Saturday, September 21, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Hive

The Hive is the sequel to X-ed Out, which I wrote on about a month ago (click here to see that review).  Again, this graphic novel was loaned to me by a friend.  This one had pretty much the same strengths and weaknesses as the first volume.

Again, we join Doug, a troubled art student who can't seem to find meaning in life, but who comes alive in a bizarre nightmare world he enters when he sleeps.  In this volume, he's found a job in the hive where female breeders live, though we don't see what it is they're breeding.  He's even located the woman he had seen earlier and knew he had to follow.  She stays in something like a hospital bed all the time, and speaks of her fears that soon she's be like the women she hears in the other rooms, screaming all through the night.  He brings her a series of romance comics she enjoys, and we even get to read a couple pages from one.  As you might expect, it's as surreal and sinister as the rest of his nightmare world.

Meanwhile, in his waking life, Doug is now dating the girl he liked in the first volume, so he's progressed a little.  Also, his haranguing father has passed away, which seems to free him a little psychologically.  But the girlfriend has an ex-boyfriend who leaves them threatening phone messages, and his discovery of a box of photos of his father's life before he has born, when his father seemed happy and not to have entered the unemployed-depressive period Doug remembers, does little for his self-esteem.

As before, the dream sequences were the best.  The hive world is cool and creepy.  This time around, we've already seen its bizarre lizard and feral pig inhabitants, but we're starting to get a better sense of how things work, in a dream-logic sort of way.  I really like the art in these sections: the forbidding mix of industrial landscape and east Asian village, the toxic caves that make up the interiors of buildings, the sushi made of fish you really, really don't want to eat.

And still, Doug's waking world is less interesting.  Doug himself is still passive-aggressive, and not a very likable person.  He lacks the energy and drive to really improve his situation, and wants everyone to think well of him without being willing to actually be a good person.  There are signs he's starting to break out of his deep-freeze, but if I were his frustrated girlfriend, I wouldn't bother waiting around for him.  Indeed, it seems to me she's with him less because he's interesting and more because he might offer some sort of protection against her ex.

I feel like we're about halfway through or so, and I expect Charles Burns's next volume will finish up the story.  I'm interested enough in seeing how the nightmares work out that I might accept a loan of the third volume, whenever it comes out, but I probably won't seek it out on my own.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Remembering Frederick Pohl

According to an obituary a few days ago in the Washington Post, science fiction author Frederick Pohl died on 2 September, aged 93.

In junior high and high school, I read science fiction voraciously, and Frederick Pohl was one of my favorite authors (another was Frank Herbert, whom I have previously written about).  The Post obituary describes his works as "sociological science fiction," and that seems right.  Although his books were what I would call "hard" SF, meaning they were real science-based rather than space opera, they were more concerned with the effects of space travel and future technology on human society and individuals than on the gee-whiz aspects of the technology itself.

His most famous books, which I read multiple times, were the Heechee saga.  In these books, humans discover a hollowed-out asteroid where thousands of spaceships belonging to a long-dead alien race have been stored.  After some tinkering, humans figure out how to make the ships fly, but are unable to interpret the controls to allow them to control the destinations.  A few of the ships fly to resource-rich planets, but most end up at useless or dangerous spots.  The adventurers who take these ships stand to earn vast fortunes, but only at the risk of death.

The first book in the saga, Gateway, concerns Robbie, a man who earned a great deal of money on a voyage on a Heechee ship, but at the cost of the life of his girlfriend, who was the love of his life.  He escaped the ship only barely as it approached a black hole, while the other crew members didn't make it.  What makes it even more difficult is that he knows the other crew members aren't dead yet--thanks to the odd (but true!) nature of extreme-gravity physics, time is ever-slowing for them as they approach the black hole, so while a decade has passed for him, only a few seconds have gone by for them.  He worries that his girlfriend believes he betrayed them to escape, and the guilt from this haunts him.  The book alternates chapters between his visits to a computer psychiatrist named Siegfrid and the action as it took place in the past.  Over time, his psychiatric sessions help him come to terms with the tragedy.

As mind-blowing as his books were, the real reason I am writing about Frederick Pohl is that he once helped me with a school project!  In the ninth grade (this would have been 1990), we had to write a long report on America.  I forget the exact parameters of the report, but it was open-ended enough that for my topic I chose "America in the Year 2020."  As part of my research, I wrote to a number of people about what they thought America would be like in 30 years.

One of the people to whom I sent a letter was Frederick Pohl, who wrote back with a well-thought out response.  His view was that the main challenge facing Americans in the future was the environment, and the stress the American way of life placed on the natural ecology.  What a thrill it was to hear from a man I much admired!  I still have the letter to this day.  I might also add, I received an "A" on the paper.

Good-bye to a fine author, and one who was admirably generous with his time for a fan who asked for his help.  Though it's been twenty years since I've read a book by Frederick Pohl, his works have been a huge influence on me.  I can only hope some bit of his classiness has rubbed off on me as well.

Monday, September 2, 2013

What I'm Reading: Complete Peanuts, 1979-80

So this is the second volume of the Complete Peanuts I've read in the past few months.  The Complete Peanuts is a project to publish every strip of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, from its inception in 1951 to its final panel in 2000.  It's a gargantuan undertaking, and a new volume covering two years is issued every six months.  The project is now up to the late 1980s, but I'm a little behind and have only reached 1979-80.  (See here for my review of the 1977-78 volume.)

This volume introduces only one new character, Henrietta, a girl bird who joins Snoopy's Beagle Scout troop for their hikes.  She figures prominently in the book's longest sequence, a six-week (!) arc of strips when she and another of the birds get tired of camping with Snoopy one night and go into town, where they get into a fight with some bluejays. Charlie Brown gets a call to come bail Henrietta out of jail.  Walking her back to rejoin the Beagle Scout troop, he gets lost in the woods and Peppermint Patty and Marcie have to go searching for them.  Of course they all manage to find each other, with Snoopy, who in story time has been gone from home just two or three days, only vaguely remembering "that round-headed kid" when he encounters Charlie Brown.

Another lengthy sequence is an unusually somber arc where Charlie Brown feels woozy and checks himself into the emergency room.  The problem may be that he's been hit on the head with too many fly balls.  During his stay in the hospital, the other characters react to his illness.  Sally moves her stuff into his room, Peppermint Patty and Marcie wait on a bench outside the hospital, and Lucy uncharacteristically grieves that he might not come back.  As Schroeder points out to her, "It's interesting that you should cry over him when you're the one who always treated him so mean."  So distraught is she, that she promises when he gets out, she'll hold the football and really, truly let him kick it.  The punchline is that when he does get out and she holds the football, he misses entirely and kicks her in the hand, requiring her to get a cast.

Not as solid as the 1977-78 volume, but still pretty good.  Schulz isn't quite sure what to do with his new character, Eudora (introduced in 1978), and some of the running gags, especially with Peppermint Patty's poor grades, are getting pretty threadbare.  Still, the two sequences described here, and a couple other long-ish ones, are quite entertaining.  As with the past few volumes, I have to ask myself after this one whether I'll get the next volume.  The answer this time is yes--I bought this and the 1981-82 volume as a set to save money.  After that, we'll see.  The strip has started its slow decline--it's still good at this point, but each new year of strips brings less delight than the last.