Things I Read During May
Naoki Urasawa - 20th Century Boys, vol. 1 (5/3, comic)
Huh! This is... pretty darn good. The story is clearly barely even getting rolling, but I really like the characters and the dialogue and the art and the hints of things going on, and man, the setting. This manga has a wonderful sense of place, and its loving and grimy depictions of Japan in the '70s and '90s are a thing I haven't really seen before. Weirdly. (I've certainly read enough manga, you'd think I'd have run across something that felt roughly this real before.)
The cultist dialogue is all hilariously awful, but I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be. Especially since the rest of the dialogue is fantastic.
Saladin Ahmed - "Where Virtue Lives" (5/10, short story)
Well, neither bad nor particularly my taste. The dialogue was really clunky and the characters didn't grab me, but I quite liked the worldbuilding and the magic. So... a wash?
Wow! That was really good!
Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, Richard Isanove - Marvel 1602 (comic, 5/19)
Shockingly, I liked this a lot!
As you may know, I've got a bit of a standoffish relationship with Big Two superhero comics, but this story did the neat trick of making me care about both the individual characters involved and the Marvel Universe/mythos itself. Bravo.
My current theory is that Gaiman managed this by making the Marvel Universe a character in its own right. Instead of simply using it as an open-pit mine for cameos and opaque references, he made this into a story about the shape and intention of the Marvel Universe qua entity, which I found fascinating and not at all what I was expecting and actually more than a little touching.
Beefs: Seriously, the whole multiverse at existential risk? And this would happen every time someone tried that particular species of time travel, right? I call bullshit on that. Also, the Watchers are unspeakably silly.
Things: I find myself oddly intrigued by the Fantastic(k) Four, despite having had very little previous interest in them. Dr. Strange is simply the shit. Captain America's role and self-presentation are incredibly icky in ways that only a character claiming to be an embodiment of America could manage to run afoul of. I like to think Gaiman was aware enough to know what he was doing there, but who knows. And anyway, Captain America is weird in the first place.
BONUS LEVEL: Braid (5/23, video game)
Dep't of Stories I Never Need to Read Again: Bereaved/jilted man misses his dead/unfaithful girlfriend/wife so hard that he breaks reality.
Braid reclaims some points for bothering to point out that the hero is a total douchebag and that this whole "desire" thing is largely a metaphor in the first place, so that's kind of neat, but I'm not convinced you can have this one both ways. One side of the fence is boring unresolved-male-author's-issues bullshit, and the other side is alienating and didactic anti-story, which can be potentially interesting in literature but will reliably poison a video game.
Never mind that, though, because the gameplay and artwork here are absolutely wonderful, and the time manipulation mechanics make for some truly mindfucking puzzles. (One or two of them are Alundra-class hard, and pulling off the secret achievements or time trials is really insanely difficult.) Good stuff and well worth your $15.
Terry Pratchett - Mort (5/29)
Moving house, mildly brainfried... time to read me some Pratchett.
I hadn't read Mort, brand new to me. I've heard some people recently suggest it as a good jumping-on point for Discworld, and I do think it would probably work as one. This one was pretty early, right? checks Uh, 1987. Right, wow. That's actually pretty impressive, because what you have here is a legit fully-fledged Discworld book, which, dang. Prose isn't up to Pratchett's modern par, and his (or his editors', hard to say) faith in the reader's ability to figure out what's going on is shaky, but it works in a way that the first few books didn't, quite.
So say you take the traditional Kirk/Spock OTP as TOS canon. Young Alternate Kirk would have gotten a brainful of that in advance on account of that mind-meld, right? So... yeah. (via zvi.)
(I enjoyed the movie a lot, but am still working out my overall feelings about the reboot. These stories made me happy, though.)
Angélica Gorodischer - Kalpa Imperial (tr. Ursula K. Le Guin) (50books_poc: 2) (5/31)
There are heroes and villains and clever cowards and tricksters and betrayals and battles and emperors and ascetics and madmen. If you like things that are beautiful and crazy epic, put this one on your list.
Gorodischer works the aesthetic of HUGE, on a level I've only seen China Miéville and Hal Duncan function at, and it is a stunningly fine thing. Come for the razor-sharp characterization, stay for the mindblowing historiography and meta-narratives about the nature of storytelling.
So Kalpa Imperial. It's a cycle of disconnected stories about the emperors and commoners and genii loci of that greatest of empires, whose name need not even be mentioned. (You know how these things go.) It is almost as old as I am in Argentina, but wasn't released in English until 2003. You know how Le Guin rolls, so the prose is gorgeous. Being unable to engage the original, I can't say anything about the translation, other than that I'm inclined to trust Le Guin's judgment in these sorts of things and that it reads well.
Pretty much all the stories are individually wonderful, and a few of them left me on the verge of tears (special mention to "The End of a Dynasty, or: The Natural History of Ferrets" and "Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities"), but the gestalt and the interstices are where the project qua project gets really interesting. See, for almost the entire cycle, there isn't any overlap. There are references within each story that seem like they should link up and let you orient, but they never point to anywhere you've been or will go before the book's out. The effect is one of massive elbow-room, a history so large that a multitude of histories can dwell within and not impinge on each other. Furthermore, it eschews any teleological idea of "progress"—the first story tells you right off the bat that any technological/political milieu can exist at any point in the Empire's past or future—which makes the feeling of spacious time still more intense, sets you even further adrift in the infinity of history. (Oh, and each story except the last has its own quite-present storyteller, so they all actually cover at least two time periods in duplex.)
Back up: Like I said, there isn't any overlap for almost the entire cycle. The next-to-last story has a single recognizable reference, like a clearing of the throat for what follows. The last story makes me want to write papers.
You remember how, in Super Mario World on the SNES, if you beat the entire secret world you'd get dumped out back where you were except all the enemies now had Mario's face? This is the literary equivalent of that. It turns the structure of the rest of the book completely inside-out. Instead of having a storyteller providing the reader interface to the story, it's written in an interface-less third person; there is a storyteller contained inside, but he's telling stories that exist outside the Empire's history. In fact, the whole thing is flowing backwards: instead of providing the real-world audience with an interface to the Empire's story, the storyteller seems to be providing the Imperial characters an (imperfect and distorted) interface with the real world, stealing our stories for the entertainment of his fictional comrades but getting the details intriguingly... wrong? Right? Priam played by the great bear Orson Welles and Clark Gable as Odysseus and Jameses Dean and Bond as Meneleus and Agamemnon, the good ships Brigitte Bardot and Ava Gardner and Betty Davis, the roofless towers of the house Charge of the Light Brigade burning (and you see what I meant about the Mario heads?), and an eye that sees the world into being. It's a totally unexpected mutation of the project that makes explicit the flow of Gorodischer's heretofore implicit argument re: the relationship between stories and reality, and it does so in a really intellectually exhilarating way while also telling a totally ripping yarn about a caravan and the life's work of a desert guide and royalty in disguise and love and protection and nobility and the fate of a dynasty. No shit.
In short, this book owns.