A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘popular literature

[BLOG] Some Monday links

  • blogTO shares some wacky and unusual maps of the Toronto subway system.
  • The Broadside Blog’s Caitlin Kelly describes her reason why she did not want to have children.
  • Gerry Canavan has another post of links.
  • Centauri Dreams looks at Earth-like planets with circumbinary orbits and considers a new model of gas giant formation that explains Jupiter.
  • Crooked Timber examines the ongoing controversy over the Hugo awards for science fiction, as captured by American right-wing authors.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper examining the habitability of water worlds.
  • The Dragon’s Tales notes the delay of China’s Mars exploration program.
  • Far Outliers looks at different systems for representing vowels with consonant symbols in the languages of the Pacific Islands.
  • Geocurrents has some posts–1, 2, 3–looking at ways in which the state system does not reflect the reality of the Middle East.
  • Language Hat looks at the revival of Manx.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money notes that the United States’ Endangered Species Act is important for saving not just individual species but entire ecosystems.
  • Marginal Revolution tells readers how to find good Iranian food.
  • Steve Munro is dubious about the economics of the Union-Pearson Express.
  • pollotenchegg looks at changing industrial production in Ukraine in 2013, finding that the east was doing poorly.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer looks at the military situation in eastern Ukraine.
  • Cheri Lucas Rowlands shares beautiful pictures of Bermuda.
  • Peter Rukavina continues mapping airplanes flying above Prince Edward Island.
  • The Russian Demographics Blog reports on the results of the famine in 1930s Ukraine.
  • Window on Eurasia argues that the Belarusian language is still endangered, quotes a Putin confidant on eastern Ukraine’s separation, looks at the impact of the Internet on Karelia, and looks at ethnogenesis as two small nations of the North Caucasus merge.

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • Centauri Dreams examines different ways in which starships can decelerate.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper examining the potential habitability of exomoons orbiting bright white main-sequence stars, between F5 and F9.5. Ultraviolet radiation is key.
  • The Dragon’s Tales notes a Chinese ASAT weapons test.
  • Joe. My. God. notes the Swedish language now has officially added the gender-neutral pronoun hen to its vocabulary.
  • Language Hat notes an ambitious new project to digitize ancient Irish-language documents.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer is critical of the Democratic Party’s stance on abortion when it gets in the way of necessary policy, likening it to the Republican Party’s ongoing satisfaction of its base.
  • The Planetary Society Blog notes the final interesting weeks of Messenger‘s survey of Mercury, with photos.
  • Peter Rukavina remembers when in 1995 he was commissioned by the government of Prince Edward Island to set up a provincial website.
  • Torontoist reacts with humour to the impending merger of Postmedia and Sun Media.
  • Towleroad notes a lawsuit brought by a Michigan women against her former gym for being too trans-friendly.
  • Understanding Society examines the mechanisms connecting experiments with policies.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy argues against mandatory voting and mandatory jury service.
  • Window on Eurasia observes a controversial election among Moldova’s Gagauz and looks at the extent to which Islam in Russia is not under the government’s control.
  • Yorkshire Ranter Alex Harrowell goes on at length about the ridiculous Biryani project, a failed dirty tricks effort to sabotage the English Defense League and radical Muslims. Wow.

[BRIEF NOTE] On the justified controversy around the Joker variant cover of Batgirl #41

In the past couple of years, I’ve become a fan of the graphic novel. Based on my purchases, I’d have to admit to be being particularly interested in the mainstream North American superhero comic, the material put out by Marvel and DC and the like. At its best, this tradition’s combination of the grand-scale soap opera and science fiction can, with the right art, be sublime. Marvel’s The Dark Phoenix Saga comes to mind as one example of this. Smaller-scale triumphs are also possible, dealing with the struggles of characters to function as best as they can in a world not unlike ours. One of the smaller-scale successes I’ve been following is that of DC’s Batgirl, one of the strongest successes of that publisher’s–let’s say–problematic New 52 relaunch. First written by Gail Simone, then by a new creative time, Batgirl works for me as a character study of Barbara Gordon, a member of the Bat Family who in addition to coping with the minutiae of life as a customed hero in Gotham City is also continuing her recovery from her crippling by the Joker. It’s not a story without artistic problems, but on the whole Batgirl works for me quite nicely.

Yes, I was aware of Rafael Albuquerque‘s very controversial variant cover from a very early point. Yes, I had problems with it.

To start, the reference to the events of 1988’s Batman: The Killing Joke, wherein writer Alan Moore was apparently told by his editors bored with Batgirl that it was fine to go ahead and “cripple the bitch”, is problematic because the storyline there is itself problematic. Moore himself has said that he probably should have been reined in by his editors on this point. The Killing Joke is very good, an engaging and entertaining graphic novel that does a great job of examining the character of the Joker. Its signal flaw is that it does so by inflicting a crippling injury on the prominent female character of Batgirl so as to cause great angst for male characters, here Jim Gordon and Batman himself. The Killing Joke and this cover also very strongly evoke the imagery of sexual assault in the bargain. The consensus appears to be that, in Moore’s book, while Barbara Gordon was not raped, she was sexually assaulted, being forcibly stripped and photographed. The only thing that keeps the shot Barbara Gordon from being a stand-in for the prototype of Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators list is that, unlike Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alex DeWitt, Batgirl did not die.

The cover brings the reader back to that moment again when it really need not. The character of Barbara Gordon has been explored at length since 1988, both in the original DC Comics continuity when she became the wheelchair-wielding information superhero Oracle and in the New 52 setting where advanced medical treatments have healed her damaged spine. In each instance, Barbara Gordon has been explicitly depicted, at length and often, as a character who has been dealing with the legacies of Joker’s attack much more effectively than the character depicted in this image. She resists; she struggles; she even fights back. Here, she is shown defeated, looking out with teary eyes at the audience pleading for help. It just doesn’t fit with the character as developed for the past couple of decades by, among others, Gail Simone herself. As this recent Comics Alliance interview with the book’s current creative team makes clear, this cover just does not fit the content of the book.

For that matter, it doesn’t fit with the other covers in June’s upcoming Joker month feature. I first saw this cover as part of a collection of covers, still more covers being available via links at the Scans Daily post. The other covers are either light-hearted or surreal. Possibly the most vulnerable one features Wonder Woman dancing with the Joker as he holds a bomb to her back, but even in that one she is depicted as poised and prepared. Albuquerque’s cover is accomplished, but it misses the playfulness that the other covers seem to achieve. This is a major problem for a book that’s targeted towards–among others–a female audience that likes seeing an ongoing series about an accomplished woman superhero who isn’t just fodder for Women in Refrigerators.

If there is a tragedy to this at all, it’s that a simple change could have made this cover significantly less objectionable. A minor alteration to the cover publicized by Sam Sykes has recently been spreading across Twitter.

In Albuquerque’s original, Batgirl is begging her readers for help. In this retelling, simply changing the expression in her eyes and her mouth depicts a Batgirl who is angry, ready to take advantage of the Joker’s weakness for the camera to strike. This still would have been a dark cover, darker than the theme of the series to date, but it would also have been a cover that would have been a much better fit for the series and the whole Joker month.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 24, 2015 at 2:10 am

[LINK] The Vulture on Fan Fiction

Vulture‘s Laura Miller describes for a mass audience in her article “You Belong to Me” the growing popularity of fan fiction. Is this the genre’s moment to enter into the mainstream?

Annie Proulx got ficced. In a recent interview in the Paris Review, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author confessed that she wishes she’d never written her most famous work, the short story “Brokeback Mountain,”about the star-crossed romance between two cowboys. Having fans is a good thing, especially for authors of ­quiet, spare realism — not exactly a cohort with a healthy surplus of readers. But in the last few years, writers, filmmakers, and other artists have seen fans seize control of their creations and re­imagine them as fan­fiction, or fic, as its aficionados like to call it. Proulx first got ficced when a whole new audience came to “Brokeback” after the Academy Award–winning film adaptation was released in 2005. Less reverent than her typical reader, these fans have busily set themselves to producing what Proulx has termed “pornish” fiction based on her story’s two main characters, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar. “Unfortunately,” she said, “the audience that ‘Brokeback’ reached most strongly … can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed.” The resulting stories, Proulx grumbled, “just drive me wild.”

Proulx is far from the only mainstream artist being dragged unwillingly into a new, fan-dominated world. Once exiled to obscure corners of the internet, fanfiction — amateur fiction based on characters from preexisting works or real-life celebrities — has lately become a force driving popular culture. As Proulx realized, fans these days aren’t satisfied to just sit back and consume. They want to participate. They want to create. And they don’t want to wait for anyone else’s permission to do it. Millions of fanfiction stories have been uploaded onto vast online archives where other fans read, rate, and comment on them. Romances, often torrid, between ostensibly straight male characters like Harry Potter and his onetime nemesis Draco Malfoy are especially popular, and there’s an entire category of fanfiction, called mpreg, in which beloved male characters and celebrities (e.g., One Direction singer Harry Styles) are able, bizarrely, to get pregnant. Fandom’s untrammeled imagination is also colonizing the wider world. E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey started as Twilight fic. And what are J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek and Star Wars reboots — which take the original source materials (called “canon” in fic circles) and shape them to new ends — if not examples of the fanfiction spirit when enabled by hundreds of millions of dollars?

Although human beings have been stealing and reworking each other’s stories for millennia, fanfiction as we now know it began back in the days of Star Trek fanzines, on whose mimeographed pages female Trekkers wrote of Mr. Spock swooning in the arms of an ardent Captain Kirk. For decades, fanfiction communities — soon to migrate en masse to the web — ­functioned as a subset of science-fiction and fantasy fandom, where they were treated, by the mostly male nerds who ran things, like a younger sister best banished to her room whenever company came by. The internet changed all that by ushering in the era of the networked fan, often a girl who sampled her first taste of fic in Harry Potter fandom. Like it or not, the once-Olympian creators of the canon — known among fic writers as TPTB, or “the powers that be” — now have little choice but to listen to them. Robust, established online networks of Harry Potter and Twilight fans played a significant role in making The Hunger Games books into best sellers and, after that, blockbuster films.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 18, 2015 at 10:27 pm

[LINK] “Chip Zdarsky Strikes Again”

Torontoist’s Will Sloan has a nice interview up with Toronto cartoonist Chip Zdarsky, the offbeat cartoonist who is behind the revival of Howard the Duck as well as the artist for Sex Criminals.

Torontoist: Like a lot of people, my main exposure to Howard the Duck has been through the bad George Lucas movie. Did you know the comics?

Chip Zdarsky: I knew the comics before the movie, or around the same time. I love the movie—I was in Grade 6 when it came out, so I was kind of the perfect age for it. At that age, it’s a walking, talking duck—I’m going to enjoy it on some level. And actually, I really loved the closing song, I don’t know if you…

(*singing*) “Howaaard… the Duck…”

Yeah, yeah… it’s got that great ‘80s movie moment where Howard stumbles onstage, someone throws him a guitar, and he can just play really well. But I loved that song so much as a kid I actually recorded it off the TV.

But I had a weird Uncle Fred, who was the old hippie guy who collected all the underground comics. So whenever I was at his house, I’d go through all the Robert Crumb books I probably shouldn’t have looked at, and Howard the Duck, and I loved them. He kind of bequeathed them to me a few years ago. So when Marvel asked me to pitch on it, I was like, “Oh my God!” and I just pulled out the stack of old black-and-white magazines, and I was ready to go.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 17, 2015 at 10:33 pm

[LINK] “Terry Pratchett’s Joyful, Absurd, Human Fantasy”

Julie Beck’s essay at The Atlantic about Terry Pratchett, passed away today, is a superb tribute to the writer’s genius.

There is deep truth to be found in fictional stories, no less so if they include witches and wizards and a flat earth carried through space on the back of four elephants on the back of a giant turtle. Fantasy at its best is more than just escapism. The distorted funhouse mirror of an imagined world can sometimes reflect our own more clearly than the most realistic fiction. Pratchett’s books were fantasy at its best.

But what set him above and apart was his sense of joy. The Discworld novels are satirical, but it’s a kind satire, running over with affection for all the wacky, messed-up things in life. Even death.

One of Pratchett’s greatest and most beloved characters is Death, capital D, the walking personification of the end that waits for everyone. He looks like a classic reaper—a skeleton in a dark robe, wielding a scythe, talking only in all caps. But he rides a horse named Binky. He loves cats. When the Hogfather—Discworld’s equivalent of Santa Claus—goes missing, Death stands in, donning a beard and a red cloak, and doing his best to bring presents to Discworld’s children, even if he finds it a little hard to adjust to the role.

Death is “implacable, because that is his job,” Pratchett once wrote in The Guardian. But “he appears to have some sneaking regard and compassion for a race of creatures which are to him as ephemeral as mayflies, but which nevertheless spend their brief lives making rules for the universe and counting the stars.”

[. . .]

This wonder in life shines through in his writing, in all of his characters, from the gods down to the rats. (Who are met by their own Death—sometimes called the Grim Squeaker. Whimsy even at the very end.) The people and the creatures who inhabit Pratchett’s world are determined, difficult, insightful, and absurd. As are we all.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 13, 2015 at 1:02 am

[LINK] “China’s Arthur C. Clarke”

The New Yorker‘s Joshua Rothman makes the convincing case for the relevance of Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin.

Last week, a team of astronomers at Peking University announced the discovery of a gigantic black hole with a mass equivalent to twelve billion suns. The black hole formed near the beginning of time, just nine hundred million years after the Big Bang. It’s twelve billion light years away, but, because the quasar surrounding it glows four hundred and twenty trillion times brighter than the sun, it’s still visible to telescopes on Earth. “How could we have this massive black hole when the universe was so young?” Xue-Bing Wu, the lead astronomer, asked, in a paper published in Nature. “We don’t currently have a satisfactory theory to explain it.”

Reading about these developments, I thought of Liu Cixin, China’s most popular science-fiction writer. Liu is fifty-one years old and has written thirteen books. Until very recently, he worked as a software engineer at a power plant in Shanxi. In China, he is about as famous as William Gibson in the United States; he’s often compared to Arthur C. Clarke, whom he cites as an influence. His most popular book, “The Three-Body Problem,” has just been translated into English by the American sci-fi writer Ken Liu, and in China it’s being made into a movie, along with its sequels. (If you Google it, beware: there are some big plot twists that you don’t want spoiled.) Liu Cixin’s writing evokes the thrill of exploration and the beauty of scale. “In my imagination,” he told me, in an e-mail translated by Ken Liu, “abstract concepts like the distance marked by a light-year or the diameter of the universe become concrete images that inspire awe.” In his novels, a black hole with the mass of twelve billion suns is the sort of thing that Chinese engineers might build. They’d do it a billion years from now, after China’s spaceships have spread throughout the universe.

American science fiction draws heavily on American culture, of course—the war for independence, the Wild West, film noir, sixties psychedelia—and so humanity’s imagined future often looks a lot like America’s past. For an American reader, one of the pleasures of reading Liu is that his stories draw on entirely different resources. Much of “The Three-Body Problem” is set during the Cultural Revolution. In “The Wages of Humanity,” visitors from space demand the redistribution of Earth’s wealth, and explain that runaway capitalism almost destroyed their civilization. In “Taking Care of Gods,” the hyper-advanced aliens who, billions of years ago, engineered life on Earth descend from their spaceships; they turn out to be little old men with canes and long, white beards. “We hope that you will feel a sense of filial duty towards your creators and take us in,” they say. I doubt that any Western sci-fi writer has so thoroughly explored the theme of filial piety.

But it’s not cultural difference that makes Liu’s writing extraordinary. His stories are fables about human progress—concretely imagined but abstract, even parable-like, in their sweep. Take the novella “Sun of China,” which follows Ah Quan, a young man from a rural village that has been impoverished by drought. In the first three chapters, Ah Quan sets out from the village and finds work in a mine; he travels to a regional city, where he learns to shine shoes, and moves to Beijing, where he works as a skyscraper-scaling window-washer. Then the story takes a turn. We discover that it’s the future: China has constructed a huge mirror in space called the China Sun, and is using it to engineer the climate. Ah Quan gets a job cleaning the reflective surface of the China Sun. It turns out that Stephen Hawking is living in orbit, where the low gravity has helped to prolong his life; Hawking and Ah Quan become friends and go on space walks together. (“It was probably his experience operating an electric wheelchair that allowed him to control the miniature engine of his spacesuit as well as anyone,” Liu writes.) The physicist teaches the worker about the laws of physics and about the vastness of the universe, and Ah Quan’s mind begins to dwell on the question of humanity’s fate: Will we explore the stars, or live and die on Earth? Soon afterward, he is saying goodbye to his parents and setting out on a one-way mission to explore interstellar space. By the end of the story, Ah Quan’s progress is representative of humanity’s. He has traversed an enormous social and material distance, but it pales in comparison to the journey ahead.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 12, 2015 at 10:41 pm


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