The Sandman, Vol. 5 & 6 (“A Game of You” & “Fables & Reflections”) by Neil Gaiman

A Game of You (1993)

This one is an excellent example of Gaiman taking some side characters and some earlier introduced throwaway concepts and expanding that all into a new story-arc. A Game of You has a lot in common with The Doll’s House and could even be seen as a soft followup: there’s weird dream stuff interfering with the real world, and there’s a cast of odd people living in a flat. The metaphysics of how the Dream world works is getting a bit fuzzy now. I think Gaiman has been playing fast and loose with those metaphysics since the beginning, inventing just what the stories need.

This volume is very much about identity. The dreamworld is brought into the story to show that people have their own secret, private hidden lives inside them, and the external human body doesn’t always reflect that. The dreamworld, however, is where these things are all laid bare. The main character, Barbie, lives in this fantasy realm in her dreams in which she is a princess, and in her waking life she paints her face in all sorts of patterns as if she is painting masks for herself to hide behind. A second major character in the story is Wanda, a trans man. She is constantly struggling to be accepted as a woman by the people in her life. Gaiman draws a thematic connection between Wanda’s identity struggle and the unseen lives that we live in the dreamworld.

The fantasy realm is cute, full of talking animal companions and magical forests. Gaiman invents some funny throwaway fantasy nonsense about a quest and a magical artefact that he presents in a tongue in cheek way. There is some fantastically gross stuff going on in the real world with a witch who takes matter into her own hands, and eventually all the stories connect and the Sandman steps in at the last moment to set things right. So, again, it is a volume about new characters, a group of oddballs. Compared to The Doll’s House, this story arc is a bit more straightforward. Where in The Doll’s House the brilliance was found in single chapters, here the story is less scattershot and forms a solid whole, where only at the end the thematic connections become clear. I liked it, but it doesn’t reach the height of some of the previous arcs.

Fables & Reflections (1993)

A short story collection and this time a connecting theme between the stories seems to be historical times and places. One story plays out during the French Revolution, another in ancient Rome, another in ancient Baghdad… and so on, and always the Sandman shows up to bring one thing or another to a conclusion. Each story introduces its own characters but we also get to know some peripheral characters in Sandman’s greater story, such as his son (he has a son???) and Johanna Constantine. In this way, the shorts add to the larger body of work about Dream’s life, but not in a big, significant way.

His son Orpheus gets a grand treatment in “The Song of Orpheus”, a special issue which is basically a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. But with the Sandman and his lovely brothers and sisters playing their roles as Greek gods. It’s a beautiful adaptation. It has tragedy, horror and a bit of comedy at the end to complete the dramatic cycle with a bit of levity. And it shows the Sandman again as someone who isn’t quite human in his thinking.

The collection is a nice romp around space and time. I don’t have much else to say about it, except for that the variety of these stories shows that Gaiman is a fantastic storyteller. All of these stories work and are worth reading; they have emotional moments and interesting ideas and cheeky endings. It is also nice to see the variety in art styles as not every story is drawn by the same people.

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R.A. Lafferty – Past Master (1968) Review

8/10

The planet Astrobe, about five hundred years in the future. It is mankind’s last chance to make something for itself. The Old World failed, then we got the New World, America, which also failed, and now Astrobe is our last shot, but again things are going down the drain. A triumvirate of rulers, representing power, knowledge and luck, comes together to choose a new president, but no one qualifies. The three leaders decide that the best course of action is to resurrect someone from the distant past to lead humanity at its 25th hour: Sir Thomas More. Maybe More can now bring to life his ideas of Utopia from that book he once wrote?

But let’s not forget that this is a Lafferty novel. The master of the weird improvisational ideas and tall tales. Lafferty doesn’t take any obviously serious approaches to his writing – the rulers I just mentioned for example have names like Cosmos Kingmaker and Fabian Foreman – and much of it feels allegorical, but that doesn’t mean that underneath all the silliness there aren’t real emotions being explored. Writer Alexei Panshin said of this novel that it offered “easily the most real immediate problem of spiritual agony yet seen in science fiction.” But at the same time such explorations are hidden under a kind of frantic comedic writing that is more like Alfred Bester’s but more absurd, where on a page to page basis it is a joy to read with constant crazy invention. 

Astrobe is pretty much a utopia, even though many of its inhabitants choose to walk away from that so-called perfect society, the Astrobean Dream, and live in squalor. It’s actually a dystopia, because its Dream is so heavily policed that everyone must fall in line. Lafferty also adds some androids and aliens into the mix, and they threaten to either control or entirely replace humanity. Astrobe’s society is modelled on More’s Utopia (1516), but little did they know that More wrote it as a farce, as an angry humor piece (or so Lafferty has More explaining it that way). So when More arrives in this future world and is told that something is terribly wrong and is asked to fix the place as a frontman for a triumvirate of rulers, well, he has a whole journey ahead of him.

There is a lot of religious subtext going on in this novel. According to some reviewers, the plot lays out the points that mystery religions follow like the Rosicrucian Order, but I am not familiar enough with that to say much about it. Although there are secret inner circles in the book that claim to have the truth about the world. I see that Thomas More meets a monster as soon as he arrives on Astrobe and that it is pretty much the Devil. There are Adam and Eve figures mentioned. And More cannot escape the fate that is in store for him. In real life, he was executed for refusing the Oath of Supremacy that pretty much put the King above the Church, and in the novel there is a similar situation waiting for him, but one in which Golden Astrobe tries to restrict access to the afterlife. I think Lafferty chose More as a subject as much for his religious ideas and for the way his life ended as for his writing of Utopia. Lafferty was a devout Catholic (no wonder that Gene Wolfe is such a fan of his writing) and of all his books, this one is the most blatant in showing that interest. While these themes alienate me a bit, the book was nevertheless a pleasant read and the subtexts didn’t bother me that much.

The Thomas More that Lafferty creates here is not a static representation of an historical figure. He’s a real character in this book, with doubts and spiritual struggles. At first he falls in love with Astrobe, with the Humanist ideal that it tries to attain. But he is also drawn to the margins of it, to the places that its rulers don’t want him to see. He’s drawn to the people who opt out of the cloying, stifling society. He’s drawn to nature outside the ideal cities. He’s the Doubting Thomas who is both attracted to the Humanist ideal and upholds his Christian values and struggles to combine the two. For Lafferty, the ultimate solution to fix Astrobe lies of course in Christianity and he constructs the surrealist world that he creates here with allusions to Christian figures and metaphysics. I find this a false dichotomy to juxtapose a soulless dystopia with Christianity. Although Catholicism presents a world view that doesn’t mesh with mine, I can see the limitations of the Humanist ideal of Astrobe and how utopia can easily transform into dystopia. 

Ok, so maybe the subtexts did bother me a bit. The world that he constructs, which seems to behave like a dreamworld and not as our reality, also allows all sorts of Christian archetypes to pop up, for people to return from the dead and some of its metaphysics to be tangible. There is some confusing and outdated argumentation about consciousness in the final parts. But Lafferty’s style is so intriguing to read that I still finished the whole thing.

I was scared to read this book. I loved his short stories in Nine Hundred Grandmothers and his Best Of collection but they were so crazy and dense that I feared that his full novels would be exhausting and all but unreadable. Lafferty kept the craziness in check, though, and the novel was a smoother reading experience than I expected. I flew through it. Even so, there is a whole lot going on in this novel. On the surface it is about a complex dystopian sci-fi situation that is full of mirages and inner circles, and behaves like a weird dreamland, and the way the plot moves makes it an eccentric, cryptic work with many layers and subtexts. I’m not sure I understood all of it. I’m not sure if it is suitable as a first introduction to Lafferty’s work; the short stories do a much better job to that. 

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12 Mini-Review of Films and Series from 2022


Lightyear (2022). Buzz Lightyear’s excellent adventure is unfortunately not all that inspiring. The film makes use of numerous tropes that are endlessly reused in these animated SF films. Much of it is aping Star Wars. Every action part and every dialogue part feels formulaic, and the comedy parts aren’t all that funny.

Elvis (2022). Exuberant, high-energy film that feels like a 2.5 hour montage that taught me nothing. Like they shot 10 hours of film and spent months on editing it down. The result is a fast-paced romp through many locations, full of crowds, dialogue whittled down to key sentences, slow-motion and swirling camera angles. It’s all very grand but I wished that some scenes could have lingered a bit. It felt as if key emotional moments were skipped over again and again in a rush to get to the next thing. The story itself was drowning in the editing; I wish it could have removed Tom Hanks’ fat suit and ridiculous accent. It’s all about Elvis the phenomenon but after the movie ended, I still had no idea who he was as a person. 

Prey (2022). Early 18th century. The Predator crashes with his spaceship in the land of the Comanche. Starring an all Native-American cast, this is a beautifully shot action film and the warriors and their culture look authentic, although I am no expert. Think Predator meets Apocalypto. It’s a simple story of hunting and being hunted in the wilds, but the atmosphere is great, action is great, the score brings to mind The Last of the Mohicans and lead actress Amber Midthunder give a good performance.

The Gray Man (2022). Behold Netflix’s bid to create a grand John Wick or Jason-Bourne-like action spectacle. Well, they got the action scenes right. Pumped millions into them. The result is a film that is nothing but action scenes. Despite having only bare-bones character writing and a cookie-cutter plot, The Gray Man nevertheless entertains for a while. But the chemistry is lacking between Gosling and De Armas, Gosling and his enemies aren’t charismatic enough and eventually the movie becomes tiresome.

Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022). It has a nun supervillain called Nunchuck. It has a 1970s style James Bond theme song. It has a minion falling in love with a rock. It has pretty primary colours. What more do you want? I wanted a story.

Nope (2022). A movie that at first reminded me very much of Signs (2002), but with some interesting twists, a little bit of comedy added, and a different subtext about the taming of wild animals and the use of them in showbiz. The film looks great, the imagery and cinematography is great. The story is restricted to a couple of locations and a small cast of characters and that works wonderfully for a sense of isolation and for a memorable tone and mood for the film. There are some fantastically creepy moments, and the tension is ramped up with scenes full of ingenuity. I really liked it, and I think it will reward repeated viewings to discover all the thematic linkages.

Pinocchio (2022). One of TWO Pinocchio adaptations coming out in 2022. This is the Disney one with Tom Hanks as Geppetto. And it is boring. It is saltless. The writing is awful. Jiminy Cricket is painful to listen to. Once Pinocchio comes to life he looks like Toy Story character from 1995. But hey, the Blue Fairy is played by a black woman now so you see how progressive this megacorporation is? 

Man vs. Bee (2022). A mini-series of 10 min shorts that you might also consider as a single film. Rowan Atkinson brings his usual physical comedy with minimal text and maximal cringe. Atkinson plays a house sitter at a very modern luxurious house, in which he wages a vendetta against a CGI bee that annoys him, destroying the house in the process. I laughed really hard a couple of times but the production feels a bit small and cheap. Some flash-forwards at the start ruin what is going to happen later on. Atkinson’s character is also so dumb that it is hard to feel bad for him. Only recommended if you are a fan.

The Sandman, Season 1 (2022). Visually they got the story down pat, and some interesting changes were made in terms of merging storylines together from the comic for the show. That was all fine. It also had a number of flaws. I found the acting and directing a bit wooden. The line delivery by the actors felt a bit unnatural – a bit like those often disappointing Terry Pratchett adaptations. The first episodes were very slow because there were so many scenes where actors took unnatural pauses in their lines. I really disliked Johanna Constantine and Matthew the crow for their abrasive personalities. At times I was glad that I had read the comic because the presentation was so messy. I’m quite on the fence about this show. And then I got to episode 6 and bawled my eyes out. The great thing about The Sandman as a series is that it doesn’t present any predictable standard fantasy plots. It constantly moves in directions that you don’t expect, and sometimes lands on something elegant. And that quality has been preserved in the adaptation and that still makes it worth a watch. 

Arcane, Season 1 (2021). The best animation since Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse and comparable in style. The animation is technically magnificent, but has a style that also has to suit your tastes. I had some doubts about the facial models that they used – they looked a bit uncanny, but the combined use of 3D modelling with the textures of sketchy digital artwork and hand drawn animation feels fresh and artsy. Combine that with great camera angles and very dynamic action and we have some impressive animation. But what really stands out is the story and the characters. Both are just great. The story is unpredictable, with lots of tension and heartache. The characters begin as recognisable archetypes but are layered and well written. Watch at least the first three episodes, because that third one is when the ball really starts rolling and got me hooked. 

The Boys, Season 3 (2022). This series is still going immensely strong. It’s just fantastic, I think. Best show I’ve seen in years. Hilarious, shocking, cynical and sharp. By now there are patterns becoming visible in the storytelling and the writers have to be careful now. The corruption and cynicism can approach a saturation point. And there are on/off relationships that are becoming repetitive. In general, many of the personal and interpersonal conflicts start to feel dragged out indefinitely. As for now, every episode impresses anew, but I hope it isn’t going to repeat itself too much. 

I am Groot (2022). A series of five 5 min short animations about tiny baby Groot losing his pot and exploring the world. Cute, but has little substance and is also a bit childish. 

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Ursula K. Le Guin – Worlds of Exile and Illusion (1966-67) Review

Comprising:

  • Rocannon’s World (1966)
  • Planet of Exile (1966)
  • City of Illusions (1967)

The three short novels contained within this collection are Le Guin’s first three published novels. Her brief warmup, you could say, before she really won fame with novels such as A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). These three early novels are standing in the shadows of her later achievements. Let’s see if that brilliance of her later work was already present from the start, and whether these three novels should be better known than they are now.

Rocannon’s World (1966)

Science fiction meets mythology in this tale of a far-flung, half-known world, where a couple of intelligent humanoid species live in feudal societies, and where advanced space-farers visit the world sometimes. The main character is an ethnographer from an advanced culture, whose journey will play a role in the legends of the more primitive locals. Le Guin’s writing is already very clean and dense, with a beautiful, dreamlike quality to it. A perfect style for a story that feels like a fairy tale sometimes. There are hints of themes that she would tackle more forcefully in later books, such as the juxtaposition of the cold, harsh world of technology and the gentler interest in culture, myth and the diversity of minds. There are hints that the little, primitive people have deeper knowledge of reality in some ways. Much of it feels like a predecessor of The Word for World is Forest (1972). The story lacks some tension but the alien cultures she created are interesting. It’s worth a read. 7.5/10

Planet of Exile (1966)

Again, advanced human settlers are stranded on a planet and are forced to cooperate with the more primitive tribal native species, but written in a more realistic mode than Rocannon’s World and does not evoke that fairy tale logic. The story explores the effects of bigotry from both sides, from the settlers who look down on the primitive ways of the natives and of those natives’ disregard of the settlers as true people. There is a subversion here of the Pocahontas story, namely that the advanced settlers are abandoned by their own people and now depend on the natives, which allows Le Guin to make the point that we should treat every one’s worldview with respect. And the message goes both ways – the natives also need the settlers and their knowledge – which I appreciated because it lifts the story above a bland morality tale about Noble Savages and such. The huge gap in scientific knowledge between the two peoples is a source of huge friction.

It’s an interesting little story. It has the tension of siege and conflict, a love story spanning peoples (as I said, Pocahontas) with an interesting female character, three main character POVs, and it toys with ideas of telepathy and with decades-long seasons as George RR Martin would redo in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. I am especially impressed with the POV characters of the tribal natives as Le Guin really constructs a world view for them that is far removed from ours but feel solid. 8/10

City of Illusions (1967)

The best novel in the collection and one that still doesn’t quite reach the quality of the more famous novels of Le Guin’s career, but comes close. This is a story about a man in search of the truth of his past; and more generally about how difficult it is to discern truth from lie and how language can be a dangerous tool to wield, either in service of truth or of oppression. 

The story follows Falk, a humanoid alien, who arrives on planet Earth a few thousand years in the future, with amnesia. He doesn’t know where he came from or why he ended up on Earth. Humanity at this time is in some post-apocalyptic state after an alien invasion by the belligerent Shing, who subjugated all humans and destroyed the knowledge of their past. Although Falk is not of Earth, his situation of amnesia is therefore the same as humanity’s. In a low-tech world of small communities and extensive wild lands, humans live huddled together while the alien conquerors fly overhead in air-cars and have messed with the genetics of humans and animals both. Talking animals roam the lands. Have the Shing messed with Falk’s memory? Falk undertakes a perilous journey on foot through what was once America, to a city of the Shing to find out the truth from the lying, shifty-eyed aliens.

The journey occupies half of the novel. Matters of trust, lies and truth come up every time Falk meets some new people. Sometimes he hides his plans, other times he is determined to speak only the truth, but it depends on how others treat him, whether they honour truth or whether it is dangerous for him. Le Guin plays a remarkable game in the novel of claims and counterclaims, misunderstandings and deceptions, many of them well set up earlier in the story.

Her story shows the power of language, and how language shapes our common myths that underlie our societies. To undermine that all is setting a people adrift, and on a personal level the Lie is humiliating and insidious. At the time of writing, Le Guin may have wanted to say something about Cold War propaganda, but there is plenty of fake news and propaganda in our world today as well. An important point she makes is that it doesn’t matter how intelligent you are, you will be fooled at least some of the time. And when you cannot trust anything anyone says, that really throws you back into yourself, and the only thing left to do is decide how you want to comport yourself. 8/10

Final thoughts

Each book was better than the last, and the first one was pretty good already. That matches pretty well with my expectation of Le Guin warming up her writing skills. Her recognisable style and topics of interest are also very visible from the start; notably her interest in anthropology and the conflicts between cultures. All of these stories are about visitors from one culture to another and the clashes between different worldviews. Her writing is dense and elegant, and even though the stories are short, they have a lot to say. I found that it was best not to read them back to back but to give yourself a break and then to return at a later date to re-experience again with each novel what Le Guin has to offer as a writer.

Her stories all feel as if they have one foot in future and one in the distant past. She constructs locations, worlds, for her stories that are full of wilderness. Many of her characters undertake long journeys overland, in which she adds copious details on the landscapes and beasts and the hunting of them. It all feels incredibly real, but also as if we’re reading a story of primitive peoples with clear, constrained systems of wisdom for their ways of living. Le Guin doesn’t present these ways of living as wiser or better than those of technologically advanced civilisations, but the conflicts in her stories are about peoples who have lost their roots. Peoples who have been set adrift from the past. Le Guin definitely brings something unique to the genre of science fiction and this collection gives a sharper impression of where her interests lie and how her stories stick out above those of many other writers.

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The Sandman, Vol. 3 & 4 (“Dream Country” & “Season of Mists”) by Neil Gaiman

Dream Country (1991)

In this volume, which is pretty short and only holds four short stories, Gaiman further embeds his Sandman character into classical and mythological literature. The first story brings in one of the muses from old Greek mythology, Calliope, who calls Sandman by his old name Oneiros, again showing us that this Sandman person is a universal personification and not just some local deity. Gaiman would make more work of that in future volumes. In typical Gaiman emo goth fashion, Sandman used to have some sort of relationship with Calliope but is now moping around and can’t forgive her for something, for leaving him perhaps. We saw something similar in the first volumes with another woman who Sandman can’t forgive. He’s a moody guy.

And there’s the story where he inspires Shakespeare to write A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then invites the lords of faerie to watch the show with him. It was alright but I am not familiar with the play, so I didn’t catch all the references. This won a World Fantasy Award at the time, the first and only comic to ever win it. Ever since, comics are no longer allowed in the short fiction category. It didn’t do much for me, but Gaiman handles Shakespeare with care. My favourite story of this collection was one that had only cats as the main characters. The Sandman himself doesn’t show up much in these stories; he’s a peripheral character at most, who jumps in at the last moment to bring stories to their conclusion. As such he is still a sort of moody power fantasy for Gaiman and he doesn’t have much character yet.

Season of Mists (1991)

Now this is interesting. Sandman’s sister Death calls him out for being a moody prick. Death has a lot more feeling for what it is to be human, and the Sandman doesn’t really get it yet. This brings a new perspective to the previous three volumes. It turns out that Gaiman was going for a certain type of godlike being who is standoffish and has things to learn, all the way from the start of the series, and a stronger focus on his character is starting now. This volume follows Sandman on a journey as he returns to Hell and has to confront Lucifer. He undertakes this journey voluntarily, to make amends for past errors in judgement.

The great thing about The Sandman as a series is that it doesn’t present any predictable standard fantasy plots. It constantly moves in directions that you don’t expect, and sometimes lands on something elegant or exciting. During Season of Mists as well, we get a great build-up of tension and I had no idea where the story was going. And indeed it continues in ways that totally blow open the entire Sandman universe and has funny moments and great unexpected conclusions. This is a fascinating volume, with a full story that is great and operatic in scope as it deals with Heaven, Hell, all sorts of mythological creatures and realms. His interactions with Lucifer are fascinating. And in the end, it is all brought back to the personal level where the Sandman is confronted with his past mistakes and learns a lesson about not being so proud.

This story enhances our conception of the Sandman and of the universe this is all playing out. Sandman has been rather merciless in his judgements so far, and looking back at the end of, say, The Doll’s House, he is awfully uncaring about consigning people or creatures to death if he sees that as his responsibility. As someone who moves among realms, it must not seem a great deal to him. His sister Death understands much better what it means for humans. Gaiman clearly deliberately wrote him that way. It will be interesting going forward if Sandman will receive more lessons.

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Adrian Tchaikovsky – Eyes of the Void (2022) Review

7.5/10

The author went to his basement, sweat a lot, and oozed out another novel! And it’s a doozy this time, marketing says. None of that milquetoast science fiction for tiny babies and mooncalfs! This is the real McCoy so get reading you tree weasels! Some people (a subset of The People, known as Some People also known as Those People) have called this book bad. Do not listen; their thoughts are amorphous, like bad cheese.

Just kidding.

The Final Architecture universe is shaping up to be a pleasant and interesting space opera setting to spend some time in. Not for the characters, perhaps, but I am thoroughly entertained. To quickly sketch the setting, it’s about various alien races and empires living together or alongside each other and everyone has to deal with a shared overwhelming existential threat, the Architects. Like the inhibitors in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series, but more theatrical. And where Revelation Space is dark and nihilistic and Gothic, this series is more bright colours and motley found-family crews and weird crab and slug and clam aliens. Sort of, Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet meets Lovecraftian Eldritch Big Dumb Objects.

Notice how Tchaikovsky keeps using Earth creatures as templates for his alien races. There is very little difference between his aliens in one book and his uplifted Earth creatures in others. He also reuses his idea from Children of Time (2015) of swarms of insects creating a computational matrix. But this time the swarms inhabit blocky, retro-futuristic robots. In Eyes of the Void, though, he shifts focus to the stranger inhabitants of the universe with aren’t so much like Earth animals, to the enigmatic Architects and the alien Hegemony, of which we still know so little but has all these other unknown alien races living inside it. These are two elements of the series that speak most to the imagination and I love learning more about them.

Tchaikovsky uses a very easy-going, non-demanding writing style here. To the point where he’s a bit too repetitive sometimes, where he over-explains things. The book is indeed a bit on the long side at nearly 600 pages, but he’s not as tiring as he was with the wordy, dispassionate writing in Children of Ruin (2019). Characters are allowed to interact with each other, at least. And while the easy-reading space opera style also brings to mind James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, I find Tchaikovsky to be much, much better in presenting interesting, layered characters, and the tone of his writing is wittier than in the Expanse and in Children of Ruin, and altogether a bit more refined. It reads as if he had more fun writing it and enjoyed creating this crew of outcasts.

This middle book reinforces the feeling that humanity is a newcomer in the galactic neighbourhood, and when more advanced species also have to deal with the same Architect threat, then we’re just kids at the table while the adults are talking. We don’t understand their mathematics anyway. There is an action set piece in the middle of the book where all those advanced aliens start messing around and the sense of awe and wonder that comes with it is delightful. There is commentary on human nature hidden in that part of the story, about how humans squabble endlessly amongst themselves or stick their head in the sand while the planet around them is literally about to be destroyed, but Tchaikovsky is pretty laid-back about messaging here and doesn’t let it overshadow his plot or universe-building. 

One major theme that runs through the entire series is that of trust. In the face of extinction-level danger, humanity still finds itself divided into various factions and no one trusts the other sides. Everyone fights over the same resources, which also include Idris, the Intermediary. And the crew of the Vulture God is a microcosm of all these political powers and trust doesn’t come easy between these crew members. Hopefully companionship through adversity can win the day, but even that is not always a given.

Speaking of that action set piece, it could have been the epic ending of a novel and Eyes of the Void indeed has the structure of two novels pasted together. Which also means that it is a little bit longer than really works for me. There is a long middle part where every player has to be manoeuvred into the right position for the second and final climax at the end of the novel. While that middle part was still enjoyable with new characters and new locations, I was starting to lose some reading momentum. Looking back at the entire book, the climax sits halfway through the novel. The second half was not as interesting in contrast to it, and the ending was not as spectacular. A lot is still left open for a final novel.

I rather liked it. It’s a kitschy space opera trope festival that goes for the easy strategies of motley crews and large epic events to win readers over. And it worked on me, because Tchaikovsky did most of it right. But it is getting a bit long and the action is starting to get a bit samey, so it is in need of a conclusion.

<– preceded by Shards of Earth – followed by Lords of Uncreation –>

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The Sandman, Vol. 1 & 2 (“Preludes and Nocturnes” & “The Doll’s House”) by Neil Gaiman

First off, if you’re new to this world of comics, which I am, what an absolute nightmare it is to navigate the world of issues, volumes, books and all the various editions, omnibuses, deluxe editions and absolute editions and figure out what covers what. Moreover, sometimes volumes and collections have the same front cover and sometimes books cover two or more volumes. The bottom line with The Sandman is that there are 75 named issues, which are collected in 10 named volumes. This review will be about volumes 1 and 2: volume 1, “Preludes and Nocturnes” and volume 2 “The Doll’s House”. 

Preludes and Nocturnes (1989)

The story begins with a secret society of alchemists and mages somewhere in England who try to summon Death himself but accidentally end up with Dream, the Sandman. They imprison Dream in a glass bowl for decades until he escapes and goes on a quest to retrieve his belongings. On this quest he has to traverse Earth, the Dream realm and even Hell itself. We are treated to an exciting, imaginative and fast-moving story. While Dream’s journey is full of fantastical creatures and locations, it has a dark, nightmarish edge to it. Humans end up in bad places, tortured, disfigured or wasted away. Dream can be gentle and cruel both. The drawing style reflects this perfectly, with panels full of shadows and understated colours and a kind of delirious touch to the characters and their facial expressions. The comic itself has a dreamlike quality.

The Sandman himself, I can’t help thinking that with his unruly hair, long pale face and dark coats that he is some sort of insert for Neil Gaiman himself. He is a bit of a dark hero, a creature of the night, a Dark Knight if you will, but he’s not in the business of saving people. He’s a mythological creature and deals with angels, demon and other assorted personifications. At first he just wants his things back, because they upped his mojo and really tied the dreamworld together. That question of what kind of character he is going to be is asked at the end of his quest. In a lovely, quiet epilogue he has a talk with sister Death about it. I love how every chapter – like this epilogue – feels like a self-contained little story that’s received some thought from Gaiman and the artists about the best presentation of that story. Good stuff.

The Doll’s House (1990)

Now that Mr Sandman has all his powers back, the sky is the limit and Gaiman had to invent something new to keep the comic going. This volume shows the story of Rose Walker, a girl who attracts some dream demons to her that escaped during Sandman’s long absence. The comic jerks the reader from one place to the next, often switching viewpoint characters and art style. Some settings have brighter colours, or pay homage to old superhero comics. In this way, The Doll’s House moves away from the previous volume in that it isn’t all dark and nightmarish anymore. There’s always something new going on, something to keep it fresh and interesting. There is, for example, a brilliant little interlude of Sandman skipping through time. Chapters work like little unfolding narratives, where in time you learn what is going on and how events in the real world and in dreamworlds are connected.

This volume juggles a lot of themes, such as fixing broken families, moving past trauma and finding a direction for your life, and dreams reflecting the deeper worries and desires of your person. And combine that with all these chapters with different styles and viewpoints and the gestalt narrative turns out quite complex and layered. 

So far, the story feels more like a series of connected short stories. Individual chapters have a very strong identity of their own; they have their own style or they open and close their own contained story. Both Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House do end in a way that ties the whole volume together, but I’ve heard that further volumes have sometimes only short stories. That doesn’t feel out of place. The brilliance is also to be found in individual chapters, and there are some standouts in both of these volumes. 

Definitely check this out, not only if you like fantasy stories that mix mythological creatures with a modern day setting, but also to appreciate some varied and fascinating narrative structures and some cool, original ideas.

followed by –> Vols 3 & 4, Dream Country & Season of Mists

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Dan Simmons – Song of Kali (1985) Review

8/10

Set in the Indian city Kolkata, which used to be named Calcutta but the book was written before the name change in 2001 so the name Calcutta is used throughout, and anyway the Kolkata of this book isn’t really like the real Kolkata – it is a dream city, a force separate from the actions of men, a nightmare city that exudes evil miasmas – so, fine, let it be Calcutta then. The evil, sweltering Calcutta as an abstract representation. 

This was Dan Simmons’ debut novel and it made quite a splash on publication. Various writers called it a brilliant first novel and the best fantasy horror novel in ages, and it won the World Fantasy Award in 1986. I enjoyed it a lot, despite some initial misgivings and an annoying main character. 

I’m not sure if I’m cut out for reading horror novels, though. Not because this one was so scary but because I can’t shut off the analytical part of my brain and therefore notice every effort that Simmons makes to manipulate a feeling of dread in me, and I am pushing back against it. Simmons peppers the narrative with little moments of dread, for example when Robert, the main character, reads a newspaper there is a photo of a corpse on the front page, or when he is alone he sees a giant rat scampering through the hallway. So many of these little moments that make me think: I know what you’re doing, Simmons, and I’m not having it. 

Much of the dread has the Indian people as a topic, and the chaos of the hot, overcrowded city. The Indians and their city become the source of a Lovecraftian disgust. Why Lovecraftian? Well, firstly the constant descriptions of urban decay, poverty, overpopulation and the cultural differences are in service of this constant anxiety in main character Robert. I think that the depictions of the horror of a crowded poor city are overreactions, as I’ve visited cities like that and they didn’t make me lose my mind (I think. You can never know), but me saying this is also part of me pushing back against the author’s efforts to conjure up feelings of dread, instead of going with it. You can also immerse yourself in it, and I succeeded in that in the end. 

Some readers attack Simmons himself for these descriptions, calling it xenophobia, but they are the main character’s overreactions instead of Simmons’. Robert is an effete poet who is quick to anger and cannot put himself into the right mindset. And secondly, it’s Lovecraftian because this is also a fantasy novel involving the corrosive presence of an evil Goddess who controls some ancient evil cult, so there’s that. Robert’s anxiety may therefore have a supernatural cause. He’s sensitive to these things.

To be fair, very soon stuff begins to happen that should make Robert horrified. I was already enjoying the quality prose and pleasant pacing of the story before that, as Simmons’ writing has good qualities, so when the horror really started I got into it more and more. It’s one of those stories were the main character gets sucked into a situation deeper and deeper until there is no more chance of escape, and every effort before that time to extricate himself fails. There are some genuinely creepy moments, like the image of a multi-armed Kali scuttling through dark temple corridors. The only thing that annoyed me was Robert himself. He talks down to his wife, never communicates where he is going or what is going on, has a temper… but doesn’t deserve what happens to him.

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Reviews: Persepolis (2000) by Marjane Satrapi & Persepolis (2007) the film adaption

Persepolis is often mentioned in the same breath as that other autobiographical graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman. Very understandable, as Persepolis chronicles the childhood of writer Marjane Satrapi as she grew up in Iran in the 1980s as the country was going through immense political upheavals. For me it didn’t quite reach the heights of Maus but it was a fascinating story and really worth reading.

What’s most impressive about this graphic novel as you start reading it is how Satrapi swims back along the water coaster of time to inhabit the mind of her own 10-year old self. How she remembers what it was like as a child to hear glimpses of political discourse all around her and to understand not even half of it, but to be completely influenced by it as an innocent child. She was an energetic, sassy child, apparently, and completely ready to see herself in all sorts of heroic roles, from Islamic prophet to Marxist revolutionary, flitting from one thing to the next, and hardly understanding what she is talking about. But the country she was living in, Iran, also seemed to be completely confused itself, as in a state of national identity crisis.

My first reaction was that a child shouldn’t be exposed to all that political stuff, but the personal consequences of the revolution were so immediate that it is simply impossible to keep all that stuff away from children. And when the situation just got worse and worse, it really hit me that Marjane might be one of the luckier ones. She grew up in an affluent family with a maid and progressive thinking parents. When the war with Iraq broke out, at least she wasn’t sent to the front as a child soldier. That moment in history was also a hard-hitting one in the novel. Imagine that your country is being invaded and your city showered in bombs, but at the same time you’re not safe from your own police force that is hunting and torturing people for having anti-revolutionary sentiments. It’s a world gone mad.

The second half the collection is all about Marjane’s experiences as a refugee in Europe, and her eventual return to Iran. Not only does she have to try to find a way to work with the culture in Austria where she is dropped and deal with her shame and pride and other mixed feelings about her home country, but she also has to navigate puberty at the same time and explore her own identity in that (alien) culture. Nothing is ever easy. It was very interesting for me to read about life from the perspective of a girl and then a young woman in a Middle-Eastern country, and then the life of a refugee in Europe, as it is about as far as possible from my own life. 

About the film: Persepolis (2007)

Nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and for two BAFTA awards, the French-language Persepolis (2007) is a highly regarded animated film. It’s very loyal to the source material, the comic, and the animation style is minimalistic with heavy use of black, also like the comic. I haven’t really talked about the art style so far; in the comic I thought it was a bit bland and uninteresting to look at, and occasionally some panels weren’t very clear in their communication. For the film, a similar style is used but is a little bit more immersive and lively than the comic.

The film feels a bit rushed in the beginning. So many political events are necessary to explain what is going on in Iran that it is all squeezed together, while the comic could take more time to work through it. Soon after that the film finds its footing and once Marjane moves to Austria, the humorous moments come to the fore and make the film more playful. The movie makes an impact on you, just like the comic. Scenes of farewell made me tear up. If comics are not your cup of tea, try this, as it provides an abridged version of the comic with most of the highlights intact.

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Mark Leyner – The Sugar Frosted Nutsack (2012) Review

9/10

This book is nuts and I won’t sugarcoat it for you. Don’t let the obviously perfect and attractive title fool you: this is a totally bonkers, post-modern wankfest to the nth degree. But it is also science-fantasy about gods messing around with humans, so I had to read it. Online ratings nicely gravitate to the extremes of ones and fives. Let’s give it a fair shot. Let’s give it an honest shot, without preconceptions. 

My first impression is that this is a rambling shaggy-dog story about complete nonsense, the highest-density military grade bullshit that I’ve ever read, but written by someone who is obviously very intelligent, with a great command of language, a huge ready memory of pop culture, and who loves to make strange lateral jumps from one association to the other to maximise absurdity. And that someone uses a postmodern literary style, with a clear aesthetic of “more is more”, to talk about fantasy images and poop and sex jokes and finally to deconstruct the entire idea of what a novel even is and what acceptable forms it should take.

The story begins 14 billion years ago with the arrival of the Gods into our universe. I feel so overwhelmed by the flash flood of silly little details and asides that I can’t decide what to say about it next. Leyner introduces these idiots with all their nicknames and schisms and gives us a history of why Gods like having sex with humans so much. Leyner obviously has great powers of the imagination and a sense of humor that screams that you shouldn’t take any of this seriously, but just lay back and either let him take the wheel and enjoy the absurdism or step out and search for another novel. It’s perfect if you enjoy that sense of what the fuck am I reading?

I’d better give some samples. So the Gods appear in our universe in a Mister Softee ice cream van after they had their own version of Spring Break:

“The first God to emerge, momentarily, from the bus was called El Brazo (“The Arm”). Also known as Das Unheimlichste des Unheimlichen (“The Strangest of the Strange”), he was bare-chested and wore white/Columbia-blue polyester dazzle basketball shorts. He would soon be worshipped as the God of Virility, the God of Urology, the God of Pornography, etc. El Brazo leaned out of the bus and struck a contrapposto pose, his head turned away from the torso, an image endlessly reproduced in paintings, sculptures, temple carvings, coins, maritime flags, postage stamps, movie studio logos, souvenir snow globes, take-out coffee cups, playing cards, cigarette packs, condom wrappers, etc. His pomaded hair swept back into a frothy nape of curls like the wake of a speedboat, he reconnoitred the void with an impassive, take-it-or-leave-it gaze, then scowled dyspeptically, immediately turned around, and returned to the bus, where he sullenly ensconced himself, along with the rest of the Gods, for another 1.6 million years.”

&

“There was once a birthday party for the God of Money, Doc Hickory, who was also known as El Mas Gordo (“The Fattest One”). Exhausted from feasting, El Mas Gordo fell asleep on his stomach across his bed. Lady Rukia (the Goddess of Scrabble, Jellied Candies, and Harness Racing), who’d been lusting after El Mas Gordo the entire night, crept stealthily into his bedroom, rubbed a squeaking balloon across the bosom of her cashmere sweater, and then waved it back and forth over his hairy back. The way the static electricity reconfigured the hair on his back would become the template for the drift of continental landmasses on earth. ”

The story really starts when all the Gods start to obsess over a random human named Ike Karton from New Jersey. An epic poem is constructed of Ike’s life that is endless recited and added upon and eventually received many titles, one of which is The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, which is also this novel. And so, a story about a human torn between opposing groups of Gods, making it a satire of Homer’s Odyssey if you really squeeze your eyes. But the God XOXO, known for his bad poetry and mindfuckery, intervenes in the telling of the epic with gratuitous additions, in effect making the author apologise in advance for the more puerile sentences. Every new recital of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack traditionally has to include every new cough, sniffle and meta-commentary that was added in the previous recital, and since this book explains the epic to us, it in turn becomes (part of) The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. So, the novel is giving commentary on itself, including on its previous chapters and typeface choices, and so The Sugar Frosted Nutsack endlessly swells in a recursive manner. In fact, this review commenting on the novel is now also part of it and needs to be added to the next recital. After a few thousand years, most of the content of the epic is commentary on the epic, with only a tiny part being actually the story of Ike.

It also lampoons journalism and high-brow discourse, in the way various intellectual movements are parodied and the jargon they use and invent. The novel constantly poses new theories about Ike Karton’s epic – endless theorising and analysis over a ridiculously short and nonsensical piece of “mythology”. The “mania of experts to find hidden and farfetched links and correlations.”

The first 30 pages of the novel, about the arrival of the Gods, is quite different from when the story about the epic really starts, but it is later explained how that first chapter became the Genesis chapter in the epic when Ike Karton, probably high on drugs, related it to his grandson and was subsequently added to the body, so that’s why it is the first thing that we read in the novel. The novel is constantly giving meta-commentary on itself in a way that is quite inventive. A bit similar to the way William Goldman framed The Princess Bride (1973) (as written by S. Morgenstern). And random details about Ike Karton’s life, or just random observations by Leyner, gel together into a life story about Karton, so it isn’t all that random in the end. There is a layer of control and meticulous insertions in the text that at first glance merely feels like rambling. I’m constantly reading things that make me think: “hey, he referred to that a few chapters ago in some random bit.”

“In Season Seventeen, a protracted battle begins between El Brazo and Mogul Magoo over who owns the rights to T.S.F.N. Mogul Magoo (who was originally the God of Bubbles) had asserted himself as God of the Nutsack. He’d dutifully submitted his boilerplate rationale: Anything Enveloping Something Else. Just as a bubble is a globule of water that contains air, the scrotum is a pouch of skin and muscle that contains the testicles. Ergo, it’s perfectly logical and reasonable to conclude it falls within his purview. Thus, he reasoned, he owns exclusive worldwide rights (including all derivative works) to T.S.F.N. This completely infuriated El Brazo, also known as Das Unheimlichste des Unheimlichen (“The Strangest of the Strange”), who, as the God of Urology and the God of Pornography, considered the nutsack his inviolable domain and thus claimed ownership of exclusive worldwide rights (including all derivative works) to T.S.F.N. The antipathy that developed between these two Gods (and, subsequently, between Magoo and the Goddess La Felina) would have significant consequences. El Brazo threatened Magoo and his cohorts with liquidation in a “Night of the Long Knives.” In response, Magoo beefed up his posse of “Pistoleras”—the divine, ax-wielding mercenary vixens who are total fitness freaks with rock-hard bodies, each of whom has a venomous black mamba snake growing out of the back of her head, which she pulls through the size-adjustment cutout on the back of her baseball cap. Neither of them could care less about the literal or the allegorical and mystical implications of the epic, or that many fashion critics are saying “Finally, a drug-induced epic that celebrates real women’s contours and silhouettes.” This is just a heavyweight dick-swinging contest between two Gods.”

Ike Karton’s epic has so many odd, idiosyncratic moments that if you were to just lay them down without comment before the audience it would be a strange, nonsensical piece of writing. But through the repeated commentary on the epic, Leyner uses repetition to create familiarity with its details. And so, in effect, recreates the making of mythology. Scenes become recognisable scenes, laden with a feeling of meaning, as if they are the end result of hundreds of years of oral tradition and learned study, and the effect even works with a story that is practically meaningless. Leyner gradually adds more detail, causing the Nutsack to swell.

“Adults and children alike would be familiar enough with the plot to already know (before the bards even opened their mouths to deliver the first words “There was never nothing ” ) that the saga of Ike begins with him making a lewd mandala of Italian breadcrumbs for the Goddess La Felina and then engaging in an extended adagio with the waitress at the Miss America Diner and writing his narcocorrido “That’s Me (Ike’s Song)”

Chapters keep twisting themselves inside out. One chapter starts with a general impression of what it is like to listen to a recital of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, then moves to an interview with one of the attendees, who then recites from memory some parts of the epic, but since the commentary on the epic has become part of it, that commentary is also part of what attendee recites. Every new paragraph destabilises what came before and creates the novel anew. The attendee then becomes one of the new bards, and holds a Q and A session, which then in turn also becomes part of the epic. And the questions are about why the epic is so weird and gross, which are questions that we as readers are also asking ourselves. 

There is this layer underneath all of it that says: isn’t it weird how Ike Karton was hit by a Mister Softee ice cream van and then started to hear his own life getting narrated by these Gods? Isn’t it weird how these Gods have the same sexual interests as Ike and how the bards have fetishised Ike’s tastes so that they seem representations of him? The book gives us a list of possible explanations early on. You can’t point down anything about this slippery novel as it keeps acknowledging its own strangeness. If an epic is self-aware that it is an epic, are its gods real? But what if the gods are messing around with their epic, doesn’t that mean that they exist externally of it? Leyner acknowledges in an interview that the book is in part about living in a solitary world constructed of your own thoughts, and Ike’s worldview is exactly that. He is living through a personal vision of reality.

I kind of loved it. I loved the constant invention, the weird imagery, and lines like “fate is like the ultimate pre-existing condition”. It pumped me full of energy after Asimov had sucked it all out. But thank XOXO that it is only 250 pages.

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