The Golden Age Greats

I’ve noticed a few comments around the Web (for example, on Peter David’s blog) that with Arthur C. Clarke’s passing the last of the great SF authors of the golden age are gone and this marks the end of an era.

Although Clarke was the last of the “Big Three” to die, the label of the Big Three always seemed rather arbitrary to me, and there are in fact several popular, acclaimed and beloved science fiction writers still alive who were contemporaries of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke in the 1940s:

  • Ray Bradbury, born 1920, first published 1941.
  • Jack Vance, born 1916, first published 1945.
  • Frederick Pohl, born 1919, worked as an editor and agent in the industry starting in 1939.

I think placing these gentlemen on a lower tier or in a later generation than the Big Three is splitting hairs – or, at most, a matter of opinion. The era of the golden age greats may be nearing an end, but it’s not there yet.

R.I.P. Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke passed away today, at the age of 90.

Clarke was one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers, along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. As far as I could tell they were the “Big Three” because they were all prolific, popular, and had helped shape modern science fiction through the 1940s and 50s while continuing to sell well into the 1970s and 80s. (How Ray Bradbury feels about this, inasmuch as he meets all the same criteria, I don’t know.) Asimov once joked about hoping to outlive his peers to be the “Big One”, but Clarke outlived him by 16 years. (Heinlein died in 1988.)

Having been born in 1969, naturally I discovered Clarke relatively late. I actually got into science fiction through H. Beam Piper, whose “self-reliant man” stories and strong sense of historical context put him more firmly in the Heinlein tradition, but I never cared much for Heinlein’s own work. Instead I was more attracted to Asimov’s cool rationalist approach (Vernor Vinge is much in the Asimov tradition, and Vinge is one of my favorite authors), and to Clarke. Clarke – much like Bradbury, actually – had a more literary bent to his writing than did Asimov or Heinlein, some of his work perhaps even having a feel of magic realism to them.

Like many of his peers, Clarke was a prolific author of short stories (that being the most common form of SF publishing until at least the 1960s), and I read most of the ones collected at the time. He also wrote quite a few novels. His novels can be rather hit-or-miss; for example, Rendezvous with Rama is a nigh-impenetrable story of the exploration of a huge alien ship. Clarke unquestionably could present intriguing ideas clearly, but he did sometimes lose sight of actually having a story to hang on the ideas, and Rama is a good example of this. Another good example is the work he’s probably best-known for: The film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had the misfortune of being a thin story directed by a greatly overrated director (Stanley Kubrick) with a lousy ending. (To be fair, 2001 was and is a controversial film, and it was a landmark in presenting science fiction in a serious and dramatic manner. I still think it’s not even close to a good film, though.)

At his best, though, Clarke’s writing had a strong humanist bent. One of his rare late-career novels not co-written with another author was 1986’s The Songs of Distant Earth (sadly out of print, it seems, as I write this). The novel concerns a spaceship stopping at one of Earth’s many colonies, all created with robotic seeder ships centuries before, and the clash of cultures and nature of such visitations in such a future. (One chapter of Dan Simmon’s excellent novel Hyperion has much of the feel of Songs.)

But Clarke’s best work, for my money, is Childhood’s End, which concerns the transcendence of humanity beyond our Earthbound forms, a sort of biological equivalent of the technological singularity, only published in 1953, the novels largely concerns the lives of the last human generation before the transcendence. Powerful, sad, poignant, and optimistic all in one, it was one of the most moving novels I recall reading in my teenaged years, and certainly the best written by the Big Three (second place going to Asimov’s Foundation).

The grand masters of a modern genre are rarely remembered because they were more polished or more technically adept at their craft than those who came later. They’re remembered because they were the trail blazers who covered important ground before anyone else, and did so in a decisive and influential manner which shaped the genre. Clarke was certainly one of these, and you can see his influence – direct or indirect – in writers such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Karl Schroeder (well, I can see some influence, anyway!).

He’ll be missed, but we’ll always have his writing with us. Science fiction wouldn’t be what it is without his skills and efforts.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 12 March 2008.

  • Booster Gold #7, by Geoff Johns, Jeff Katz, Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Countdown to Final Crisis #7 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Adam Beechen, Keith Giffen, Tom Derenick & Wayne Faucher (DC)
  • Countdown to Mystery #6 of 8, by Matthew Sturges & Stephen Jorge Segova, and Steve Gerber, Justiniano & Walden Wong (DC)
  • Salvation Run #5 of 7, by Matthew Sturges, Joe Bennett & Belardo Brabo (DC)
  • Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag #7 of 8, by John Ostrander, Javier Pina & Robin Riggs (DC)
  • Annihilation Conquest #5 of 6, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Tom Raney & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • Nova #11, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: 1946 #3 of 5, by Mike Mignola, Joshua Dysart & Paul Azaceta (Dark Horse)
  • Locke & Key #2 of 6, by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)
  • Atomic Robo #6 of 6, by Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener & Nic Klein (Red 5)
Booster Gold #7 Booster Gold has been pretty well received by the comics blogosphere. Although it’s a continuity-obsessed time travel yarn, it works because of its solid characterization – you know who all the characters are and they all feel distinct – and Dan Jurgens’ always-clean artwork. That said, being a continuity-obsessed time travel yarn does rather drag it down. Currently the story is wrapped up in the events of Infinite Crisis from a couple years ago, specifically the Maxwell Lord/OMAC stuff which I neither know much about, nor care. It’s the sort of book I enjoy as light reading: It doesn’t insult my intelligence, it’s basically fun, and it feels like it’s going somewhere. In a sense it’s like Geoff Johns bucking to become the new Mark Gruenwald.

This may seem like faint praise, but given the legions of crappy books out there, you could do a whole lot worse.

By the way, if you enjoy Booster Gold, I highly recommend you week out Justice League America #72-75, from Jurgens’ run on JLA in the “post-bwah-hah-hah” era. It’s one of the best alternate timeline stories in JLA history.

Salvation Run #5 Speaking of doing worse, Salvation Run has turned over its creative team since the first issue: Bill Willingham left after #2, turning the book over to his Jack of Fables co-writer Matthew Sturges (note: I stopped buying Jack of Fables after a year), and now Sean Chen – the reason I bought the book in the first place – has been replaced by Joe Bennett. Remarkably, the story is still fairly cohesive. Pedestrian, but cohesive. Of all the mini-series which have come out during Countdown to Final Crisis, this one’s probably the least essential.
Nova #11 Speaking of Sean Chen and creative turnover, Chen was the original artist on Nova, which was awesome, but the replacements since he left have been pretty good, too. Now Paul Pelletier takes over as penciller with #11. I was a bit worried about this, since I wasn’t impressed with his work on Fantastic Four, finding it rather under-rendered, and with the impression that he took some shortcuts in drawing the faces and expressions (his Invisible Woman looked downright weird, for instance).

But his art here is better than I’d feared; a little soft in the backgrounds maybe, but the figures are quite good. I suspect inker Rick Magyar has something to do with that, as he tends to bring a good feeling of texture and shading to everyone he inks, but it looks like Pelletier will be okay. Maybe he was just mailing it in on FF.

Meanwhile, the current story is coming to a head, and I suspect that next issue may be the big climax. Stay tuned!

Atomic Robo #6 And as for something that has nothing to do with any of that, Atomic Robo wraps up his first mini-series this month (a second one is being advertised for later this year). Having now read the whole thing, I can definitely say that this falls into the category of “pulp-oriented action-adventure, Hellboy sub-category”, which is to say, if you like Hellboy and B.P.R.D. (or, for that matter, The Perhapanauts), then you’ll like this, as it has a very similar tone and style. Even though Robo is science-based, he’s the same sort of powerful, unique smartass that Hellboy is. I imagine the creators might be a bit tired of being compared to Hellboy, but the similarity is so strong that it’s unavoidable.

This issue does tie the series back to its first issue, so it wasn’t quite a series of vignettes, but it’s not a fully cohesive whole. And it’s clearly a broad instruction to the character, who’s been around for 80 years and thus has a lot of history. Although my feeling is that they could have led with a stronger, more hard-hitting story as the opener, I can live with this.

I do like Scott Wegener’s artwork, though. It reminds me of Mike Mignola, but also of Michael Avon Oeming, yet it seems cleaner and more dynamic and either. If the human characters’ faces were a little more nuanced, then I could really groove on it. (Wegener seems to go for the “a few broad strokes” approach to faces.)

Anyway, I’ll have higher expectations for the sequel, that it will be more than just a pulpish adventure yarn, since as I’ve said recently I’m getting kind of tired of pulpish adventure yarns. Showing how Robo has changed the world – and how the world has changed Robo – ought to be one of the central facets of a series like this. I hope the future holds some character development.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 5 March 2008.

  • Countdown to Final Crisis #8 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Keith Giffen, Carlos Magno & Rodney Ramos (DC)
  • Countdown to Adventure #7 of 8, by Adam Beechen, Allan Goldman & Julio Ferreira, and Justin Gray, Fabrizio Fiorentino & Adam DeKraker (DC)
  • Clandestine #2 of 5, by Alan Davis & Mark Farmer (Marvel)
  • The Twelve #3 of 12, by J. Michael Straczynski, Chris Weston & Garry Leach (Marvel)
  • Echo #1, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • The End League #2, by Rick Remender, Mat Broome & Sean Parsons (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #16, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
Echo #1 Terry Moore made his name in comics in the 90s with his long-running series Strangers in Paradise, which was a sort of female buddy comic with a big helping of romantic tension on the side. The original mini-series was moving and hilarious, with just the right amount of implausible lunacy to make it exciting without being ridiculous. It then launched into an ongoing series, which frankly lost me pretty quickly: The grim details of Katchoo’s past, the endless and tedious introduction of the main antagonist, it wasn’t funny, and it quickly ceased to be fun, and I stopped buying it about 12 issues in.

One thing that was just as good even when I gave up on it was Moore’s artwork, which was expressive and inventive and leaped off the page even though the page was in black and white. (Some folks love black and white artwork. I feel it’s an extremely rare artist whose work looks as good in B&I as in color. Moore is one of those few.)

Having wrapped up SiP last year, Moore is now back with Echo, whose first issue came out this week. Like – it seems – a lot of first issues these days, not a lot happens in this one; rather it’s some very broad set-up with “uncompressed” storytelling. It opens with a woman apparently test-driving a high-tech flying suit – which is somehow nuclear but looks like shiny metal – when her controllers double-cross her and hit her with missiles. The suit fragments and rains pieces onto our presumptive heroine, Julie, a photographer who, we learn, lives alone with her dog and whose husband is divorcing her. The largest remaining piece she finds attaches itself to her skin – and the issue fades out.

So, lots of questions: Who’s conducting the test? What does the suit do? What will it do to Julie? Why’s the book called Echo? Will it at all resemble the long-ago Peter B. Gillis/Kelley Jones series Chrome? (I’m almost – but not quite – the only one who remembers that series, it seems.) All things considered, it’s way too soon to tell.

Fortunately, Moore’s art is as good as it was ten years ago – maybe better. Will I like it better than I did SiP? I hope so.

Bonus Long Weekend

I’m taking a long weekend this weekend, which is nice. A little extra time to relax, and a lot of extra time to get stuff done around the house. Not to mention reading Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin for tonight’s book discussion group. (Review forthcoming, natch. 🙂 )

A couple of strange thing happened on Friday. First, I had a lot of trouble getting through to Debbi at work. At first I suspected my cell phone, but after calling around a little I realized it must have been her work phone. Sure enough, later she told me that their phones had been down for much of the day – along with their Internet service. How frustrating!

More directly annoying to me was getting a call from my bank (on the home answering machine) that they have reason to believe my ATM card has been compromised, and they’re sending me a new one. What made this strange was that the time on the message on the machine was the exact same time – to the minute – that I’d been taking money out of an ATM, 5 minutes before I got home. I called my bank and it seems that that was sheer coincidence; apparently they had several hundred cards flagged this way, so I’m just part of a mass event. No word on exactly what happened; I don’t use my card for anything except ATMs (I’ve never used any card I’ve ever owned as a debit card), and I haven’t lost the card. So it’s possible that my card actually hasn’t been compromised, but they’re using some algorithm to identify cards which “might have been”, somehow, and mine happens to be a hit for whatever algorithm they’re using.

Anyway, assuming the new card arrives on time and nothing bad happens in the meantime, then it won’t be anything worse than a little extra stress. Still, kind of annoying.

Otherwise we’ve been taking care of things around the house and running errands, as well as going for a bike ride. The weather has been sunny and close to 70 degrees out, which after all is why we live here, right?

Oh yeah, and last night we went out with Subrata and Susan to catch a Hitchcock double feature at the Stanford Theatre. The first show was To Catch a Thief, which I first (and last) saw in 2002. I’d forgotten how whimsical it was, how snappy its script was, and I enjoyed seeing it again more than I’d expected. Of course, I always enjoy seeing Cary Grant – and Grace Kelly ain’t bad, neither.

The second film was Dial “M” For Murder, which I’d never seen before. It’s a sort of locked room mystery, except that the viewer knows exactly what happens, indeed gets to see the plan, execution, and aftermath of the whole thing. Former tennis star Ray Wendice (Ray Milland) married rich girl Margot (Grace Kelly). He later learns that she still carries a flame for her American friend Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), and resolves to do her in to inherit her money. To this end he blackmails a ne’er-do-well college chum, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) to kill her. Things go badly awry, but he then manages to set up a last-second frame to throw suspicion away from himself, while Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) looks into things.

The film almost entirely takes place in the Wendice’s flat, making it a small-cast suspense flick. Wendice is cool and calculating and seems to have set up the perfect murder, but Hitchcock manages to squeeze every ounce of suspense out of the film, by having trivial things go wrong with the event followed by one really big thing, followed by the characters circling each other – with little idea of who knows what – as they pursue their own agendas. The whole puzzle hinges on a single fact, and I’d expected it would be something cheesy, yet it turned out to be an elegant and entirely sensical fact.

The film’s downside is the wan acting; no one here manages to rise above the level of a cliche character, although Dawson as the hired gun does his darndest to give him a little depth and uncertainty. Kelly, in particular, sleepwalks her way through the role and seems almost unrecognizable compared to her role in Thief.

Still, despite its limitations the film is overall a win and I’m glad I saw it.

Neal Asher: Gridlinked

Review of the novel Gridlinked by Neal Asher.

Neal Asher has been on my radar screen as one of the biggers names in high-tech SF in this decade. He’s published nearly a dozen novels, which means I have a lot of catching up to do. (I’m reading his blog, too.) Before diving into Gridlinked I’d read a couple of his stories in the SF magazines and liked what I’d read.

Gridlinked opens with Ian Cormac, one of Earth Central Security’s top agents, pursuing a group of anarchists on the planet Cheyne III. Although he disrupts their operations, they had him ‘made’ from the beginning, since he is constantly linked into the computer grid, which has gradually dampened his emotional reactions to things over thirty years. He also fails to capture of kill the group’s ringleader, Arian Pelter, although he does kill Pelter’s sister, Angelina.

Cormac is them abruptly pulled off the mission and shipped to the planet Samarkand. Humanspace, you see, is connected by a set of matter transmitters, called runcibles, which are controlled by the governing collection of artificial intelligences which run Earth Central. Something managed to disrupt the runcible on Samarkand, destroying it and effectively dooming all life on the cold, partially-terraformed world. Moreover, his superiors decide that it’s time for Cormac to be unlinked from the grid since his detachment from humanity is making him a less effective agent. Naturally this cuts Cormac off from being able to instantly access information and communicate with the local AI, as well as forcing him to rely on his human memories. Nonetheless, he complies.

Arriving at Samarkand Cormac finds several enigmas, including some creatures which remind him of a powerful alien being he’d encountered years before, as well as a well-defended artifact buried in the ice. Unknown to Cormac, while he investigates the event, Arian Pelter, his hired mercenaries, and a cyborg psychopath called Mr. Crane have been arming themselves and following Cormac to Samarkand so that Pelter can avenge his sister.

Gridlinked can best be categorized as “high-tech suspense”, concentrated more on building the suspense and executing the action scenes which resolve the plot and less on a high ideas content. After all, the core concepts here are pretty routine: An AI government, cyborgs, linking into cyberspace, interplanetary teleportation, and a variety of supporting technologies such as antigravity and energy weapons. That’s not bad, but I had expected a more ideas-driven story a la Alastair Reynolds or Karl Schroeder.

The book’s serious demeanor and sense of mystery is what makes it enjoyable. It’s not a mystery the reader can really solve, but watching Cormac poke around on Samarkand and deal with an old adversary is fun. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what motivated the Samarkand disaster in the first place; I think the bigger ideas ended up getting swamped by the adventure and shooting and running around. The book comes to a rather abrupt, and somewhat unsatisfying, end in this regard.

The characterizations tend to be thin. Cormac himself is very much a cipher, perhaps deliberately given what being gridlinked for three decades has done to him, with little background or relationship to the other characters. Pelter and his aide Stanton are more well-drawn: Pelter pretty much goes around the bed during the story, while Stanton is a calculating but flawed mercenary who ends up in an untenable situation. None of the other characters are especially memorable (I don’t really count the mute Mr. Crane as a character, though his presence is certainly memorable).

And then I wonder why the book is titled “Gridlinked“, since Cormac of course becomes unlinked during the story, and the grid (or lack thereof) plays relatively little into the story. It feels like a marketing title, not a title truly representative of the story.

So I was rather disappointed by Gridlinked. It reads like the first novel that it is, with pieces that work and pieces that don’t, and pieces that feel out-of-place. Asher has written quite a few novels since this, and this one holds enough promise that I’m certainly going to read more of them, in the hopes that he develops both as a writer and as an idea-smith. But this one isn’t essential reading.

This Week’s Haul

  • Action Comics #862, by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank & Jon Sibal (DC)
  • Countdown to Final Crisis #9 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Keith Giffen, Tom Derenick & Wayne Faucher (DC)
  • Fables #70, by Bill Willingham & Niko Henrichton (DC/Vertigo)
  • Justice Society of America #13, by Geoff Johns, Alex Ross, Fernando Pasarin & Richard Friend (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #39, by Jim Shooter, Francis Manapul & Livesay (DC)
  • Thor #6, by J. Michael Straczynski, Oliver Coipel & Mark Morales (Marvel)
  • The Clockword Girl #3 of 4, by Sean O’Reilly, Kevin Hanna & Grant Bond (Arcana)
  • The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury #295 (#1) of 6, by Brandon Thomas, Lee Ferguson & Marc Deering (Archaia)
  • Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 #3 of 6, by David Petersen (Archaia)
  • Primordia #3 of 3, by John R. Fultz & Roel Wielinga (Archaia)
  • The Secret History #5 of 7, by Jean-Pierre Pécau & Leo Pilipovic (Archaia)
  • RASL #1, by Jeff Smith (Cartoon)
  • Project Superpowers #1 of 6, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger & Carlos Paul (Dynamite)
Legion of Super-Heroes #39 Three issues into Jim Shooter’s return to the Legion of Super-Heroes, results are mixed. His characterizations have been brutally heavy-handed at times, and it’s still not at all clear to me where his long-form story arc, “Evil Adventus”, is going: So far we’ve gotten an invasion of Neptune’s moon Triton by unknown aliens, and Lightning Lad having trouble holding onto the reins of Legion leadership.

Issue #39 is somewhat better: It focuses largely on Princess Projectra, the illusion-caster whose world was destroyed during Mark Waid’s run on the book, and who is now a princess without subjects. Shooter effectively subverts Projectra’s own heavy-handed characterization to help her character grow a little, and it’s easily the best sequence he’s yet written in his return. There’s also an enjoyable sequence with several Legionnaires cleaning up some escaped alien pets, although it doesn’t seem to move the story forward.

Francis Manapul is a decent Image-style penciller (if that’s not an oxymoron), although I find his layouts o be awkward, keeping the story from really flowing. He and Shooter combine for the issue’s low point, in which two of the female Legionnaires have a midnight conversation while in skimpy undergarments, and one of them then seduces a male Legionnaire in short order. The whole scene felt uncomfortable and pointless.

So all things considered I’m not as enthusiastic about Shooter’s run as I was at first, though I’m giving him a lot of latitude for being rusty as a comic book writer. Signs point to “getting better”, but I’d be a lot happier if he’d completely abandon the occasional attempts to present an “adult” comic book.

The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury #295 The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury‘s central conceit is that it’s #295 in a long-running series (the first 294 have never been published), and is the first issue of the six-issue sequence which will lead to the end of the series. It’s a little silly, but it’s no less silly than lots of what’s in Robert Kirkman’s Invincible and that’s a very good series. If comics can’t be silly once in a while, what’s the point?

This issue is mostly a run-of-the-mill adventure in which Miranda and her aide, Jack Warning, capture a high-tech Rubik’s cube which actually contains an alien genie, and they want to do the impossible and open it, so the opener can get his heart’s desire. At the end of the story we find out why this is the beginning of the end for Miranda.

It’s an extremely well-crafted story, and it’s been getting good reviews around the Web: Brandon Thomas’ script flows nicely, with excellent pacing and dialogue. Lee Ferguson’s pencils are just as good, if not better, with colorful designs, a terrific sense of motion, and a (presumably deliberate) throwback style to the days of adventure comic strips. This is a fun comic book, and I hope the last 5 issues are as good.

Archaia Studios Press seems today to be much where Dark Horse was twenty years ago: A small company which somehow is managing to attract some top-class talent with fun story ideas, and which is getting a lot of notice as a result. ASP does unfortunately have a problem with shipping items in a timely manner, which will probably limit the company’s success until they iron out these issues. But I can’t complain about the quality of their content so far.

RASL #1 Jeff Smith’s Bone was one of the best comics of the 90s, and after doing a 4-issue SHAZAM! mini-series for DC, Smith is back with a new ongoing series, RASL. RASL is about a thief who can apparently walk between dimensions – though he doesn’t have full control over the power, which he calls going into “The Drift” – and who sprays the letters “RASL” on the walls of his targets. In this issue, something goes wrong and he ends up in the wrong world being pursued by a man with a gun, with the suggestion that he knows who sent the man. He runs away and ends up in a desert landscape. So it’s a bare introduction to the premise, and not much clue of where it’s going to go from here.

RASL could hardly be more different from Bone: The latter was comical and romantic, while this one is hard-hitting and noir-ish. That’s certainly not bad, but it was surprising to me. The fantastical elements of the premise remind me a little of Quicken Forbidden (and whatever happened to that series, I wonder?), but no doubt Smith will put his own stamp on the series soon enough.

So I still have little idea what to expect from RASL, but I’ll certainly be back for more.