty things, her vampires form courts of supporters who sustain them. It’s something that readers of large amounts of vampire literature may be familiar with, but I wasn’t. While this could just be a major undead-sex-fest, Bear actually builds the most interesting characters out of interactions between members of Sebastian’s court. It’s only a minor undead-sex-fest—the vampire’s bite causes a most intense and nearly-orgasmic experience. If you were thinking, “My twelve-year-old might like this,” you should figure out if it will make them uncomfortable first.

However, Bear writes really strong female protagonists. Abigail Irene is not a damsel in distress. She handles spells, murdering beasts, and pistols, skills all young girls should learn. In addition, Sebastian has a remarkably healthy attitude toward intimate relationships, multiple and long term relationships, for a vampire. Definitely worth exposing your kid to these types of characters early and often.

In short, New Amsterdam is a nearly formulaic detective vampire orgy that’s likely to rattle your neo-post-victorianist sensibilities. It’s fun, and candy-like—but a sophisticated hard candy that you kind of have to suck on a little before you can figure out what flavor it actually is, not to mention that it’s got some good vitamins. Reading this book isn’t exactly vegging out, because Bear is really smart and it shows in her writing (which is a good thing!). If you’re looking for a good four-hour car-ride book or one-chapter-each-commute book, and don’t have something super important like homework to do, I recommend reading New Amsterdam.