Barack Obama and the Supreme Court

One thing I’m surprised didn’t get more attention during the Presidential campaign – honestly, I can’t recall it being mentioned more than in passing – is the impact the next President will have on the US Supreme Court. Consider the ages of the Justices now that Barack Obama has been elected:

  • John Paul Stevens, age 88
  • Ruth Bader Ginsberg, age 75
  • Antonin Scalia, age 72
  • Anthony Kennedy, age 72
  • Stephen Breyer, age 70
  • David Souter, age 69
  • Clarence Thomas, age 60
  • Samuel Alito, age 58
  • John Roberts (Chief Justice), age 53

Unfortunately 3 of the 4 more right-wing members of the court are age 60 or under. But I wonder if John Paul Stevens has been waiting for this election to retire, while the other 5 Justices are certainly at the age that they might consider retiring in the next four years the way Sandra Day O’Connor did. And if Obama wins reelection in 2012, well, it’s conceivable that he could end up with 4 or 5 or maybe even 6 appointments.

(Okay, honestly I expect Scalia will remain on the Court until he croaks, but we can hope, can’t we?)

Given the disastrous results of the Reagan and Bush appointments to the Court, it would be wonderful if Obama had the opportunity to transform it back into something more reasonable.

Mike Resnick: Santiago

Santiago is my first exposure to Mike Resnick’s writing. I think it first attracted my attention when I read about its sequel, The Return of Santiago, and the notion of a major figure in the political scene whose existence wasn’t actually verified intrigued me. I think I’d expected it to be similar to Jack McDevitt’s novel A Talent For War, which is one of my favorites.

Santiago is told like a folk tale, with each chapter headed by a four-line stanza from a poem written by a far-future scribe recording the figures on the inner frontier of the human Democracy. The inner frontier is just that, full of rogues and scoundrels and bounty hunters. Sebastian Nightingale Cain is one such bounty hunter, who picks up the trail of the notorious criminal Santiago and starts to follow it, with reporter Virtue MacKenzie tagging along hoping to get the story on the mythical figure. Cain wants to head off the Angel, another bounty hunter, who’s also after Santiago. Along the way they meet many colorful figures as they unravel the mystery.

Santiago is low in science-fictional “ideas content”, with only the standard array of faster-than-light starships, laser guns, and other boilerplate science fictional trappings. The story rests entirely on the characters and on the mystery of Santiago, and neither of them really grabbed me. The characters are pretty simplistic, although Cain’s bluster – which he’s earned the right to – is often amusing. I figured out who Santiago would be about half-way through, and was disappointed that that was the extent of the mystery. It’s not so much a bad story as just not a very deep story, and the folk tale storytelling approach isn’t really my cup of tea.

I like McDevitt’s approach to this sort of mystery more (although it has its flaws, too), and the melange of characters is similar to – though not as strong as – the set in the comic book GrimJack (which was originally published around the same time as this volume). Santiago has a certain folksy charm, but it was a little too simplistic for my tastes.

Election Day

I voted this morning. My polling place is 3 blocks from my house, so I always take a nice walk down there in order to vote and enjoy the weather. That one can take a “nice walk” there in early November is a clear sign that I live in the Bay Area and not in Wisconsin any longer. Anyway, there were 5 people in line when I got there, and I ran into both one of my neighbors and one of the guys I play Magic with. I guess we have a fairly quiet district. Or maybe everyone votes after work.

My political leanings are somewhere to the left of the mainstream Democratic party, but I’m not especially enamored with any of our small parties, so I typically vote party-line Democratic. I think Obama will make a pretty good President; the bar isn’t set real high for him to be our best President since LBJ. (I’m not hugely enamored of LBJ, either, but he was a President who did some great things and some awful things, which is still a step up from everyone since, who have generally been mediocre-to-awful.)

Although I voted party-Democratic in the national and state elections, I wasn’t real enthusiastic about doing so. I’ve been disappointed in the Pelosi/Byrd Congress, who haven’t really stood up to the Bushies. I’m not real fond of the California state legislature, either, although to be fair I think California’s state government is basically screwed: Federal mandates and an extremely-difficult-to-manage budget make it practically ungovernable except during boom times. The problems are partly structural (a 2/3 majority vote of the populace is required to raise taxes, and a 2/3 vote of the legislature is required to pass a budget), and partly because I think California is just too big and too diverse to govern at the state level. I think California would be better off if it were split into two states, probably along north/south lines. But that’ll never happen.

We had some interesting state propositions this time around:

  • I voted against the “anti-freedom” propositions, 4 (parental notification of minors seeking abortions) and 8 (outlaw gay marriage). These measures are both just plain evil, rolling back freedoms and rights for many citizens. I think anyone who supports Prop 8 should also have their right to marry revoked – it seems only fair. I suspect 8 will fail, but I’m concerned that 4 will pass.
  • Prop 1 is a bond measure for high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I voted against. I generally oppose bond measures as less efficient than passing new taxes, but I will occasionally vote for a county bond measure with a critical goal in mind. I also don’t think high-speed rail between the two cities will be more than a novelty. Plus, I’m very concerned with what it would do to the rail corridor on the SF peninsula, where I live, which hasn’t been worked out. I don’t know how this one will turn out, though.
  • Prop 5 reduces sentencing for certain nonviolent crimes, while Props 6 and 9 strengthen law enforcement and impose tougher penalties. I think we lock up far too many people (over 1% of the US population is presently incarcerated) with far too little attention paid to rehabilitation, so I voted for 5 and against 6 and 9. (I suspect 5 will fail, 9 will pass, and 6 could go either way.)

County measure B is a tax increase measure to bring BART to San Jose. I’m really on the fence on this one, as I think BART is a good system which is well-run, but which is also very expensive due to poor design at its inception. I like it a lot better than “heavy rail” alternatives than CalTrain, though. But it’s expensive to extend. I ended up voting yes, although I suspect the measure is going to fail.

Anyway, I’ll be watching the results tonight. Five Thirty Eight is currently projecting a 98.9% chance of an Obama victory. One of their more interesting posts recently has been What a McCain Victory Looks Like.

I’m not as excited as some Democrats about an Obama Presidency, mainly because I think the Bushies have left the country in such horrific shape that the next President is going to have some huge hurdles to overcome just to hold things together. If the Bushies hadn’t screwed things up so soundly then I think it would be a much more exciting time. As it is, I’m just hoping things can turn around soon enough that the Democrats don’t lose control of Congress in 2010.

Still, getting the Repugnicans out of the Oval Office is a great first step forward.

Jay Lake: Mainspring

Jay Lake is one of the current generation of SF writers who I heard about through word-of-mouth on the Internet,. Mainspring is his first novel, and also my first exposure to his writing.

It’s a “fantastic alternate world” story, in that it takes place on an Earth where the British Empire is ascendant and America is merely one of its provinces, but where magic is real, and the world is bisected by a giant wall around the equator. Our hero, Hethor Jacques, is a young apprentice clockmaker in New Haven, Connecticut who receives a visitation from the angel Gabriel. Gabriel tells him that the mainspring of the world is winding down, and that he has to find the fabled Key Perilous and wind it up again, a feat the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the days of Christ.

At first unsure that it’s not just a dream, Hethor is convinced by the small silver feather that Gabriel leaves behind, and a visit to his master’s son, and then to a librarian at Yale, convinces him that his vision was real. Unfortunately, it also causes him to run afoul of his father’s dishonest and greedy sons, who force their father to turn him out onto the street. This sets Hethor on a path to Boston to petition the Queen’s representative for help. This, too, goes badly, but is a blessing in disguise as he ends up conscripted to one of Her Majesty’s airships (zeppelins), where he meets Simeon Malgus, who also has some knowledge of the strange doings of the world. The ship travels to the equator to extend the empire’s reach into the wild areas near the wall around the world.

The adventure goes badly for the ship, and Hethor is separated from them and carried to the top of the wall, where the gears on which the Earth travels around the sun are located. He and Malgus travel over the gears into the southern hemisphere where they become separated. But Hethor is taken in by some small aborigines who call themselves the Correct People. He forms a close bond with one of the People, Arellya, and the People accompany Hethor – whom they see as a messenger from God – on his mission as he forges ever southward in search of the Key Perilous and the Mainspring. He is opposed in this by William of Ghent, a sorcerer who served the regent in Boston, who believes that if the mainspring is allowed to wind down then it will signal a new age for mankind in freedom from the whims of heaven.

I generally prefer SF over fantasy, and this story leans more to the fantasy side than I’d expected. But my basic problem is that the story is a straightforward quest/travelogue: Hethor has a mission and he sets out to fulfill it even though he really doesn’t have much idea how to go about it, and this provides the impetus to send him across this quirky world that Lake has created and show us many things about it. Mixed in with this is Hethor’s coming-of-age tale. But despite putting these elements together in a single tale, I don’t think it manages to transcend any of them.

A travelogue is successful only to the extent that the world fascinates. The archetypal fantasy travelogue, of course, is The Lord of the Rings. There’s certainly some interesting stuff in this world, but throughout the story I kept wondering: Why is Earth on a gear? How did civilization evolve so closely with our own despite being separated from the southern hemisphere? What other effects did the bisecting of the Earth have? These questions are outside the scope of the story, but they’re the ones I was most interested in, which meant the travelogue had some big missing pieces for me.

Hethor’s narrative is okay, but doesn’t really distinguish itself in the annals of quest or coming-of-age stories. At first Hethor pursues his quest through some reasonable avenues, seeking out knowledgeable people to help and direct him, but as it progresses once he enters the southern hemisphere his attraction to the south pole doesn’t seem rational, even in the context of the story’s supernatural elements (why the south pole rather than the north?). His progress into manhood is decidedly quirky, especially once he meets Arellya and the Correct People. Lake certainly deserves props for the odd turns the story takes at this point, but overall it wasn’t a remarkable story.

Finally, I felt let down by the conclusion, as Hethor ends up leading a strange life after the conclusion of his quest, leaving everything he’d known behind. In a way it does make sense given where he ended up travelling to, but it wasn’t a very satisfying conclusion to the story.

Stories like this always make me feel like I’m missing some piece of the big picture, suspecting that there’s an allegory that I can’t see. There’s a lot of Christian imagery in Mainspring, and I have negligible understanding of Christianity other than the broad ways in which it’s influenced the culture I live in, so if Lake is trying to make points about Christianity through the story, they went entirely over my head. But if the book is what it appears to be to me, well, Lake shows considerable craftsmanship in his world-building, but the story just wasn’t very interesting to me.

This Week’s Haul

  • Final Crisis: Rage of the Red Lanterns, by Geoff Johns, Shane Davis & Sandra Hope (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #47, by Jim Shooter, Rick Leonardi & Dan Green (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #5, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley & Richard Friend (DC/Vertigo)
  • Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #1 of 2, by Warren Ellis, Alan Davis, Adi Granov & Mark Farmer (Marvel)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist #19, by Duane Swierczynski, Travel Foreman & Russ Heath (Marvel)
  • Nova #18, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wellington Alves & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • Thor #11, by J. Michael Straczynski, Oliver Coipel & Mark Morales (Marvel)
  • Hellboy: In The Chapel of Moloch, by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #24, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
  • Project Superpowers #7 of 7, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger & Carlos Paul (Dynamite)

Aside from this week’s spotlight reviews, I can recommend Nova as I always do – it’s a pretty satisfying Secret Invasion crossover – and Madame Xanadu, which is getting a little more interesting with each issue. I don’t think it’s selling very well, though, so I don’t know how long it will last.

Final Crisis: Rage of the Red Lanterns Final Crisis: Rage of the Red Lanterns really has nothing to do with Final Crisis – which seems to be the case for many comics labelled as tie-ins – although it does state that it takes place between Final Crisis #1 and #2. It’s really an issue of Green Lantern, and is a prologue to the next storyline in that series. Having recently picked up the first three trade paperbacks of the current Green Lantern series, I’ve decided to start buying it regularly. Unfortunately, I’ve missed at least the last two major story arcs, which included “The Sinestro Corps War” and “Secret Origin”. The latter is yet another retelling of Hal Jordan’s origin, which seems pretty unnecessary at this point, but the Sinestro Corps stuff was pretty important. As far as I can tell, there are now both Green Lanterns and “yellow lanterns” who have been at war, and the Green Lantern Corps won, but at some cost. Apparently there are also red lanterns which we see here, and other colors of the spectrum who were implied by a two-page spread in DC Universe #0 a few months ago. While it’s a rather obvious idea, what matter is what writer Geoff Johns does with it.

The main Red Lantern is the ugly dude on the cover, who has the improbable name of Atrocitus (you’re kidding, right?), but he has a whole bunch of help, including a former Green Lantern, and they’ve all gone through some nasty ritual to become wearers of the red power rings, seeking to avenge themselves on both the Green Lantern Corps and the Sinestro Corps. Motivations are thin here, so I presume either they’ll be explained in the coming months, or were explained in a storyline I missed. So I’m taking that on faith. (This is an object lesson of why it can be hard to get into ongoing series well into their run; I’m a pretty smart guy, and I’ve been reading DC Comics for over 30 years, so I’m very familiar with the universe, but there’s a lot here that I can’t figure out. A recap would have been nice.)

The different corps each have a different insignia on their uniforms; the Red Lanterns have their lanterns turned on their sides, like a stylized “H” (for “hate”, presumably). I’m not sure what the Sinestro Corps’ insignia is supposed to symbolize.

Anyway, I enjoyed it enough that I’m sticking with my decision to read the regular series. I’m not sure what I think of Shane Davis & Sandra Hope’s artwork. The characters’ poses are pretty strong, but backgrounds are few. Something about the linework evokes the sketchy Image Comics/Rob Liefeld look, which isn’t a good thing, but overall the art is much better than that. I think it’s a step down from the series’ earlier artists (Carlos Pacheco, Ivan Reis), but I don’t know if Davis is going to be the new series penciller. Guess I’ll find out when the next issue of Green Lantern comes out.

Legion of Super-Heroes #47 The big news in Legion space this week is this widely reported interview with writer Jim Shooter about the end of his run on the Legion – the series is cancelled as of #50, but he’d intended the story to run through #54. While I’m a little suspicious of the dirt about his relationship with DC – whether it comes from Shooter or anyone else – because of Shooter’s somewhat strained reputation (deserved or not) within the industry, Shooter’s frank statements about his work on the series are interesting:

“But let’s focus on the real culprit – me. I guess what it really all comes down to is that my work wasn’t good enough to overcome all the small problems further down the line. If you’re out at first base, it doesn’t matter if you slide in at second.”

Shooter enjoyed writing scripts once again for a team he has become synonymous with over the years. “I’ve trained myself to think of [my scripts] as the end product, and I am content that I did the best I could.”

In some ways I’m sorry that he wasn’t able to execute his arc the way he’d intended, but honestly his tenure has been quite frustrating due to his approach to characterization. In past era characterizations of the Legionnaires have been his strength, but in this go-round we’ve seen some re-hashes (Lightning Lad’s shaky self-confidence as leader, Saturn Girl cheating on him with an edgier Legionnair), and a several characters who just seem embarrassing. Projectra has been at both extremes, with some interesting bits where she adjusts to life without her destroyed homeworld, but also her rather pathetic requests for Phantom Girl to read an old comic book to her. It seems like Shooter’s been trying too hard, especially to make the characters seem hipper and more futuristic, which seems at odds with Mark Waid & Barry Kitson’s strong run on the title.

This particular issue is a fill-in focusing on the long-dormant Brainiac 5/Dream Girl storyline from Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s run: Dream Girl had died, but Brainy has been set on reviving her, and she visits him in her dreams. Here they consummate their relationship before it all goes wrong, mixed with a perplexing turn of events involving another member. I guess it was intended to be a 2-parter, but the second part got axed due to the cancellation. Nonetheless, Brainy’s characterization just doesn’t ring true to me, and I’m still trying to figure out what exactly Dream Girl’s status is, as she’s not alive, but then, where is she?

The issue also features the fill-in art team of Rick Leonardi and Dan Green, two artists who made their names at Marvel Comics in the mid-1980s. I’ve never been a big fan of either one, though. Green’s inks always seem to stiffen the pencils, and here over Leonardi the characters seem to resemble Frank Miller’s more recent work, with broad lips and flat noses, and occasionally some expressions that seem either flat or out-of-place. It doesn’t really work for the book.

I was pretty excited about Shooter’s run when it was first announced, but very little of it has worked for me, which has been quite disappointing. Well, only three more issues for him to fit in what he’d planned to do with the story. Maybe he’ll pull it out.

Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #1 Warren Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men run has been merely okay so far, and now there’s a two-issue series spinning out of the current story. A “ghost box” allows people to move between dimensions, and this series explores what some other dimensions’ encounters between the X-Men and the mysterious Subject X have involved. The first story herein provides insight into what Subject X is up to, while the second shows a steampunk X-Men (“The X Society”) confronting the character.

It’s obviously mainly an opportunity for Ellis to play with multiple dimensions, but it looks like it could provide some insight into what the X-Men will be dealing with in the main title. And I’m always a sucker for parallel worlds stories. So this one gets a thumbs up, and makes me a little more enthusiastic about where Ellis is going with this.

Project Superpowers #7 Project Superpowers has been Alex Ross’ latest project, but boy, it’s sound and fury signifying nothing. A bunch of old-time heroes are brought out of limbo into the present day, where they confront the one who imprisoned them (who thought he was doing the right thing), and also encounter a shadowy society who wanted them removed so they couldn’t interfere with it. The bad guys use reanimated corpses as soldiers to attack the heroes, but the whole fight – which spans three issues – really makes no sense at all. The ongoing redemption of the hero who imprisoned the others is trite, and overall the characterizations are extremely thin. The characters are many of those who appeared in Alan Moore’s Terra Obscura stories (they’re in the public domain), but Moore did so much more with them in those stories.

Moreover, this issue marks the end of chapter one, rather than being the conclusion to a complete series as I’d expected when I started buying it. I definitely am not coming back for chapter two.

I’ve enjoyed Alex Ross’ work when he’s been paired with a strong writer – Kurt Busiek or Mark Waid on Marvels and Kingdom Come – but I haven;t enjoyed any of the projects he’s done with Jim Krueger. Avengers/Invaders has been pretty good, but all of the pair’s series are paced very slowly and are so dark that they’re downright bleak. I think it’s time for me to accept that the pair write comics that just aren’t interesting to me.

J. Michael Straczynski has been working similar territory in The Twelve, and it’s much better than Project Superpowers. As maddening as I sometimes find Straczynski’s comics writing, The Twelve has been intriguing and character-driven, really the polar opposite of PS.