Wednesday, July 25, 2018

[Book Review] Lord of the Vampires

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Lord of the Vampires, by Jeanne Kalogridis
(The Diaries of the Family Dracul, Book Three)
© 1996 Dell Publishing

Jeanne Kalogridis' capstone to her Diaries trilogy takes place concurrently with the events of Bram Stoker's Dracula. In fact, Lord of the Vampires offers an entirely new take on many of the events of that famed seminal novel of vampire fiction, providing more than just new insights on Stoker's existing canon, but entirely new, previously-unseen aspects, characters, and plot-points.

Well, perhaps "entirely new" is a bit of an overstatement. Kalogridis never adds completely new characters out of whole cloth; she has too much respect for Stoker to do that. Instead, she dramatically expands on what were previously unnamed background characters -- such as Dracula's three "brides" or Van Helsing's mysterious friend Arminius -- fleshing them out into fully-rounded characters with their own psychologies, motivations, and story arcs. As a result, we see Dracula, which was already a novel of many viewpoints, from the points of view of new characters, or from the same characters but with new information: for instance, we learn that Dr, Seward's wax cylinder dictations, which comprise his contributions to the original novel, only told part of what he knew. Here, Kalogridis makes us privy to his private, hand-written journals, which reveal that he (and his mentor, Prof. Van Helsing), know considerably more about vampirism in general and Vlad Dracul in particular, than the original novel suggested.

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Professor Abraham Van Helsing, MD, D.Ph., D.Litt., etc, etc.
Speaking of whom, Van Helsing is present for many more of the events of Dracula than we had previously been led to believe. As a result of the hypnotic and mystical powers which he acquired under the tutelage of the mysterious sage Arminius in the previous novel, Van Helsing is able to render himself invisible to (most) mortal eyes, allowing him to play an unseen part in many scenes for which he was not present in Stoker's novel, such as the scene where Dracula kills Lucy and her mother. Usually these kinds of changes only result in minor, cosmetic differences to the scenes, but sometimes his presence (or the presence of other, similarly-invisible beings) casts old scenes in a completely different light. Which is important, because the author is working within a tight framework of restrictions.

By writing a novel that takes place within the events and context of another novel -- and an extremely famous one at that -- Kalogridis has taken on the difficult task of trying to surprise her readers while telling them a story they've heard many times before, without changing too much of the story or introducing elements which break her audience's suspension of disbelief. If she adheres to Stoker's plot too slavishly, the audience will get bored; if she changes things too much, they'll get angry and defensive. Fortunately, Kalogridis manages to strike a delicate balance between old and new, crafting a tale which manages to bring us back to familiar ground while simultaneously making it seem new and exciting.

Lord of the Vampires introduces something new to the series: a sense of pathos, of real human suffering. Not just supernatural cruelty (though there is plenty of that), but a peek into the houses of the dying. Early on we learn that Van Helsing's mother, Mary Windham-Tepesh, is dying of cancer, and we see in intimate detail just how devoted her son is to caring for her through even the most piteously gruesome aspects of late-stage cancer. Much attention is lovingly paid to the mood in the Westenra household as Lucy lies dying: we see the heartache and the pain which it brings, but as Van Helsing observes: "in the midst of gloom shines a ray of love and valour. . . . the experience [of caring for a mortally ill family member] melts away the more superficial aspects of the personality, revealing a golden core of strength and compassion."

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Pictured: One bad mofo
This, of course, is in stark contrast to the glamorous beauty and shocking depravity of the newest major character in the series, one Elizabeth Báthory, the infamous "Blood Countess" who (allegedly) tortured more than six hundred female servants over a period of decades and bathed in their blood to maintain her own beauty (consider yourselves trigger-warned for torture scenes and lesbian blood-orgies). Elizabeth shows up at Vlad's invitation to Castle Dracula, where she promptly restores both his and Zsuzsanna's youth and vigor (they having been trapped within Castle Dracula for the last twenty years, since the end of the previous book) and then gets screwed over by Vlad as he abandons them with only poor little Jonathan Harker as their last meal, who promptly escapes. Zsuzsanna and Elizabeth, seeking their revenge on Vlad, break out of Castle Dracula and pursue their erstwhile benefactor to England, where they work together in secret to destroy him (and their hated foe, the vampire-hunter Van Helsing).

In some ways, Lord of the Vampires is like those episodes of Game of Thrones that diverge from the books they're based on: what seemed predictable is suddenly no longer following the path which we expected, and this creates cognitive dissonance and dramatic tension. What was once familiar is suddenly, disconcertingly unfamiliar. Although it's sometimes a little maddening to see Van Helsing or Zsuzsanna being secretly present in familiar scenes yet unwilling to do anything to change their outcomes (for reasons which seem flimsy at best), Lord of the Vampires is overall an interesting second-take on a very well-known story, which forces us to pause and reconsider whether we actually know it all that well (or whether we know the whole truth of it). Many have commented about the logical inconsistencies of Dracula ( the vampire's inconsistent powers and weaknesses, his abysmal impulse-control, Van Helsing's shocking willingness to leave Mina undefended and ignorant of the truth), and this book does go a long way towards explaining some of these decisions, as well as providing more insight into the psychology and motivations of one of literature's greatest villains.

Friday, May 11, 2018

[Book Review] The Arsonist

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The Arsonist, by Stephanie Oakes
© 2017 Penguin Random House

This one sat on our bookshelf for almost a year before my wife read it, but as soon as she finished she got me to read it, and now I'm kicking myself for not reading it sooner. More than once I live-texted my wife as I read, keeping her up-to-date on which jaw-dropping reversal of fortune I had just witnessed. The Arsonist has twists and turns, game-changing revelations and appalling betrayals, each one following close on the heels of another. At first, the bizarre cover art turned me off (though full disclosure: I read an advance copy, so the cover art and text of your version might be different), but once I started reading I quickly found the main characters engrossing. The Arsonist has three protagonists, all teenagers: epic-level weirdo and social pariah Molly Mavity, seizure-prone Kuwaiti immigrant Ibrahim "Pepper" Al-Yusef, and . . . well, the third protagonist is complicated.

The third protagonist is Ava Dreyman, and we mostly learn about her through her posthumously-published 1989 diary, which details her escape from East Germany in the mid-80s, followed by her return to rescue her mother, and her (apparent?) death at the hands of a high-ranking Stasi officer. But as Molly and Pepper delve deeper into the mystery of Ava's death—which intertwines with the secrets kept from both of them by their respective parents—they are forced to question not only Ava's story, but the narratives which they've both built up to define their own lives and identities.

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Fernsehturm, Berlin
The Arsonist is marketed in the "Teen & Young Adult Mystery & Suspense" category (among others), but I feel that this sells the story somewhat short. While aimed at teenagers, this novel could easily find a welcome audience among adults. Arguably, adults who remember the Cold War might actually get more out of this story than its intended audience can. It's one thing to learn about the Cold War in history class, but it's very different if you actually lived through it. Personally, I was old enough to be vaguely familiar with the word "NATO" and know that it was on the news a lot, but since Berlin Wall came down when I had barely entered preschool, the Iron Curtain always seemed to me more like an artifact of the past than something that was briefly my contemporary. So for me, I feel I came away with a greater appreciation for events which took place during my own lifetime.

Oakes' gripping prose ricochets from viewpoint to viewpoint, rotating with blinding speed between Molly, Pepper, and excerpts from Ava's diary: which, in this fictional universe, is a large part of the reason the Berlin Wall came down in the first place. The shocking tale of Ava's state-sanctioned torture and death galvanized the downtrodden East German public and helped give them the courage to stand up to their monstrous rulers and its vast network of spies and informants; a sort of East German Anne Frank, if you will. But hero-worship makes us blind to realities we would often rather forget, or wish we had never known: as Captain Mal once said, "every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sumbitch or another." Turns out that little chestnut applies to teenage girls, too (though I won't say exactly how).

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The Palast der Republik, East Berlin
The Arsonist is also a poignant examination of loss, and the ways in which we heal, sometimes without realizing it, from wounds which we felt sure must kill us. All the characters in this book (and especially the three protagonists) are dealing with loss in one way or another, and the protagonists all have dead parents in their pasts. For Pepper, it's his mother, who died while giving birth to him in the shadow of a burning oil field during Operation Desert Storm. For Molly it's her mother, whom the rest of the world believes committed suicide three years ago, but whom Molly still insists upon believing is alive and in hiding for unknown reasons. And Ava... well, I won't spoil it for you, but let it never be said that writing, printing, and distributing a subversive newsletter and burning down Stasi administration buildings is an occupation that's free from risk.

Overall, I give The Arsonist the very highest marks, even in its unedited pre-publication form. Switching with ease between the hilarious and the horrifying, between snappy dialogue and heart-wrenching examinations of grief, adolescence, parenthood, and trauma and healing (both emotional and physical), The Arsonist is an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride that somehow finds time to sneak in an emotional sucker-punch or two when you're least expecting them.

Friday, March 9, 2018

[Book Review] Children of the Vampire

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Children of the Vampire, by Jeanne Kalogridis
(The Diaries of the Family Dracul, Book Two)
© 1995 Delacorte Press

After finishing the the first book in this series, the deliciously-disgusting and deeply disturbing Covenant with the Vampire, I was eager and excited to dive into this sequel, which picks up mere hours after the first entry left off. Unfortunately, despite a very strong opening and a taut overall construction, I found that my eagerness for more information on the origins and nature of the infamous Count Dracula was hampered by lopsided dramatic structure, and the introduction of several new elements which I personally find incongruous with the Dracula mythos, and with vampires in general.

[Obviously, this being the second in a series, reviewing Children of the Vampire will entail spoilers for the ending and major plot developments of the previous book, Covenant with the Vampire. Consider yourself forewarned and forearmed.]

Children begins with an excerpt from Covenant: two diary entries which explain Vlad Dracul's origin as strigoi, the true natures of his no-less-than three secret covenants — one with the townsfolk who provide him with victims, one with the eldest male of his mortal descendants who disposes of his victims' bodies to prevent them from rising as undead, and one with the Devil himself (the details of which are as-yet unknown). As Arkady's (now-undead) sister Zsuzsanna explains, "The soul of the eldest surviving son of each Tsepesh generation: that is the gold with which he purchases his immortality." 

As I've stated previously, the opening of Children is highly compelling, beginning with a description of Arkady's first, doomed attempt to slay the monster who made him one of the undead at the end of the previous installment. This is honestly one of the finest bits of exposition I've ever read, and it beautifully illustrates the ungodly strength against which Arkady has arrayed himself. I'm going to quote at length from this passage, because it's just. That. Damn. Good.
          I leapt at him with the stake, aiming to plunge deep it into his chest. As I did so, he stepped aside with supernatural speed and graceand caught the hand that held the stake, with such might that my arm was pulled from its socket.
          I howled, tried to wrest free, but his strength outmatched mine tenfold; with a brutal yank, he tore the arm from me, leaving my shoulder a stump that spewed my latest victim's blood. As I watched, stunned, he tossed it
the fingers still clutching the stakewith casual grace into the fire.
          But I too was no longer mortal; so, neither, was my wound. The pain blinded for one brief brilliant instant, then transformed into pure energizing rage. Again I charged
this time knocking V. into the flames.
          As he struggled to rise, hair and waistcoat ablaze, I retrieved my severed limb
only to realise, with amazement, that another had instantaneously and completely regrown to take its place. I snatched the charred stake from my erstwhile fingers and, oblivious to its blistering heat, rushed with it at V.
          To my surprise, he spread his arms in welcome, a smouldering, willing target that wore the Devil's own grin. I struck out with every shred of my newfound immortal strength, determined to drive the stake clear through his cold heart; struck out again. Again. Again.
          The stake would not pierce him.
          Like a madman, I flailed at him with it
but it was as though the very air itself formed an impenetrable cushion above his chest. I hammered away until the wood itself began to splinter. All the while, he laughed, soft and low, with the condescension of an adult watching a helplessly furious child; but them his amusement faded and turned to murderous fury.
I know, right?

After his abortive attempt on Vlad's (un)life, Arkady lays low in Vienna for a while, until he gets a visit from his dear old sister Zsuzsanna, who shows up with two drunken victims as a peace-offering. She instructs her brother in the subtle art of seduction, but the scene turns horrific when Arkady realizes that she's used her vampiric mesmerism (and the heady rush from feeding off a pair of wine-sops) to trick him into having drunken sex with her, his own sister! 

After this abrupt splash of cold water on what had been an entertaining scene which walked the fine line between horror and voyeurism, we're told that Zsuza transgressed this most ancient of boundaries in the hopes of conceiving a dhampir: apparently in this mythos (and real-world Slavic folklore), vampires retain the ability to reproduce during their first year after being turned. This seems like a big change to the generally-accepted rules of vampirism, but I was willing to let it slide if the author could to something interesting with it. Unfortunately, she never does. That's right, Ms. Kalogridis just blue-balls her readers purely to fuck with us, because nothing ever comes of this development! Zsuza does not conceive, and asides from establishing that she really regrets never having children of her own while she was alive, the whole incest shocker contributes nothing to the overall plot! The author could have just had Zsuzsa say "I really regret not having kids while I was alive", she didn't have to set us up with erotic expectation and then shove a steaming platter of incest in our faces!

I mean really, who does that to their readers?

Anyway, Zsuzsa tells Arkady he's not strong enough to challenge Vlad (duh), but he can get stronger by training at the Scholomance, a school for the black arts that's hidden somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains. Off he goes into the wild black yonder, and the story jumps ahead twenty-six years to Amsterdam, where Mary Windham Tsepesh (now known as Mary Tsepesh Van Helsing) has just buried her second husband, the kindly doctor who helped the Tsepeshes to spirit away their infant son Stefan from Vlad's clutches at the end of the last book. It kind of bothered me that the good doctor went by the assumed name "Dr Kohl" while travelling to Castle Dracula in the last book, instead of just using his real name. Seems like a cheap way of ramping up tension, by revealing that he was hiding his identity for no discernible reason.

Overall, the novel's dramatic structure feels lopsided. The climax is only two-thirds of the way through the book. Despite its power (and there is a revelation which turns the entire plot of the novel UPSIDE DOWN!), the fact that the denouement is SO LONG makes this climax seem anticlimactic, even though in the strictest sense, it isn't.

I guess I'm feeling a little trepidation that so many seemingly disparate elements have been introduced, but still intrigued enough to see where the final installment takes me. The friend who loaned me the series said she didn't remember much about the second book;; it's the first and the third which stand out in her memory. Home fully that's a sign of good things to come. As always, I'll let you know how it all turns out, Dear Readers.

Monday, February 19, 2018

[Film Review] Black Panther

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If you're a white boy (or girl) like me, this is likely to be your first foray into Afrofuturism. I think it might be for me, though I can't be sure -- it's not like there's a comprehensive Afrofuturist Registry or whatever. But whether it's your first encounter with Black-created science fiction or your thousandth, Black Panther offers something I can promise (with reasonable certainty) that you've never seen before: a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster movie, created by Black authors, artists, and actors, tied into a major and extremely popular shared cinematic universe, in which Blackness is not only prominent, but portrayed positively and in a way which is central to the story. Black Panther goes to places I never expected to see a Hollywood movie deal with in such a frank manner, and even goes so far as to point the blinding cultural spotlight that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe towards some disturbing and controversial truths.

Yeah, that's right: this movie asks you to consider some uncomfortable facts about race in America, Africa, and the African Diaspora. Deal with it. You'll still get to see awesome fight scenes, top-notch special effects, and subtle nods to Marvel Comics and MCU history. It's not all sad-times and serious business: there's plenty of domestic comedy, explosions, and affectionate kisses from battle-rhinos to keep you entertained.

[This review will contain mild spoilers for the first act of Black Panther, but I'll do my best not to ruin the major surprises for you.]

The tale begins with a visually-stunning infodump which explains the history of Wakanda and its massive deposits of the super-metal vibranium, as well as their decision to conceal their technological prowess from the rest of the world, and how they came to select the first Black Panther as their king. Since then, the title of king-and-Black-Panther has passed from father to son in the royal line: upon the recent assassination of King T'Chaka (John Kani) in Captain America: Civil War, the mantle passes to his son, Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman).

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Women are well and strongly represented; most of T'Challa's
entourage, from his bodyguards to his tech guru, are female.
(From the very first shot, I was reminded of that scene from the beginning of Roots, in which newborn Kunta Kinte is held up to take his first look at the night sky by his father, who tells his infant son "Behold! The only thing greater than yourself." In a way, Black Panther is a love-letter from Black parents (and aunts, uncles, big brothers, and big sisters), to the next generation of Black children, saying "Behold! This is how awesome your future could be; make it so.")

After that we jump ahead to Oakland, California in 1992, where King T'Chaka shows up unannounced, surprising his younger brother Prince N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who has secretly been arming people of African descent with Wakandan weaponry in order to bring about revolution. T'Chaka is forced by this betrayal -- and N'Jobu's attempt on the life of T'Chaka's adviser -- to kill his younger brother, an act which will have dire consequences for T'Chaka's kingdom . . . and for his son in particular.

Next we skip ahead to the modern day where T'Challa ascends to the throne after a quick round of ritual combat. He learns that Age of Ultron villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) -- who recently stole a sizable chunk of Wakandan vibranium and killed several people in the process -- has resurfaced in Busan, South Korea, which prompts T'Challa to round up a posse -- consisting of his ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and his chief honor-guardswoman Okoye (Danai Gurira) -- and head out to bring him in. This plan of course goes south, forcing T'Challa to return empty-handed . . . or nearly so. CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) gets caught in the crossfire of Klaue's escape (which is effected by one Erik "Killmonger" Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a former U.S. black ops soldier and son of Prince N'Jobu, making him T'Challa's cousin), and T'Challa decides they can't leave the man to die from wounds he sustained in "their" fight. So they pack Ross onto their quinjet and take him back to Wakanda for a round of super-healing . . . which entails exposing their country's technological superiority to an outsider (and a white guy to boot!)

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Michael B. Jordan lends villain Erik Killmonger a formidable emotional range,
from a scary-intense calm to a bitter, wrathful spite.
But of course, things go from bad to worse when Killmonger shows up unexpectedly in Wakanda, revealing his hidden heritage and, by dint of his royal blood, challenging T'Challa for the throne . . . and the mantle of the Black Panther!

Alright, that's all the storyline I'm gonna spoil for you. Onward, to the review!

I don't think I've ever seen a movie with a token white guy before: it was an interesting inversion of the status quo. I also think it was a smart move on the writers' part, because by making a White man (Martin Freeman) one of the good guys, they preclude the inevitable racist braying that the film demonizes White people. The film doesn't exclude White people, neither from the protagonists nor from the antagonists, it simply takes the logical step of casting a movie set mostly in Africa with mostly people of African descent. Seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Killmonger is unusual for a Marvel villain: instead of being crazy-eyed psycho or a moustache-twirling omnicidal tyrant, Killmonger is calm and soft-spoken, almost scarily calm: a marked departure from his depiction in the comics, where he's about as restrained as Hulk Hogan. The villain was actually one of the film's strongest points (and Black Panther has a great many strong points). While he's unquestionably evil and clearly not interested in what's best for Wakanda -- or anyone else, including himself -- once we learn his backstory, he becomes . . . not exactly sympathetic exactly (we can't agree with his methods, or even his goals), we can at least understand what made him so fucked-up in the first place, and feel bad for him and his misfortune at the hands of an unjust system and his betrayal/abandonment by the people (his own flesh and blood) who should have taken him in and cared for him. 

Black Panther doesn't shy away from uncomfortable truths about the African condition, both in Africa itself and across the globe (e.g., black-on-black crime, institutionalized racism, stereotyping, the need for Pan-Africanism, etc.) As Killmonger points out (as near as I can remember the quote), "Y'all sittin' up here comfortable [while] there's about two billion people all over the world that looks like us, but their lives are a lot harder [than yours]."

Killmonger is unusually philosophical for a Marvel villain: his words (especially his final line of the film) will stay with you long after Black Panther is over. Just make sure you stay until the very, very end.

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Wakanda forever!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet - Books One and Two

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Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet - Books One and Two (Marvel, 2016)
Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Illustrator: Brian Stelfreeze
Colorist: Laura Martin
Letterer: Joe Sabino

One of my New Year's resolutions was to get through my huge backlog of reading material, which by necessity entails NOT adding even more books to my already-overstocked reading list. Which is why I can't say that I planned to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' newest addition to the Marvel Universe, it just kind of happened one day when I saw these sweet-looking comics on display at my local library, just sitting there... tempting me... with their topicality and sick cover-art and Ta-Nehisi's name up there on the cover like some big... tempty thing.

Besides, I'd never read a Black Panther comic before, so I figured it'd be an interesting new experience. It's background reading, so you can appreciate the movie better, I told myself. It'll count as "doing something for Black History Month" or whatever.

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This being part of the Marvel Universe, the tale begins in medias res - or rather, ex post facto: Wakanda, the African nation of which T'Challa (a.k.a. the Black Panther) is king, has just endured a series of deadly calamities: a Biblical flood instigated by Namor the Sub-Mariner, an invasion by Thanos, and a coup d'état by Doctor Doom which left T'Challa's sister Shuri, the previous Black Panther, trapped between life and death. The country is in chaos, and many Wakandans feel that their king has failed to protect them, and that therefore he "is no king at all". The sorcerer Tetu and his mind-witch Zenzi feel that monarchy has served Wakanda poorly, and so they stir up anti-royal, pro-democratic sentiment among T'Challa's subjects to fuel their Nigandan-backed revolution. Meanwhile, two of the Dora Milaje (the king's all-female honor guards) have gone rogue: after Aneka murders a serial rapist in an extra-judicial killing and is sentenced to death for undermining the rule of law, her lover Ayo steals a pair of prototype exoskeletons and breaks Aneka out of prison. Dubbing themselves the Midnight Angels, the two set off on an anti-rape rampage across Wakanda's lawless hinterlands, murdering bandit-kings and sexually-abusive patriarchs without trial or mercy. T'Challa is forced to hunt down and apprehend two of his own beloved and loyal servantswomen with whom he agrees on the righteousness of their cause, in theory if not in practicein order to preserve the rule of law in his own kingdom.

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One of the things I really like about A Nation Under Our Feet is that no one could really be called a "villain", at least not in the traditional, mustache-twirling sense. Sure, there are minor characters like the White Gorilla and Zeke Stane (son of the villain from the first Iron Man movie) who you just love to hate, but for the most part all of the people working against Black Panther have sympathetic goals, even if we don't agree with their methods. What American reader could hear about an attempt to overthrow a hereditary monarchy and replace it with democracy and not feel at least a little affinity for their cause? What person with a heart could hear about systematic rapists being murdered by the very women they abused without feeling at least a twinge of poetic justice? Much like Game of Thrones, the reader is never sure who to root for, because we know that victory for one side means defeat for another faction with which we sympathize.

In fact, Coates makes us wonder for a while whether T'Challa is even the guy we're supposed to be rooting for. In Book Two, in a desperate attempt to restore order to his rapidly-disintegrating country by any means necessary, T'Challa recruits a consultancy team made up of the worst of the world's leaders: men who employ spies and torturers and even outright terrorism against their own people to maintain their own fragile grasp on power... and he asks them for their advice! T'Challa even uses nanobot technology of questionable origin (i.e., Doctor Doom) to enhance his own search for his sister's wayward soul. Speaking of whom, Book Two is interlaced with Shuri's story, as her soul journeys through the Djalia, the spiritual plane of Wakandan memory, where she learns the history of her people from a griot-spirit while simultaneously coming into her own, truer self. Book Two also sees the Panther teaming up with The Crew, an all-Black team of superheroes including Luke Cage and Storm, who help T'Challa raid a terrorist hideout in the grand, over-the-top, bullets-flying-in-your-face tradition of the very finest blaxploitation films of the 1970s.

At times, the use of Wakandan vocabulary was confusing. Words like jabari, mjinga, and jambazi are just tossed off by the cast without any explanation or easy way to look them up. At first I thought I could guess what they meant from context, but I kept coming across clues that made me think I had got it wrong. I realize that this is how people talk, without constantly explaining themselves, but a Wakandan dictionary, or a glossary at the end of the book, would have been nice.

Speaking of extras at the end of the book, both volumes feature "Process & Development" sections which include samples of character art, rough sketches of individual characters and entire pages, and excerpts from Coates' script. These bonuses are kind of interesting, but they won't really teach you anything new about how comic books get made.

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Finally, each volume ends with reprints of classic Black Panther issues. Book One includes the Panther's first-ever appearance in Fantastic Four #52, a fun romp through a techno-organic jungle populated with deafeningly-bright primary colors and Jack Kirby's trippy, mechano-fantastic visuals. Book Two concludes with two issues of Panther's Rage, a 1973 adventure-tale which is extremely, at times hilariously, 80s. The main villain, Erik Killmonger (yes, that's his actual surname), is a bare-chested, spike-wearing, whip-wielding African giant who appears to dunk his entire head in a bucket of Soul-Glo every morning.

think this is the first time the Black Panther has had both a Black writer and a Black illustrator at the same time, though I can't swear to that. Either way, Coates and Stelfreeze work well together, and I look forward to seeing more from this pairing. Coates' storytelling is excellent (A Nation Under Our Feet was nominated for a Hugo award for Best Graphic Story), but there are occasional resorts to well-worn comic book cliches (faked deaths, infodumps, deliberately misleading the reader, etc.) to heighten drama. I also found the story in Book One a little difficult to follow; I had to read it twice before I fully understood all the players and their various motivations, but Book Two flowed much better, once all the exposition was out of the way.

Overall, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet is a rollicking adventure yarn which doubles as subtle political commentary. Under the guise of discussing the myriad troubles which beset this fictional African country, Coates surreptitiously introduces and explores topics which are near and dear to his heart, such as internalized racism, statecraft and kingship, and what it is that truly makes a country (and its king) great:
T'CHALLA: The day after I became king, [my uncle] S'Yan offered a single piece of wisdom. "Power lies not in what a king does, but in what his subjects believe he might do." This was profound. For it meant that the majesty of kings lay in their mystique... not in their might. Every act of might diminished the king, for it diminished his mystique. Might exposed the king's powers and thus his limits. Might made the king human. Breakable. [...] [W]hat the people know not is the true power of kings.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

[Book Review] The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
by Matt Ridley (HarperCollins, 2010)

Written just after — and published in the midst of the the fallout from — the Great Recession of 2008, Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist is something of an aberration in the world of nonfiction prognostication: a text which, Roddenberry-like, dares to suggest that not only are we probably not headed for disaster, but the future will almost certainly be better than even our wildest dreams; better than we ever dared to hope.

Counter-intuitively, this is not a thought which many people enjoy entertaining. Most people (and I include myself in this statement — or at least, I used to) would like, even need, to believe that the world cannot go on without them, or at least without the particular set of circumstances which created them as individuals. These doomsayers would have us believe that the world was in a constant state of improvement until roughly the time they were born, which just so happened to be the apex of human civilization, and everything after that has been and will continue to be one long defeat.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, © Zach Weinersmith (yes, really)
Though this kind of thinking is understandable (every human being lives at what they perceive as the tail-end of history), Mr. Ridley makes some pretty compelling arguments why this conclusion is fallacious. For one, we can look back on the last 100,000 years of history and see that life has steadily gotten better in every way we can measure. Compared to the first members of Homo sapiens (or heck, even our parents and grandparents) modern humans eat better, live longer, have fewer chronic diseases, are less likely to die from violence, reproduce less, produce more food using less land, extract more energy from less fuel, and generally live better lives than ever before in our species' millennia of existence. Granted, this progress hasn't always been fast, and it never happens evenly across the entire population, but even the poorest human on earth today lives a life which is measurably better than that of the earliest hominids; even pre-contact tribes of the remote Amazon have bows and arrows, stone tools, and fire. It is the height of arrogance, the author asserts, to look back on this steady and ceaseless march of progress and conclude that the future must hold nothing but ruin and degeneracy (and to be honest, despite my natural inclination towards pessimism, I find myself agreeing with him almost against my will).

The Rational Optimist is broken down into eleven chapters, which trace the arc of human history in roughly chronological from our early hominid predecessors (like Homo erectus and neanderthals) all the way to the Singularity of the near-future. The author's main thesis is that all human progress comes from ideas "having sex" with each other: that it the process of exchange and cross-fertilization which gives birth to new ideas and technologies, allowing us to raise our standard of living in ways that other tool-using animals do not. "Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution", Ridley asserts in the prologue.

Ridley also makes the assertion that the dominance of Homo sapiens stems from the fact that we are the only animal which trades, which exchanges like for unlike. Other animals exchange food and grooming and sex in the hopes of reciprocal food, grooming, and/or sex at a later date, but only humans exchange sex for food, or food for tools, or one type of food for a different foodstuff. This tendency toward exchange and specialization allows us to draw on our species' collective brain, instead of being trapped by the endless treadmill of self-reliance. A self-sufficient hunter-gatherer must spend all of his mental energy on filling his head with the million-and-one things he needs to know in order to get enough calories by himself; conversely, a fisherman and a farmer can use trade and specialization so that each of them eats a more varied and healthier diet and has more leisure time (which they can use to consume more and provide employment to yet more people) without either having the faintest how the other plies his trade.

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Ridley goes on to point out that despite its Ferengi-esque reputation, commerce has done more good for humanity than almost any other force in history. Slavery was one of our earliest inventions, but it was the steam-engine which abolished the slave trade by making it no longer profitable. Brutal, appalling cruelty towards both humans and animals was a (if not the) major form of entertainment in the pre-industrial world, but once our economic well-being no longer depended on human- and animal-powered labor, bloodsports became unacceptable. Ridley opines that "Political decisions are by definition monopolistic, disenfranchising, and despotically majoritarian; markets are good at supplying minority needs."

In the final chapter, Ridley lays out his case for optimism about our future. This is where lots of optimists falter, and their two biggest stumbling-blocks are usually African poverty and global warming. Ridley soberly and realistically assesses both these issues, and not only finds cause for hope, but goes so far as to say that not only should we not despair of these twin terrors of the future, it is our moral duty to continue to believe that things can get better. The moment we stop believing that things can improve is the moment the world's most desperately poor and underprivileged cease being able to claw their way out of poverty. Ridley says "It is precisely because there is still far more suffering and scarcity in the world than I or anybody else with a heart would wish that ambitious optimism is morally mandatory. [...] those who offer counsels of despair or calls to slow down in the face of looming environmental disaster may not only be factually but morally wrong."

Now for the stuff I didn't agree with.

Ridley has a pretty dim view of religion and of the state — to him, priests and politicians are "tiresome fellow[s]" at best, and "parasites" at worst (which I guess they are at the worst of times, but I think it ignores a lot of nuance, and at their best I do believe that they can make tangible improvements to a great many human lives). It worries me that he doesn't hold with the conventional wisdom that global warming will devastate our planet's food supply and economy (though he does admit that resettling all those billions of people who live in future flood-zones will be expensive, and likely contentious), pointing out that just a few decades ago, scientists were sounding the alarms because global cooling, which they said would also devastate our planet's food supply and economy. Also concerning is that he's extremely gung-ho about genetic modification as a future food source, a bandwagon I'm not quite ready to jump on just yet. I fear that he may be overestimating humanity's tolerance for change and improvement, but so far we've done a pretty good job of adapting to some really spectacular levels of change and chaos — after all, we've made it through the Warring States period, the Dark Ages, the Black Death, two World Wars, and the Cold War without blowing it all up, haven't we?

While I might not yet be 100% on board with the optimism bandwagon, The Rational Optimist has achieved something remarkable: it has demolished or damaged most of the arguments I previously used as justification for my pessimistic cynicism. For decades, I've assumed the worst about the future and humanity, but Matt Ridley has pointed out an uncomfortable truth: that my pessimism turns out to be unnecessary and incorrect a lot more often than I'd like to believe. It feels kind of weird to think about the future and experience neither stomach-churning fear nor bitter pessimism, but it's a feeling I could get used to. Pessimism is a habit I've had for a long, long time, and being without it (even though I never enjoyed it) feels kind of strange, like suddenly regrowing a long-lost limb.

I won't say I'm an optimist now, but I can't say I'm a pessimist anymore. And isn't that a reason to be hopeful?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

[Movie Review] To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

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To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar
Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment, 1995
Director: Beeban Kidron
Writer: Douglas Carter Beane
Starring: Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo, Robin Williams

My wife has been trying to get me to watch this movie for years, and I'm glad I finally got around to it. I positively giggled like a schoolgirl; I challenge you to watch Wesley Snipes giggling maniacally while slipping into a pair of black thigh-high nylons, and not be tempted to giggle yourself.

It felt really, deliciously weird to see extremely masculine actors (who — need I remind you — respectively played the eponymous vampire-hunting protagonist of the Blade trilogy and longtime hetero sex-symbol Johnny from Dirty Dancing) playing ultra-feminine drag queens. What's more, these drag-queens are most fabulous drag queens in New York: Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) are finalists in a drag competition in NYC, and earn the right to continue on to the finals, which will take place in Hollywood in just a few days' time. Pausing briefly to take the hapless "drag princess" Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) under their wing, before heading off on a cross-country road trip from the Big Apple to Tinseltown... with an unplanned stop in Podunk, USA.

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"Noxeema, you remember John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt?"
"Oh yes: his name is my name, too!"
There's a really excellent cameo by the late great Robin Williams as the proprietor of New York's gayest restaurant (which is really saying something), who gives the girls a lead on a trustworthy used-car dealer when he learns they can't afford plane tickets. While his back is turned, the girls "borrow" a signed portrait of famed actress, dancer, singer, and lingerie inventor Julie Newmar, in hope that her divine favor will bless their road-trip and guide them to victory in the nationals.

The girls, of course, select the less-reliable but far more fashionable 1967 Cadillac DeVille convertible, which looks great but breaks down somewhere in the Midwest (it's never established exactly where, but I'm guessing anywhere from Ohio to Missouri [edit: apparently it was filmed in Nebraska]). Forced to wait out the weekend in B.F.E. until the replacement part arrives on Monday, the girls settle into the (as in, the only) bed-and-breakfast and proceed to spruce up the town and enhance the lives of its residents over the course of a long weekend (kind of like Thor, but with phenomenal hair and outfits).

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Actually, scratch that: it's a lot like Thor after all.
Before I get into analysis, please allow me to clarify that these characters are not women trapped in men's bodies, they are something altogether more fantastic. As Noxeema explains it,
"When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man's body and has a little operation he is a transsexual. [. . .] When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender he is a drag queen."
While it's probably a little simplistic (to say nothing of being dated), I'm going to use this definition for the purposes of my review, because A) it's much easier than wading into the minefield that is LGBTQ nomenclature, and B) why complicate things by using a definition other than the one being used in the work you're reviewing? Anyway, moving right along...

I don't think that anyone would ever accuse Wong Foo of being overly realistic; the townsfolk are very accepting of Vida, Noxeema, and Chi-Chi right off the bat, despite what would probably be seen in real life as repeated attempts to impose big-city relativism on traditional small-town values. IRL, the girls would probably get run out of town just for trying to insert themselves into the residents private lives and business. Though personally I'd say that stopping domestic violence and putting paid to sexual harassers and would-be rapists would fall more into the "civic sanitation" category, but that's just one man's opinion.

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The first and second acts are full of shots like this one, in which "the girls" visibly inject bright color into an otherwise dull world of grays, sun-bleaching, and earth-tones.
Like its protagonists, To Wong Foo seems to care more about style than substance. Please understand that I don't mean this in a bad way: I'm not saying that the movie lacks depth or emotional power. I'm saying that while the plot it offers is not likely to occur in the real world, it offers an idealized, artificially-constructed alternate reality, in which diversity is not just accepted but celebrated, where the banal is cast off in favor of the fabulous, and where getting out of a rut is as easy as changing your outfit and wig.

Hmm... stern, cold reality taking a backseat to airy, extravagant, self-conscious artifice? That sounds exactly like a drag queen to me. :-)