R.I.P. Dave Cockrum

Sad news: Comic book artist Dave Cockrum has passed away at age 63.

Cockrum was one of the key artists of the “modern age” of comics. First he helped modernize the look of the Legion of Super-Heroes in the early 70s, just before their second peak of popularity when Mike Grell arrived. Many of the Legion’s costumes of the era were designed by Cockrum, and then simplified by later artists since Cockrum tended to festoon his characters’ outfits with myriad dongles and patterns. More significantly, Cockrum co-created the “new” X-Men with writer Len Wein, and illustrated their early adventures for writer Chris Claremont. Again, the X-Men became even more popular when Cockrum left the title to be replaced by John Byrne, but he was instrumental in crafting the look and feel of the series.

Cockrum drew his characters with more, uh, robust physiques than most of the artists who preceded him – although his style bears some similarity to late-60s Jack Kirby – and a dynamism which surely influenced later artists such as George Perez. I always loved his costume designs, and the energy of his layouts and figures. I’m especially fond of his Legion work.

He’d been struggling with diabetes in recent years, and has been one of the old guard of artists who hasn’t gotten much work in the industry lately, which is too bad since I think he still had a lot to contribute, and he was a much better artist than a lot of the Image-influenced artists around today.

Sad news to wrap up the weekend.

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Alastair Reynolds: Galactic North

Review of the short story collection Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds’ other collection published this fall, Zima Blue and Other Stories, is a good collection, but Galactic North is the shit, man!

It collects Reynolds’ short stories set in the universe of his cycle of novels starting with Revelation Space. It’s almost a primer of how his future history developed, featuring several pivotal events mentioned in the novels, as well as a few characters who either appear or are alluded to there. The collection actually almost works as its own standalone story cycle, which is pretty neat since it wasn’t written that way.

Reynolds’ basic strengths are his ability to create and describe places that feel truly alien, or at least deeply disturbing, and his flair for suspense and horror. For instance, “Nightingale” features the hunt for a war criminal onto a dormant automated hospital ship, which is about as frightening an environment as one can imagine: What exactly do you think a hospital ship needs to be like in order to care for the injured during a war? And on top of that it’s dark and potentially airless, and was run by an artificial intelligence whose mental state is anyone’s guess. You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing that eventually it will. And then when it does, Reynolds twists the knife in an unexpected and hideous way. While essentially a haunted house story, it’s gripping stuff.

Reynolds also explores the nature of humans who have been modified into something unusual. The first story in the sequence, “The Great Wall of Mars”, concerns the Conjoiners – humans who have formed a technological group mind – and the opposition they face from the rest of humanity, who are afraid the Conjoiners will absorb everyone else into their fold. In contrast to the common thinking about posthuman experience – which is often portrayed as unknowable or at least weirdly alien and antithetical to the human experience – Reynolds explores the thoughts and motivations of these nascent posthumans, drawing them as all-too-human, a sort of enlightened cult. The story’s protagonist, Nevil Clavain, arrives among the Conjoiners as a negotiator and learns that they are playing a deeper game than anyone had suspected.

Similarly, “Weather” takes place in a damaged lighthugging starship, and provides some insight into the mysterious Conjoiner Engines of the novels, and another oblique glimpse into the lives of the Conjoiners themselves. It’s basically a short character drama, but it illuminates the backdrop considerably.

There are two other stories which provide a glimpse of the early days of Reynolds’ future history: “Glacial” is a mystery about a dead – and unexpected – human colony, and lets us visit with some friends from “Great Wall” again. “A Spy in Europa” is a rather brutal spoy story which descends into horror. It’s not as polished as “Nightingale”, but it sheds some light on another faction in the setting, the Demarchists, who walk a fine line between heaven and hell, but of course are as fallible as all the rest of us.

“Grafenwalder’s Bestiary” concerns the legacy of those early Demarchist days, and the dangers of obsession, as its titular figure is obsessed with collecting creatures from around the galaxy and showing them off to his peers, and is interested in acquiring one special creature in particular. It contains echoes of Reynolds’ novel Chasm City (my favorite of his novels), but has its own unique sense of foreboding and terror. It’s a “be careful what you wish for” sort of story.

The volume wraps up with the title story, which follows its characters on a chase far into the future, while humanity is otherwise threatened by an implacable foe. I can see what Reynolds was aiming for here, with characters living for millennia through time dilation, focused (more or less) on their specific goals, but I had trouble connecting with the characters or believing in their motivations over such a long time frame. I found the nature of the foe to be a little hard to swallow, too. The story is okay, its grand scope making it an interesting curiosity, but it feels more like a writing exercise for dealing with lengthy timeframes, which comes into play in the novels. Still, I liked it more than the other story in the collection, “Dilation Sleep”, which is a pretty straightforward “things are not what they seem” yarn. To be fair, Reynolds’ afterward suggests that it was written earlier than the other stories in the book.

But very few short story collections hit home runs every time, and Galactic North does much better than most in that regard. There are stories here to delight, provoke, horrify, and wonder at. It’s outstanding, and it reminds me (once again) that Reynolds really is one of the very best writers of science fiction working today.

Den of Inequity

While Debbi and her friends went off to a crafts faire today, I decided to go try my hand at poker again.

Oh boy, it did not go well.

Unlike other recent sessions, I was picking up plenty of good starting hands. I got dealt A-K four times, for instance. This is a big hand which you’ll get dealt about once every 80 hands, and since I played for about 2 hours – around 70-80 hands – I was way ahead of that curve. As I understand it, the way you make money with A-K is by flopping top-pair-top-kicker, which will happen about 1 time in 3. Even if you miss, if you raised before the flop then you will usually be getting odds to call a bet to see the turn, when you might still pair one of your cards. Since I almost always raise with A-K before the flop, winning a big hand 1 time in 3 should more than compensate for losing the other two times.

Guess how many times I paired a card by the turn? If you guessed “zero”, then you’re right. That’s bad luck.

I also got dealt some pocket pairs, and although I never managed to flop a set (3 of a kind, which should happen about 1 time in 8 ), I did win a big pot with Jacks, and a small one with Sevens.

What killed me were the A-K hands, and then having a good hand which lost to an even better hand several times. The latter are the ones where you really take a beating, two pair losing to a set, or a big pair losing to a full house. Painful. Overall I ended up losing my whole buy-in for the session, which was certainly discouraging.

But I felt that I played well, which was encouraging. I didn’t chase bad draws, and I didn’t do things like play middle pair with no redraws against someone who clearly had top pair. So I wasn’t playing hands and losing and thinking, “Geez, why did I do that?”

And I even had some fun moments: One hand I played A-Q, and flopped a full house! Action was slow on the flop, so I just called the one bet, and I started betting on the turn, and I think I got as much action as I could reasonably have hoped.

Another time I checked my big blind with A-3, and the flop was A-A-2. The turn and river were an 8 and a J, and one other player was betting. I suspected he had the other Ace, but I thought he might be bluffing after checking around on the flop. It turned out he had A-5, and neither of our kickers played, so we split the pot.

My last hand of the day, I played J-9s, and flopped an open-ended straight draw. I suspected at least one other person in the hand had a big pocket pair, but lots of people saw the flop despite a raise. I got pot odds to call to the river, but I missed my straight, darnit. I even went all-in on my last bet! The other two players at the showdown had Kings and Aces, and the rockets took the pot. Just bad luck.

So I decided that was enough for me. There ain’t no justice!

Incidentally, I went to Garden City Casino, where I haven’t been in a while. They always seem a little cramped compared to some other casinos – they pack a lot of games into their floor space – but I like them well enough. I hadn’t been in quite a while, but I’ll have to go again.

Turkey Digestion Day

We made our annual trip over to the house of our friends Bill and Elaine yesterday for their terrific-as-always Thanksgiving dinner. Debbi brought her usual pizza-bread appetizer, which disappeared even faster than usual! After a brief (but fortunately not problematic) mishap in determining whether the turkey was cooked, we ate a huge meal, and then a huge dessert consisting of pies and ice cream, after which I just about fell asleep, but instead played with their persian cats for a while and wished I wasn’t completely stuffed so I could go have some more pie.

Oof.

We justified the feast by going for a 2-hour walk yesterday through the Palo Alto Baylands around Byxbee Park, and I went for an hour bike ride this morning when I got up, which took some intestinal fortutide since it was forty-freaking-two degrees out at 9 am this morning. Gah. Winter is here.

Today we spend a good chunk of the day cleaning house: I cleaned old cobwebs from the ceiling corners, swept and mopped the tile floors and the study. Debbi vacuumed and did laundry and cooked a turkey breast so she could have leftovers. We each cleaned our own bathroom. All very productive! The cats were kind of weirded out by all the activity, though.

Hard to believe it’s Friday already, that my week off is about over. But we still have the weekend ahead of us!

This Week’s Haul

Comic books purchased the week of 22 November 2006.

  • 52 #29 of 52 (DC)
  • Jack of Fables #5 (DC/Vertigo)
  • Superman/Batman: Absolute Power TPB
  • Wonder Woman #3
  • Red Menace #1 of 6(Wildstorm)
  • Fantastic Four: The End #2 of 6

This week’s 52 has the cover tag: “Last Days of the JSA”. To which I thought, “What, again?” Of course, a new JSA series is due to be launched in a few months, so the story within is about as exciting that that implies.

I’ve been reading the paperback collections of the Superman/Batman series even though they often don’t make a lot of sense. Jeph Loeb’s ideas are often pretty nifty, but he’s not very good at executing them. In Absolute Power, three super-villains from the future come back in time and adopt Superman and Batman as children, and together the five of them eliminate most other heroes and set up Supes and Bats as world dictators. Things then go horribly wrong, leading to a little romp through alternate timelines.

There are plenty of questions left unanswered: The villains have a blind spot where Wonder Woman is concerned, which is odd since she’s both famous and extremely powerful, and this helps lead to their undoing. Also, why would they bother to adopt Batman, who is not powerful and is unlikely to be a significant asset in world domination? And although Loeb tries, playing around with history and with the characters’ memories to the extent he does here is very hard to pull off, and the story doesn’t quite hang together. The art by Carlos Pacheco is very pretty, though, and is almost worth the price all by itself.

The book does end on a high note, though, with Loeb performing a neat connection between Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come and Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?. So overall this volume gets a thumbs up (which is more than the last volume, Supergirl, got from me).

The re-relaunch of Wonder Woman is running terribly late. The art by Terry and Rachel Dodson is very pretty, but the story is a huge shrug, as Allan Heinberg doesn’t really have a new spin to put on DC’s prime superheroine.

Red Menace has Jerry Ordway’s always-wonderful artwork to recommend it. The story is by a trio – Danny Bilson, Paul DeMeo and Adam Brody (none of whom I’ve heard of before) – and it’s okay. It concerns a hero being accused by Joe McCarthy’s HUAC in the 1950s, and it’s a promising start, although so far it feels rather by-the-numbers. If the writers manage to pull it off, then this might slide in nicely alongside Astro City. We’ll see.

Puttering Around

I can’t say I’ve been getting a lot done on my week off. I’ve hit some used bookstores, bought and read this week’s comic books, eaten a bunch of good food (including trying the new burger restaurant, The Counter, which recently opened in Palo Alto; pretty good!), talked to friends and family on the phone, and done some reading.

Precious little writing, however – here or elsewhere.

Other than playing poker on Monday, my main accomplishment has been going for a bike ride every morning so far this week. Yesterday I went for a lengthy ride (meaning, about 15 miles – not lengthy for some, but lengthy for me) around some territory I’ve only biked once before, and along the way I discovered some new places to go walking. So tomorrow – now that Debbi’s off for the rest of the week – we might go for a walk in the morning rather than a ride.

It’s been cool and sometimes foggy for my morning rides, but by the end of the outing I’m pretty hot and sweaty, so I guess it’s not cold enough! Actually by 10 am it gets up well over 60, which is plenty warm for biking.

So, not the most productive week. But it’s not over yet! And if I regret anything, it’s that it’s flying by so quickly!

Change My Luck

I’m fortunate to have this whole week off from work, so today I went up to have lunch with Debbi at Specialties (mmm, yummy cookies). Afterwards, since I was in the area, I went to Lucky Chances to play poker, since it’s rarely convenient for me to get up there.

Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving was surprisingly busy, although most of the people there were older than I am – certainly at my table. Fortunately, it was not so busy that I had to wait long for a table.

I’d been reading up some more on low-limit Hold ‘Em, and was especially interested in this Mike Caro article on how many novice players fold too often, so I wanted to try to fold less often once I was in a pot, since I suspect I get pushed off pots too easily.

The table was medium-loose (maybe 4-6 people typically seeing the flop), and passive (people didn’t usually bet after the flop unless they had a pretty big hand). As you will often hear me complain, I didn’t get dealt many pocket pairs, and after 2-1/2 hours I’d only been dealt one, a pair of Kings which held up. I mentioned this to the guy on my left, and promptly got dealt a pair of 2’s (which were good when a 2 came on the turn), and another pair of kings shortly thereafter (which made a winning straight).

I had a lot of luck with straights, limping into pots with things like J-Ts (that’s “Jack-Ten suited”, for any of my non-poker-playing readers who have gotten this far) and making a straight. One thing about straights – unlike flushes – is that they’re much harder to see just looking at the board, so they can be a sneaky way to get more money into a pot you’re likely to win.

I probably lost a little money in some small mis-plays. For instance, not betting my straight at one point when I was fearful of a full house when the board paired on the turn. I need to stop playing from fear, I really do. Also, when I had my pair of 2’s, everyone checked on the flop, the turn was a 2, as I said, the guy on my right bet, and I raised, and everyone folded. Probably if I’d just called I could have gotten at least one more bet – maybe more – out of the pot. My thinking was that I was at risk playing against a higher set, but really, the odds of that are not likely.

My biggest mistake was one pot where I thought I had a good chance to push people off the pot with middle pair (a pair of 9s, with a King on the board), but I wasn’t able to push off the guy with a King (despite his poor kicker), and although I had a straight draw too, it didn’t hit. Probably I was too optimistic there.

Overall, I finished ahead by a few bucks. I felt like I played much better than I have in recent months, not a big “aha!” session, but just some progressive improvement. If I can think through what I’m doing better while I’m at the table, I ought to be able to do even better. But, you know, it’s a start.

Elizabeth Moon: The Speed of Dark

Review of the novel The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.

  • The Speed of Dark

    • by Elizabeth Moon
    • PB, © 2002, 369 pp, Del Rey Books, ISBN 0-345-48139-9

There’s probably a great science fiction novel out there about people with autism, but I don’t think this is it. The Speed of Dark takes place in the near future, where autistic people received treatment to help them to function better in society, and eventually autism can be fully treated in infants. The book’s protagonist is Lou Arrendale, a middle-aged autistic man who received the former treatment. He is part of a group of autistics who work at a large company, and he has non-autistic friends, especially the people in the fencing group he’s part of.

The novel is very low on what I call “ideas content”, meaning there’s little that’s different in the book’s world from the real world, and thus it seems barely to qualify as science fiction (or even fantasy). The treatment that Lou received is really only a plot device to make him functional enough to relate his story, but then, there are high-functioning autistics in the real world, so it’s not much of a leap.

The book spends most of the first half portraying the basic nature of Lou’s life, which gets repetitive rather quickly. It’s revealed that there is an experimental treatment for adult autistics that could make them normal, and the book walks a balancing act regarding whether Lou will be forced to have the treatment, and whether he would even wish to do so. (The book plays the usual semantic games with whether or not autistics are “normal”; I use the term “normal” here simply as a shorthand for “not autistic”.)

Moon is a very good writer in her smithing of words and her ability to evoke emotions, and Lou is a likeable character. But ultimately I just wasn’t interested in the portrayal of the life of an autistic man in-and-of-itself (it wasn’t nearly as interesting as, say, reading Al Schroeder’s journal – now defunct – and his accounts of his two autistic sons, for instance), and beyond that there wasn’t much to the story. I think it would have been a much better novel had the treatment itself been the central element of the story, and focused exploring that transition in greater depth, but it barely merits an afterthought. The Speed of Dark could have been a much more expansive and challenging piece of work, but I thought it ended up being a fairly mundane novel with an unusual protagonist.

(The Speed of Dark was the November 2006 selection for Kepler’s Books’ speculative fiction book club.)