Profile: Science Fiction, Space Opera
Summary: Adapted from Goodreads.com, “One hundred and fifty years from now, in a world where Africa is the dominant technological and economic power, and where crime, war, disease and poverty have been banished to history, Geoffrey Akinya wants only one thing: to be left in peace, so that he can continue his studies into the elephants of the Amboseli basin. But Geoffrey’s family, the vast Akinya business empire, has other plans. After the death of Eunice, Geoffrey’s grandmother, erstwhile space explorer and entrepreneur, something awkward has come to light on the Moon, and Geoffrey is tasked – well, blackmailed, really – to go up there and make sure the family’s name stays suitably unblemished. But little does Geoffrey realise – or anyone else in the family, for that matter – what he’s about to unravel.
Eunice’s ashes have already have been scattered in sight of Kilimanjaro. But the secrets she died with are about to come back out into the open, and they could change everything. Or shatter this near-utopia into shards…”
After Action Report:
I’ve mentioned this before, but Alastair Reynolds’ novels leave me a little bewildered. The scope of his settings are daunting and even Blue Remembered Earth, a book that starts and finishes within our own solar system and a scant 150 years in the future, promises to have gotten just as big by the time we get to the end of the Poseidon’s Children series. Reynolds packs a lot of interesting ideas into this opening novel, but the plot seems to get pushed aside to make room for it all.
Not that Blue Remembered Earth is bad. It feels like its setting up for something really interesting and, like a lot of setup stories, it doesn’t quite stand on its own. Reynolds’ attention to detail draws a compelling map to the stars and the future of humanity, but the reason we keep turning pages has nothing to do with Geoffrey Akinya or his sister, Sunday.
Profile: Science Fiction, Time Travel
Summary: From the back cover,
“Vanishing from Earth on February 30, 2162, while working on a problem of quantum theory, research chronologist Sam Magruder is thrown back 80 million years in time. Endowed with the intelligence of a twenty-second-century man, Magruder struggles to survive, feeding on scrambled turtle eggs and diligently recording his observations on a stone-slap diary, even as menacing tyrannosaurs try to gnaw off his limbs.
Filled with magnificent descriptions of the dinosaurs as only Simpson himself could render them, The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is not only a classic time-travel tale, but a philosophical work that astutely ponders the complexities of human existence and achievement.”
After Action Report:
The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is a strange little novella that is equal parts time travel story, homage to H.G. Wells and paleontological argument. The author, George Gaylord Simpson, was one of the most influential and prolific evolutionists and paleontologists of the 20th century, if not all time. More curiously, he wasn’t a fiction writer. Of the 15 books he wrote or contributed to, only the posthumously published Dechronization approached the genre of science fiction and even then from the perspective of an academic.
Before I get into the review itself, I would like to mention that I would be much less conversant on the matter of 1940s paleontology were it not for the substantial introduction by Arthur C. Clarke included in my slim paperback edition. Clarke discusses the sometimes unpopular opinions of Simpson that were eventually borne out by new discoveries, but also reminds the reader that this book was being written in the mid-1900s and some of what we knew then has since been proven wrong. Most importantly, he emphasizes the science fiction nature of the novella, drawing the attention back to the setting which makes some unusual assumptions about the shape of the future that might not be so far off reality.
Target: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha – Mahou Shoujo Ririkaru Nanoha
Studio: Seven Arcs
Genre: Science Fiction, Action, Comedy
Notable Themes: Magical Girl, School Life
Fanservice Level: Heavy*
Reasons to Watch:
Visually dynamic, high action magical combat
A quintessential ‘Magical Girl’ experience
Reasons to Not:
Heavily reliant on anime tropes and stereotypes
Low episode count makes the pacing a little manic
Similar to: Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Cardcaptor Sakura, a long list of other Magical Girl shows.
Magical girl (Mahou Shoujo) series are a long time staple of anime. Most Americans in my generation got their first taste of anime either from Dragonball Z, or from Sailor Moon, probably the most iconic magical girl show to cross over to the States. The genre ranges from the uber-commercialized product placement, like Pretty Cure, to some of the most interesting critiques of anime as an art form, like the much lauded Puella Magi Madoka Magica. These shows have huge appeal in their target market, 6 to 11-year-old girls, but also tend to be popular in the 16 to 30-year-old male and otaku demographics. The same cross-demographic appeal is what has made the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic reboot so successful.
In contrast, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha was written almost exclusively to appeal to the older male demographic. It uses tropes and storytelling tools more commonly associated with the giant mecha genre and characters pulled from an H-Game. At the same time it retains much of the subject matter typical of other magical girl shows. The combination of high action mentality and magical girl sensibility produces a uniquely fun series that escapes the worst of both of its parent genres. So we end up with a show that packs in some fantastic action sequences right alongside significant social dramas and resolves both with giant lasers. What more could a fan ask for?
Profile: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Military
Summary: From the back cover, “John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.
The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce–and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.
Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.
John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.”
After Action Report:
I’ve resisted reading this book for a very long time. The reviews were just too universally good, and I’ve been burned that way before. But after hearing Scalzi interviewed on NPR about his new book, Red Shirts, I finally started wondering what all the fuss was about. And for once, I wasn’t disappointed. Old Man’s War is a tremendous novel in an understated package that handles the horrors of war and the wonders of the final frontier with equal aplomb. It approaches its subject matter with the correct mix of humility, awe and confidence to tie the reader to the plight of the cast, and even this fictional version of the human race.
Old Man’s War is narrated in first person perspective by John Perry, an aging ad copy writer. He and his wife Kathy decided to get a second lease on life by joining the Colonial Defense Force. But Kathy died before their number was up, so John is on his own as he enlists and becomes a part of humanity’s first line of defense. Scalzi’s vision of the future has humanity expanding colonially into the stars, while Earth remains isolated. But the galaxy is not empty and many other species desire the same resources we need. Competition for planets and systems is fierce and humanity isn’t the big kid on the block.
Profile: Comics, Mystery, Science Fiction
Summary: From the Back Cover, “One is wanted for a murder. The other is on the run for knowing too much. Together Black Canary and Starling work in Gotham City, taking down the villains other heroes can’t touch. But now, as a grizzled newspaper reporter threatens to expose them, the tow get sucked into a nightmare involving stolen pharmaceuticals, terrorists for hire and killers in stealth suits who can appear – and disappear – at will.
Realizing that Gotham City’s citizens are in grave danger, Black Canary recruits Katana, a vengeful samurai, and the notorious bioterrorist Poison Ivy. Will the Birds of Prey be able to work together to save Gotham?”
After Action Report:
I came to (American) comics relatively late in life, and entirely because of Joss Whedon. I started collecting the Buffy Season 8 trade paperbacks in college, but couldn’t really get excited about trying to break into the enormous continuity clusterfuck of ether DC Comics or Marvel’s main universe. I would read a few stray issues here or there if an author I liked was guesting, but that was about it. When DC decided to do a partial reboot of their continuity it seemed like a good opportunity to start seriously exploring comics. That lasted all of three weeks, but now that the first trade paperbacks from the reboot are coming out, I decided to take another stab at it.
Birds of Prey is an interesting series that walks in the shadows of some of DC’s biggest names, but has managed to stand on its own as both a concept, and as a storyline. The original concept was the pairing of a paralyzed former Batgirl, now called Oracle, and the impulsive Black Canary taking on organized crime in the city of Gotham. The team grew over the years, but at the core of the series was the conflict between the headstrong Black Canary and the cautious and organized Oracle. The reboot undid Oracle’s paralysis, and made Black Canary the team leader in charge of a new batch of unknowns, including the mentally unstable Katana and the former bio-terrorist Poison Ivy.
Reasons to Watch:
Strong primary story arc
Surprising political and economic commentary
Reasons to Not:
Slow to get to the main story
Female cast is heavily sexualized
Similar to: MADLAX, Vandread, Mai-Otome
I’m probably going to take some flak for this one. Kiddy Grade is the frequent target of some heavy criticism, both from inside and outside the anime fanbase. There’s an unusually high level of fanservice for a show from the first half of the Aughts and the series takes a while to really hit its stride. In spite of these flaws, the show has a lot of redeeming features for those who can stick with it past the first few, admittedly vapid, early episodes.
Kiddy Grade is set in a far-flung future where humanity has expanded out to colonize the galaxy. The use of terraforming and genetic manipulation has enabled the human race to occupy a vast variety of planets. This human diaspora is overseen by twin organizations: the Galactic Union (GU), a political body similar in role to our UN, and the Galactic Organization of Trade and Tariffs (GOTT), an enforcement organization used to police interplanetary economics. The protagonists, Éclair and Lumière, are special agents of the GOTT. Gifted with superhuman abilities, they work to ensure that the galactic economy is preserved from greedy governments, criminals and warmongers.
Profile: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Science Fantasy
Summary: Taken from the back cover, “Exposed as the Second Dreamer, Araminta has become the target of a galaxywide search by others equally determined to prevent – or facilitate – the pilgrimage into the Void. An indestructible microuniverse, the Void may contain paradise, but it is also a deadly threat. For the reality that exists inside its boundaries demands energy drawn from planets, stars, galaxies – from everything that lives.
Meanwhile, the story of Edeard, the Waterwalker, continues to unfold. With time running out, Inigo, the first Dreamer, must decide whether to release Edeard’s dangerous final dream. And Araminta must choose whether to run from her responsibilities or face them down, with no guarantee of success or survival. But all these choices may be for naught if the leader of a rival faction enters the Void. For it is not paradise she seeks there, but domination. ”
After Action Report:
Okay, I’m not sure if I wasn’t paying attention to book two, but The Evolutionary Void definitely jumped the tracks a bit and careened off into the nebulous science fantasy genre. Not that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with science fantasy, but the effect is sort of like going to a Star Trek convention, passing out on the last day and waking up to the cosplay contest of an anime con. Not unpleasant per se, but definitely disconcerting.
Where book two, The Temporal Void, was mostly about the events within the Void, and by extension Edeard’s story, book three takes us back outside to resolve the ongoing problem of the Living Dream pilgrimage. The majority of the narrative is spent picking up plot threads from the first book that were left withering to make room for the copious number of dream chapters in book two. I should note that I started Evolutionary Void almost two full years after reading the first two books, and spent a substantial amount of time trying to remember who the hell everyone was with mixed success. Most of the protagonist groups have finally aligned against the forces of the Living Dream or the Accelerator Faction, but haven’t necessarily teamed up. All that aligning means less in the way of Ludlum-esque chases and more pseudo-scientific technobabble along with a fair portion of posthumanist philosophy.
Profile: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Expanded Continuity
Summary: From goodreads.com, “It is, truly, provably, the End Days for the Gzilt civilization.
An ancient people, they helped set up the Culture ten thousand years earlier and were very nearly one of its founding societies, deciding not to join only at the last moment. Now they’ve made the collective decision to follow the well-trodden path of millions of other civilizations; they are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new and almost infinitely more rich and complex existence.
Amidst preparations though, the Regimental High Command is destroyed. Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Cossont appears to have been involved, and she is now wanted – dead, not alive. Aided only by an ancient, reconditioned android and a suspicious Culture avatar, Cossont must complete her last mission given to her by the High Command – find the oldest person in the Culture, a man over nine thousand years old, who might have some idea what really happened all that time ago. Cossont must discover the truth before she’s exiled from her people and her civilization forever – or just plain killed.”
After Action Report:
Having reviewed more than half of Banks’ excellent Culture novels, I’m getting to a point where I’ve run out of things to say. The Hydrogen Sonata continues the series’ exploration of the galactic metacivilization called the Culture with the same strong storytelling and eye for humor. The themes Banks is exploring are natural extensions of those we found in Look to Windward and Excession. Of course, the problem with consistency, even good consistency, is that it is boring to read about.
Target: Scrapped Princess
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
Notable Themes: Mystery, Science Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic
Fanservice Level: Average
Reasons to Watch:
A mysterious story that transcends genre
Broad appeal without sacrificing substance
Reasons to Not:
Main characters are somewhat one dimensional
Similar to: Turn-A Gundam, Last Exile, Avatar: The Last Airbender
It kind of baffles me that Scrapped Princess doesn’t get mentioned more often. The series is a nearly perfect example of how anime can tell interesting stories that would do well on U.S. television. It has action, mystery, comedy, drama, cool concepts, and solid characters. Combine that with the above average production values and decent dubbing and I just don’t understand why this wasn’t picked up by some U.S. network during the anime boom in the late Nineties and early ‘Aughts. Regardless, Scrapped Princess is one of those rare series that has something for everyone and doesn’t really compromise to get it all packed in.