Webcomic mini-review: Yaoi 911

I wandered into Alex Woolfson’s sf webcomic site Yaoi 911 while he was still posting Artifice, and was hooked. The ad I clicked said “smart guy-on-guy sci-fi”, and that’s exactly what I got.

Artifice, now complete, is a solid story about an android soldier who didn’t obey orders, and is now being interrogated by the company’s top robopsychologist to find out why. There follows a battle of wits as Doctor Maven tries to uncover why Deacon, last survivor of an assassination squad, not only failed to kill the last survivor of the colony his unit was sent to dispose of, but attacked the retrieval team sent in to fetch him. Excellent writing by Woolfson teamed with nice art by Winona Nelson, and it skilfully blends a thoughtful look at the use and abuse of androids with a delightful gay romance.

The Young Protectors, currently in progress, is a superheroes comic. Although some of the superheroes we run into aren’t so heroic… In the prologue, young superhero Kyle has just finished a quick visit to a place he doesn’t really want to be found by the rest of the team, when he encounters supervillain The Annihilator. The Annihilator’s price for not telling the world that he just saw Kyle go into a gay bar for the first time is… a kiss. :-) Kyle goes back to ordinary after-class superheroing in the first chapter, but life rapidly gets more complicated for him. At forty-something pages in, there’s a lot of intriguing backstory and long-term plot being hinted at, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. Also, some acidly entertaining commentary about the amount of collateral damage around superheroes. Woolfson’s excellent script is pencilled by Adam DeKraker and coloured by Veronica Gandini. I have no idea where Woolfson’s planning to take this, but if you like your superhero comics with some May/December superhero/supervillain in the mix, take a look at this.

There are more pieces available to mailing list subscribers, but these are the ones which are currently available without registering.

Book log: Bob Shaw — Shadow of Heaven

39) Bob Shaw — Shadow of Heaven

[NEL abridged edition]
Short novel set in a future where an act of terrorism has rendered much of the world’s arable land unusable without reducing the population. As a result, most of the first world population is crammed into narrow urban strips along the seaboard, with much of the feed coming from the sea. There is a small amount of arable farming carried out on multi-mile-wide antigravity disks high in the atmosphere, where some of the remaining uncontaminated soil has been placed for security. No people are allowed there and the disks, nicknamed Heaven, are farmed by robots. But when a reporter’s borther goes missing, he realises that Johnny has fulfilled a childhood fantasy and run away to Heaven. Stirling follows him, using his job as a reporter as cover for tapping into the underground railway. What he finds there is a community of refugees, and a rule that nobody can break the community’s cover by returning to the surface. Stirling has no intention of staying, but his brother has no intention of letting fraternal loyalty get in the way of his plans for the disk.

It’s an interesting concept and story, but time has not been kind to it. Giant anti-gravity disks, but the press room where Stirling works uses card indexes to store their data? There are too many things to break a twenty-first century reader’s suspension of disbelief for it to quite work for me now, which is a shame. One for the Oxfam box.

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Book log: E.E “Doc” Smith – The Vortex Blaster

Book 12)

This was the out-of-copyright short story, downloaded from Feedbooks, rather than the fix-up novel with the same title. It’s set in the Lensman universe (although it’s not part of the main sequence of stories), and has the classic pulp feel to it. If you don’t like that style, you’ll hate the story, but if you do, it’s a fun short read.

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Book log: Roger Elwood — Continuum 1

Book 61

This is the first of a 4 book anthology series, where the series concept is to have a set of four stories from each author, one per volume, which can each be read as individual stand-alone stories, but which together make up a story arc. It was published in 1974 and was edited by Roger Elwood, which is an entertaining and informative tale in itself.

I bought my copy of volume 1 about thirty years ago, and for various reasons (including the dreaded “it was only going to be in storage for a year or two”) I probably haven’t read it for close to twenty years. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find that I only remembered two of the stories — the one by Philip Jose Farmer, which I don’t actually like very much and don’t think works as a standalone; and the story from Anne McCaffrey, which is the first part of what later became The Crystal Singer, and which I’ve thus read a fair number of times in the novel. The others seem completely unfamiliar to me. This is surprising, because there are some good stories in here. I read a library copy of volume 4 a few years after buying this volume, and can vaguely remember something about the closing stories of only those two authors as well. (I think I liked the Farmer sequence better for having seen the end of the arc.)

Philip Jose Farmer – Stations of the Nightmare
Guy shoots at quail flock in his neighbour’s field, and hits a very small flying saucer instead. It escapes into the woods but releases a golden pollen-like substance, and it eventually becomes clear that guy has been contaminated by it. Except nothing much actually happens, and this story doesn’t seem to have any closure that makes it work as a standalone.

Poul Anderson – My own, my native land
Coming of age story on a recently colonised planet. The settlement is up on a plateau where the atmosphere is breathable for Earth-born humans; one of the colonists has had to crashland a survey shuttle down on the plains, where the conditions are barely survivable without some form of life support. The colony can’t spare another shuttle to retrieve the salvageable parts and datatapes by air, but it’s still worth taking them out by road. The problem is having to cut the road first, in an environment that’s not actively hostile but requires immigrant colonists to wear life support if they want to do any heavier labour than slow walking. The shuttle pilot recruits one of the locally-born teenagers to go back with him for the salvage parts. Enjoyable as an individual story.

Chad Oliver – Shaka!
A trading company’s spaceship finds a way around the prohibition on cultural contamination in order to protect their trading partners on a primitive planet from an aggressive neighbouring tribe. They use an obvious historical model — but some time later have to find a way to ameliorate the effects of their cultural tampering. Enjoyed this.

Thomas N Scortia — The Armageddon Tapes
Now this one worked as a standalone for me, while leaving me wanting to read the rest of the arc. Someone who was as a child part of a group abducted by aliens and integrated into their spaceship’s ecology has recently been returned to Earth, and is being interrogated by the minions of what is clearly a deeply unpleasant dictatorship. The interrogation is not exactly going according to plan…

Anne McCaffrey – Prelude to a Crystal Song
This is the first segment of what later became the novel The Crystal Singer, although MacCaffrey re-wrote large chunks of the anthology series material, in particular giving it a different ending. I always loved this short story and the novel that grew from it, in part because the heroine really isn’t always likeable – and the author knew it. But in spite of Killashandra having, as McCaffrey says, a generous portion of the conceit and ego needed for her chosen profession of opera singer, she also has courage, the self-understanding to recognise her self-pity for what it is, and the maturity to indulge herself just a little with self-pity after a crushing disappointment at the end of her time as a music student and then move on to practical consideration of what else she might do with her life. Fate hands her the opportunity to take her inborn talent and hard-won skill to another profession, one where the rewards – and the risks – are a worthy challenge.

Gene Wolfe – The Dark of the June
Very short piece that can’t be reviewed without spoilering it.

Edgar Pangborn – The Children’s Crusade
Thirty years after a limited nuclear war combined with biological warfare has drastically reduced the population, the people in a small Vermont village are mostly getting along fairly well with the level of tech they’ve managed to retain. Then along comes the Children’s Crusade, led by a man who was a very young child at the time of the war. He’s not an evil man, but he certainly has the potential to be a threat. Two of the villagers join the Crusade as it leaves the village after staying for a few days. I’d like the story a lot better of the author didn’t openly hector the reader about what I presume are the author’s political views – and I say this even though I either agree with or am neutral about most of them. Notable for discussing the issue of global warming back in 1974.

Dean R Koontz – The Night of the Storm
Four members of a robot civilisation go on a hunting expedition where part of the point is to deliberately cripple their senses and physical strength so that the hunt is a more equal match between robot and animal. They tell each other campfire stories, including the story of the legendary “human”, a creature that is an animal that can think. And as with all good campfire ghost stories, they start to see things in the shadows, where it’s just that little too dark for them to see clearly… Loved this, and it would be my main reason for keeping the anthology in order to re-read.

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Book review: James Blish – Galactic Cluster

UK edition of a selection of Blish’s short stories and novellas. This has somewhat different contents to the US edition under the same collection name.

Common Time
Short about a test pilot flight of a faster than light ship (using the Haertel overdrive, a common strand in Blish’s work). The two previous test flights left successfully but never came back, so this one is under total computer control and Garrard’s primary job is to stay alive long enough to report back. The opening sequence is a vivid description of the effect of drive on time perception, with the perceived time rate decoupled from the physical time rate. This section is very hard sf in tone. It then goes into a passage that feels very New Wave to me, even though the story predates the New Wave movement. The juxtaposition is rather disconcerting. I’ve always loved the opening sequence, but I seem to be getting old and cranky as regards the middle section.

A Work of Art
One of my favourite pieces by Blish. Richard Strauss finds himself alive again in 2161, the product of a mind sculptor. As is quickly explained to him, his personality and talent has been recreated in the body of a musically talentless volunteer. Strauss welcomes the chance to write new music, and adapts well if crankily to the changes in society over 200 years, but is not impressed by modern music. He gradually comes to realise what the true artform of this era is. A moving exploration of identity and personality.

To Pay the Piper
The survivors of an apocalyptic war have been living in deep bunkers for years. The war goes on, but one side develops a method to re-educate the population so they can survive on the plague-ridden surface. The hard part — it’s a slow process that for practical reasons is to be restricted to the troops who will be sent to do final battle, but the civilian population want *out*. A politician exploits popular sentiment to lean on the scientists to give him priority…

Nor Iron Bars
Set in the same sequence as Common Time, but somewhat further on in the development of the Haertel overdrive. Space colonisation has begun, but the Haertel overdrive is not yet fit for shipping large numbers of humans. This is an experimental flight of another ftl drive — and it too has strange effects, this time a disconnect between spatial dimensions. But this ship has passengers, giving the captain an added incentive to find a solution before the various side-effects kill people. Notable for showing an inter-racial couple in a story written in the 1950s.

Beep
Short story later expanded into a short novel, The Quincunx of Time. There’s a spreading interstellar culture, and the intelligence service is using the top-secret Dirac transmitter, a communication device that offers instantaneous transmission over unlimited distances. Any message sent on a Dirac device can be picked up by any other Dirac, anywhere. Blish explores the practical and philosophical implications of the technology. I like this a lot, but a lot of people don’t.

Beanstalk
Novella about a group of genetically engineered humans, and the problems they face in being accepted by standard issue humans. The group are tetraploids, with features common in polyploid life-forms — longevity, large size and low fertility. It’s an interesting way of looking at racial and cultural discrimination, as the group are of the same genetic stock and culture as the host culture, but are clearly differentiated by their much greater height, and have created their own sexual mores to deal with the twin problems of low fertility and the skewed gender ratio that has resulted from prospective parents being far more willing to use the treatment on male embryos than female. But it somehow falls a bit flat for me.

Overall, the collection’s worth reading, but some stories are definitely more interesting than others.

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Book log – Ellen Kushner, editor — Basilisk

Intended to do a full review, but still too sore from the fall. Here’s what I’d already written. Note — contents include Alan Garner’s short “Feel Free”, which covers some of the same themes as “Red Shift”, and the Earthsea short “The Word of Unbinding”

Ellen Kushner, editor — Basilisk

Anthology of fantasy short stories, first published in 1980. Going by the copyright page, this is a mix of reprints and new stories, originally published from 1956 to 1980. There’s a good mix of styles here. A couple of the pieces didn’t work for me, but this anthology had a very high hit rate for me.

Book log: Joseph Green — The Star Probe

Astronomers discover alien space probe heading towards Earth. Fanatical environmentalists who have already killed off most of the space programme decide they have to stop any attempt to make contact with the probe, lest the people be seduced into wasting time and money on space research and high technology, when they could be fixing the problems on Earth. Wealthy space entrepreneur Henson, owner of the only private enterprise in space, sees the opportunity the probe presents, and is determined to bring the benefits to mankind.

This one was a Did Not Finish for me within the first five pages, and the next five didn’t rescue it. I was just too irritated by the apparent attitude that all environmentalists are violent fanatics who are anti-technology. I can certainly find Green Puritans annoying, but this seemed to be presenting the extreme fringe as the norm. Now it’s more than possible that I’m grossly misjudging the book and will find that it does address this further on; and I say that mindful of a “bailed after the first chapter” review I read recently that demonstrated exactly that problem. In fact, a quick glance at the last couple of pages suggests that it’s a lot less black and white by the end. But I have a TBR mountain that’s going to take me a couple of years to get through, and no particular reason to give this book another 25 pages to get my attention (unlike a couple of other books with similar annoyances which I’ve read). This one’s going in the Oxfam box, unless the next book by this author in the TBR mountain gives me a reason to retrieve it.

[Later: checking on LibraryThing, I find that I liked the author’s short story in New Writings in SF 10, and the tone of that one suggests that the annoying tone of this one is an opening gambit. The book gets a reprieve, but I’ll read it some other time when I’m feeling more receptive.]

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