Steven Erikson – The Crippled God (2011) Review

9/10

After 1.5 years of reading and 3.3 million words, The Crippled God (2011) ends the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Erikson writes this finale in his own subversive, Eriksonian way, in which he uses the tropes of epic fantasy, but has his own ideas about what is important to tell. His series is a postmodern take on fantasy and an exploration of ideas about compassion that goes beyond the goal of providing mere entertainment and the old fantasy tropes are used as tools, made transparent, turned inside out, to challenge our own ideas. The result is an epic closing novel that is unlike any the genre has produced to date. It engages with the reader in how we normally conceive of the great struggles in epic fantasy series and offers a realignment with other values that necessitates a deconstruction of traditional fantasy tropes. It is also a bloody good yarn of action and wonder.

Final novels of big epic fantasy series usually end in the same way: with some army marching on an evil tyrant and delivering justice for all the misdeeds and so save the world from evil plans. The Crippled God, on the face of it, follows a very similar structure if you take a bird’s eye view and look at all the armies marching around, but Erikson is not interested in following similar themes. He turns things upside down and wants to puncture some illusions that carried those old epic tales. That notion of justice is his first target. In Erikson’s version of the big, epic showdown, it is not the marching army that is full of ideas about justice, but the other guys, the ones with the problematic plans who use the concept of justice to excuse something horrible. Justice is after all a nebulous concept and can mean whatever people want it to mean. What is just, what is the right thing to do? Where to look for the answer? The story of Onos T’oolan and the T’lan Imass is another variant on this struggle. They have been guided by another person’s notion of justice, which lead them to murder. Now Tool seeks penance or dissolution, and would that be just?

So Erikson sets up all these groups who each have their own idea of justice, and have them all come into conflict with each other. 

Another illusion that Erikson punctures is the romantic notion of fate and how that makes or does not make something “right”. Fate is, of course, a favourite motif in epic fantasy. The genre is rife with grand destinies and prophesies, and are usually utilised by the author for grandiose storytelling to make victories just and inevitable, as if they occur in accordance with the universe itself. In the Malazan series we have the storyline of the Shake, who return to their ancestral homeland because of fate. They are fated to fight some ultimate battle. But is that right? It sounds so glorious, but where is the rightness in it? Is it even fair to the Shake descendants who are burdened with this fate? Why are they called upon to die? 

After a fragmented start in which clearly too many characters need an update on their situation, the novel finds its footing and starts building momentum. There is a clear emotional journey for the Malazans, in which we as readers first circle in a tentative, cautious way inwards to the Bonehunters’ situation in the aftermath of Dust of Dreams’s dramatic climax. The army picks itself up, grieves, realigns with the Grey Helms and others, and sets course for they goal, shaken and still unsure of the Adjunct’s plan while great danger lies before them.

It is in the story of the Grey Helms that the conflict over justice and what that means is most clearly spelled out. As Mortal Sword Krughava asks: “…vengeance, retribution and righteous punishment. Is that all we possess? Is there nothing else that might challenge such weapons?” The answer to these questions is given in the journey of the Malazans, the Bonehunters. In a lengthy chapter, Erikson visits all the various soldiers in that army, jumping from one point of view to another, and what he shows is that they are all broken in some ways, and are therefore not so different from the Crippled God himself. And, they all have their doubts whether they will survive their journey, and that is where another piece of the puzzle falls into place, because for compassion to stand in place of vengeance, retribution and righteous punishment, some faith is required. Faith that it will be enough. The uncertain march of the Bonehunters embodies all of this.

In the storyline of the Shake, we find the difference in perspective between Gods and mortals. Erikson offers a nice echo in storytelling: Withal tells Mother Dark that gods like her take a hundred thousand years in their fist and crush it like it’s nothing. As if it has no meaning. At the end of the chapter, Queen Yan Tovis grabs a handful of crushed bones in her hand, thinking that the entire history of her people lies in that. But she can’t quite crush it. For humans, there is meaning in those years, and it is found in the struggle. Why the Shake have to fight isn’t clear to them, but they honour those who fall besides them in that struggle. They honour people. This hearkens all the way back to Gardens of the Moon, where humanity is found in the mutual respect among the Bridgeburners, who are set upon by the outside world. And ultimately, it is the Adjunct Tavore’s unique perspective that wreaks change, a mortal’s in opposition to that of the Gods.

The Snake (not the Shake, the Snake) represents something that people do not want to see. Going all the way back to Deadhouse Gates, Historian Duiker gives us the quote that “children are dying” and that that is all you need to know about history. Adults often do not want to see what consequences their actions have for the suffering of children. Duiker saw, and now we are forced to see by the physical representation of that sentiment, the Snake. And Adjunct Tavore, who is the only one who dares to look at the suffering of the Crippled God, is therefore the right person to confront the Snake and understand what they represent, and to be guided by them, by that truth, onwards in her journey. Very poetic then that the path of dead bodies of the Snake literally guides the Bonehunters onwards.

From all of these examples, it is clear that the thematic foundation of this series is incredibly strong, almost to the point that many characters and races represent parts of arguments that Erikson is making. That doesn’t mean that Erikson is being polemic; he’s only exploring themes. Sometimes this is challenging. For example, he introduces a creature, a force of unstoppable rage and power, and creatures like these we see a lot in the fantasy genre and are usually dropped into the stories as unknowable bringers of chaos, like earthquakes. But Erikson then underlines the pain and anguish that lie behind the rage, and we as readers are confronted with feelings of pity and have to acknowledge a certain vulnerability in this powerful creature, and that might not be what we want to hear in the middle of all these epic events but that’s where the fantasy genre usually turns a blind eye. Erikson again and again makes this move towards empathy and compassion and so lays bare a certain hypocrisy that was part of the genre, and was always there to satisfy the hunger for blood and power in our own souls as readers and writers.

What I really enjoy about Erikson is that he does not only indulge in the thematic focus, philosophy and number of POVs, but also in the brute, epic dragons and fireballs stuff when the occasion calls for it. The Crippled God has a 400 page climax to the series that is sufficiently earth-shattering, full thousand-dragons, fire and blood raining from the sky craziness in which about two dozen setups and plotlines converge.

Final words after reading the series as a whole.

I can confidently say that I am no longer the same reader as I was before I started this series. I think that Malazan made me a better reader. I have developed a sharper eye for themes in literature. I take more notice in how scenes are set up and played out. I can look clearer at what characters’ actions say about them instead of having the writer tell me this. I am reading with greater awareness for what the writer wants to convey and the journey of reading and understanding these ten big books has trained me to do this. It’s almost essential to understanding why Erikson makes the choices that he does; why he follows particular POVs and plotlines.

The series occupies a special place in the fantasy genre. It is massive, but in that hardly unique. But there are a couple of things that make it different from other mega-series like Jordan’s Wheel of Time or Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The first difference is the strong focus on themes which Erikson took as the main anchor for his every choice in plotline and POV. Secondly, he wrote every plotline in the way you would write a short story, and using literary techniques that play around with reader anticipation and obfuscation, where every short story becomes a journey of discovery. And squeezing all these short stories into 1000 page novels makes this series incredibly rich with a multitude of stories to be found inside them, much more so than in other fantasy series. It is also much more subversive in a post-modern, post-structuralist way in which the books don’t behave themselves as you would expect from epic fantasy stories. Clear Campbellian hero-journeys are hard to make out from the stories which feel more like fragments of narrative history scrambled together into thematic wholes.

One of the greatest joys of this series is, as a fellow reader put it, to scramble together countless minutiae scattered over 10,000 pages to assemble complex storyline theories and synthesize deep thematic messages. But you need to grasp that gauntlet with both hands and really go for it, and drop your expectations for what epic fantasy should be. Not only will it help to grow as a reader but also to enjoy the series to its fullest extent. For me, this was one of the greatest reading journeys of my life, alongside JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, which also, like Malazan, shaped the way I thought about the genre and about writing in general.

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I’m swamping my site in comic reviews

Sorry. I don’t know yet if this is going to be a permanent feature of the blog or if this is just a temporary rabbit hole that I’m diving into this year. There are at least 10 more coming.

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Review: Guy Delisle – Burma Chronicles (2007)

8/10

It’s comic artist Guy Delisle again and he is on another adventure. After Shenzhen and Pyongyang, where he was sent out to supervise outsourced work for an animation studio, he now accompanies his wife to Myanmar. You see, he married someone who works for Doctors Without Borders and now joins her as she is sent out for months at the time to one country or another, and they have a little baby boy too that he is taking care of while his wife is off in the countryside working. So now he is in Yangon, Myanmar, with a toddler in some expat house, observing the Burmese culture around him. What a life this guy has.

The wife and toddler add a whole new dimension to Delisle’s travel writing that wasn’t there in his journeys as a single guy. Through the work of his wife, he can now hang out at Doctors Without Borders meetings and UN cocktail parties, even though as an artist he doesn’t have a clue about anything, and his toddler Louis draws all the local Burmese to him to coo over his son. He still has to work and so has to hire a local nanny. They live in an expat house only a few streets away from where Aung San Suu Kyi was being kept under house arrest for almost 15 years. This graphic novel is almost twice as long as Delisle’s previous novel Pyongyang, and it is filled with little details about life in Myanmar, about the people, the dictatorship, and of course every little daily thing that is odd in Delisle’s eyes.

Not every dictatorship is the same, but in some ways they are. Delisle can now compare Myanmar with his experiences in North Korea, and Myanmar doesn’t have this excessive indoctrination that North Korea has. Delisle isn’t dragged along on tours to propaganda museums that show the depravity of the US. Not every Burmese has to pretend so very hard to worship the No 1 General, and Delisle could still buy Thai bootlegged video games and hard rock t-shirts. Still, it was a hopeless situation in 2007 and even more so now. There is no freedom of movement and a neurotic control of information. Dictatorships make for frightened, insecure governments.

Delisle kept developing as a comic artist. He plays around now with style, and the jokes work better. His previous novels made me smirk but now I laughed out loud many times. The story is cut up in short chapters, and some chapters forgo the text in favour of many small panels to strengthen the visual comedy. Jokes are better set up and explained, and the lines and colouring are clearer. Overall, a clear line of improvement is visible over his work.

Most of the novel is light in tone, making little jokes about the cultural differences between writer and the Burmese people. But we end with some really hard-hitting chapters when he takes a journey to the north, to where the Kachin people live and how they are used as labour force in Chinese controlled mines and how they receive their payments in heroin shots. The amount of suffering from drug addiction and HIV is unbelievable. In the end, the Myanmar junta made it too hard for the Doctors Without Borders groups to stay, and many left the country. Overall, the novel makes quite an impact.

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Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind (2020), by Russell Powell

Behind the abstract title and the stuffy academic cover of this book lies a world of deep thought and wonder. Written by one person, Rachell Powell (formerly Russell as it still says on the cover), a book like this is never actually one person’s accomplishment as if popping out of their forehead whole. Scientists with years of training behind them do their part in pushing all this knowledge forward, and make use of the combined knowledge of thousands of colleagues and decades of questions and research, all gathered together on academic search engines, waiting for the moment when a scientist decides to put in the time to write a grand review on a difficult issue. Academic books like this one are part of that work. It is part of those moments when researchers step out of the narrow holes in which they were working and look up at what the rest of them are doing, and try to gather together some of the latest insights to form new narratives. 

The title alone, very abstract, not very inviting to the casual reader, is a sign that we are dealing with some very fundamental questions. In fact, one of the most fundamental questions in evolutionary biology that has never been solved, and will likely only be solved once we discover complex life on other planets.

What is the fundamental question of this book? 

Powell put it like this: the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould posed that if you were to rewind the tape of life and let it play out again, that the tree of life would develop radically differently, giving shape to totally new forms of life. That would mean that the evolution of reptiles, mammals and ultimately us is incidental, the result of a throw of the dice. A “contingency.” On the other hand, we observe so-called convergent evolution, in which the same shapes and mechanisms appear in different branches of life independently, like wings and eyes and flippers. In nature, form and function are tightly connected, and if the same forms develop with similar functions in some natural experimental replication, what does that mean for the chance of complex life emerging in similar ways on other planets? What are the mechanisms behind these convergences of form and function?

The first problems to come up are that (1) the contingency thesis of “happy accidents” has not been clearly described and (2) cannot account well for episodes of convergent evolution. On the other side of the fence, critiques of the contingency thesis have not been robust. Specific compelling episodes of convergent evolution do not discard on their own the core ideas of the happy accidents thesis. If you are a scientist, this is usually the time to dive into the nitty gritty of yelling and hair-pulling (only joking) about minute details in imperfect studies. Or you could wait for the screaming to stop and knock again to ask for a preliminary conclusion.

Powell presents the arguments in a very clear, well-argued way, but ideally you need a background in biology and wikipedia at hand. She’s a philosopher, foremost. The topics that are touched upon along the way are varied and fascinating. What makes this book interesting to me is that it deliberately wants to focus on what can be expected from other habitable worlds, and what the two theses on evolution might mean for the development of complex minds. 

I’ll go over some of the arguments.

The first stumbling block is that we don’t know how hard or rare it is to form unicellular life in the universe. Bacteria are already enormously complex, and the origins of DNA are still murky, but the only way to make complex life as far as we know it is through cellular life and have cells stick together as multicellular bodies. That sounds difficult – a lot of steps to get there. Let’s first observe that when we look at the timing when life first formed on Earth, then it formed as soon as it could. When meteors still rained down with a vengeance in the early days of the planet, cellular life popped up immediately when minimal conditions were met. Quite shocking actually. That might make cellular life highly probable in other places. What’s less probable is complex or intelligent life. After all, it took maybe 4 billion years to go from simple cells to intelligent life on our planet. That’s nearly the entire span in which the Sun gives off the right amount of energy to create good conditions.

Of course, we don’t know if life follows the same laws on other planets. If genetics, evolution and natural selection work the same way. And even if complex life arises, then intelligent, technology-using life may never do so. Thus we cycle back to the contingency thesis of the course of evolution as fundamentally unpredictable about what kind of life forms will emerge in the long run.

The “happy accidents” contingency thesis

The first argument for the happy accidents thesis is that the selection of organisms we find on planet Earth is altered radically every time a mass extinction happens. Our biosphere can accommodate all sorts of variations of dominant lifeforms, and after a mass extinction, life does not return to the status quo. Why did birds or mammals not re-evolve into dinosaurs to fill up all that empty space after the meteor hit? The answer is also the second argument for the thesis: that fundamental features in an animal’s body plan, such as those that are laid down early in an embryo’s development, don’t change easily, so that body shapes don’t go out of whack all the time. This gives an inertia to evolution and a limited space in how much a lineage of organisms can change over time.

In other words, looking at the consequences of mass extinctions, then chance plays a large role in selecting which animals with which body plans will be dominant on the planet, and that selection may not be based on merit or adaptability, and once the selection has been made, basic features of those body plans stick around.

By talking about “happy accidents” and “rewinding the tape of life” we are in danger from arguments from determinism. If the universe is deterministic, every play of the tape of life will give the same outcome. The contingency thesis is about something else. It wants to say something about the mode of evolutionary history, about how sensitive its history is to chance effects. For that, we ideally need to compare different planets with different trees of life to see if this sensitivity is the same everywhere. Determinism is another matter. The thesis also does not mean that there cannot be “laws of nature”. Even if you scramble up all the initial conditions that give rise to lineages of organisms with certain body plans, then within those lineages and within those ecosystems there can be “laws” about forms and functions and species radiation and so on. But we can’t make these laws applicable to all of biology and every possible history of life. 

Strong convergent evolution

This is the counter argument. Some functional forms, like eyes, like flippers, like wings, have arisen multiple times in natural history in lineages whose common ancestors are situated so far back in evolutionary history that these forms cannot be inherited, but evolved independently from one another. We may have one planet and one tree of life, but these examples can be considered as “replays” of the tape, giving rise to similar shapes. But it is not easy to marshal this as strong evidence against the contingency thesis. It is in fact very difficult. Philosophically, we can’t even narrow down what are traits and what kind of natural laws you could pull from this.

In fact, if you take the fact of developmental constraints in an animal’s body plan, which is one of the core arguments of the contingency thesis, then you would expect a lot of convergence among animals, because it restricts the morphological choices that are available for adaptation. Animals that are closely related arrive at the same solutions again and again, all within a restricted frame of possibilities. So even in the happy accidents thesis there is room for “weak” convergent evolution. The case for “strong” convergent evolution is at its strongest if you have very complex traits that converge to the point that they are very similar, but from very different starting points, meaning from ancestors that are very far removed from each other in the tree of life.

Powell gives an example. There are a couple of families of cat species in history that developed saber-teeth. But there is also a marsupial (ancestor to many Australian animals) that was saber-toothed. Clearly, to have saber-teeth is some kind of feeding adaptation that is helpful in some way, and not exclusively reserved for cats. Is the fact that a marsupial developed that same trait an example of strong convergent evolution? Hard to say. Powell’s greatest contribution to the debate is that she points out that cases of strong and weak convergent evolution are all lumped together because researchers only look at taxonomic information and not at the developmental constraints within lineages, and therefore their argument does not refute the contingency thesis.

What Powell does next is to draw up a framework for how we could identify strong and promising cases of convergent evolution, what conditions they have to meet to figure as evidence, to say anything about cosmic laws of form and function. But this remains a first attempt. 

The Rest of the Book

What the two theses mean for the shape of alien life is basically that the contingency thesis agrees that there could be similarities in shape amongst alien life in very general terms. Such as, creatures that swim in water are likely to have spindle-like shapes. But the convergence thesis hold that there could be very specific similarities, and those would be much more interesting, scientifically. 

Here is a most exciting part: Russell argues, quite thoroughly, that the development of “seeing” is a true example of convergent evolution that might hold in deep replays of life. And the development of “seeing”, whether with eyes, echolocation or electrolocation, is intimately linked to the development of minds. The book concludes that even if evolution on a cosmic scale would be radically contingent, then that would not undermine the evolution of cognition, of minds. What remains unknown, however, is how rare the emergence of cumulative culture and cumulative technology would be. The universe could be filled with creatures with minds, yet could display little technological progress.

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William Gibson – Burning Chrome (1986) Review

9/10

This short story collection showcases William Gibson’s first work before he won all the awards with Neuromancer (1984). And from the very first start of his career he shows himself to be a tremendously talented writer. 

Fellow SF writer and Gibson-collaborator Bruce Sterling gives an illuminating introduction to this collection and it’s worth looking at for a moment. He says that science fiction in the 1970s was pretty depressing. It was full of post-apocalyptic tales. When SF writers tried to look for a more positive near-future to write about, they needed to take into account the new scientific and technological developments that were growing up around them, like information technology, cybernetics, genetics, and it wasn’t easy to create something believable, something realistic and positive out of that. These technologies were like a looming monster slowly edging closer and many writers didn’t know what to say about it. It is easier to write about post-apocalyptic Earths, or fantasy lands or galactic empires, than about a believable near-future world that had these technologies. And Gibson dared to do just that and to look that future straight in the eye. His stories of lowlifes and high tech, couched in literary techniques, blazed a new trail for science fiction to follow.

I guess this is true, except that I see very little that is positive about Gibson’s future worlds. He himself seems to address this fact in the second story of the collection: The Gernsbach Continuum. It’s about someone who is haunted by visions of the positive, idealised future as it was imagined by Americans in the 1930s and 40s. He makes them go away by reading newspapers and submerging himself in the near-dystopia of the real world. If this also reflects Gibson’s attitude towards writing sci-fi then he might have been telling himself that his future worlds are more realistic, and that that is something he was trying to go for. I can’t be sure. Let’s look at the rest of the stories.

Johnny Mnemonic. Just 20 pages that feel like an entire movie (and a movie adaptation indeed exists of this short story). A total submersion in a crazy near-future world with exquisite worldbuilding and a couple of highly unusual characters, including a cyborg dolphin. It’s just amazing how much Gibson can accomplish in so few pages. One character, Molly, we meet again in Neuromancer (1984) so this story is set in the same universe, and it also feels like a proto-Neuromancer story. It has the same future Japanese milieu, the same clueless main character on the run, a Yakuza hitman chasing him, like a trial run for the novel to come.

Gibson’s writing is sometimes mocking and thorny, sometimes poetic. He takes science fiction ideas and melds them into the shape of dark fairytales. Most of the stories are about lonely young men who sink into some never-never land of technology and emotion. Maybe some variety is missing in the choice of protagonists, but what Gibson does he does very well. Fragments of a Hologram Rose is a poetic story about recorded memory and lost love, and the feeling of becoming someone else. Felt like a good start of a fuller story that never followed. The Belonging Kind. A dark story with whiffs of horror, set in the nighttime fantasy land of bars and clubs. It has a wistfulness to it, and feels like the result of Gibson sitting alone in too many bars feeling uncomfortable.

Stories like New Rose Hotel (also turned into a movie) and Burning Chrome give more hints of the Neuromancer novel to follow, but even if we take those short stories from under the shadow that Neuromancer casts back, then they are fine stories on their own. Hard-edged stories of cybercrime, with the sentimental cores of doomed loves against neon-lit backgrounds. These futures may not be very positive, but Gibson found beauty where other SF writers didn’t dare to tread.

I think there is only one story in here that doesn’t mention the word “chrome”.

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Review: Betelgeuse (’00 -’05) by Léo

7/10

The sequel to Aldebaran and this time there is more interstellar travel and another planet to explore! Kim Keller is back, on her way to Betelgeuse to find out what went wrong with the settlement there. On Betelgeuse, just as on Aldebaran, there’s an oppressive dictator in charge, but the settlement is much smaller. Mai Lan, a young woman living on Betelgeuse, is about to be taken from her farm to the settlement by a group of soldiers because they have instituted the abhorrent policy of mandatory procreation to boost the numbers of the fledgling human settlement. She escapes with the help of the semi-intelligent local ape/bear-like creatures called Iums, with whom she has a unique close connection. Betelgeuse also offers some more answers and new questions about the Mantris creature that was studied in the previous series.

Two things to notice here. First, the artist Luiz Eduardo de Oliveira (drawing as Léo) sure is interested in undressing his female characters and have everyone fall in love with them. Mai Lan, the girl on the run, is given very revealing clothes by Leo. She’s nearly naked. The English translations actually have modified art where they drew on some extra underwear for the more sensitive readers in the English speaking world. And Kim Keller is so attractive to every male she encounters that they all fall in love with her right away. Including an alien. It’s all a bit ridiculous, a bit dated too. The second thing I find more interesting, and that is an ongoing debate about whether the Ium creatures are intelligent. If they are, then the human colony is illegal and has to leave according to the UN charter of this future. The Iums are the new biological mystery of the Betelgeuse subseries. And they are cute. 

The Ium problem revolves around the fact that we recognise intelligence by our ability to communicate and build stuff, but those signposts may not hold when dealing with alien intelligences. A satellite might not detect any cities or roads and therefore conclude that there is no intelligent life present, but maybe a deeper association with the local wildlife is necessary to come to that conclusion. The series also gives an interesting variation on the problems of maintaining a successful colony. Using the excuses of a “crisis situation” and “lack of resources”, Kim and the rest are held hostage and immoral decisions are made. Those same excuses are used for a hierarchical society and old gender roles.

I enjoyed Betelgeuse more than its predecessor Aldebaran. The themes were more interesting and so were the conflicts in the story. The animals and the geography, which Leo so enjoys to draw, are more beautiful too. But it took a downturn for me in the final volumes. What didn’t work for me is the obsession over Kim and her love life. She’s constantly told how pretty she is with every new meeting. Every man falls head over heels in love and all the soldiers turn into disgusting creeps. There are overlapping love triangles until one character even says “This whole thing is like a bad movie”. Yes, it is, and saying that doesn’t excuse it. It doesn’t make me like any of the characters more and doesn’t add anything to the story. 

The final volume is even more like a bad movie, unfortunately. There are structural problems with the story. There are some last-minute twists in the story that make Kim’s journey take a sharp turn towards the ridiculous, and the central conflicts of the whole series are simply shouldered aside. Leo really wanted to make Kim the heroine of his story and he did that by making her the object of adoration of everybody, and one consequence is that the resolutions of the conflicts are in the end about relationship problems and discussions about breast sizes. The more interesting stuff about alien intelligence and making a colony work lies forgotten in the end.

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Review: The Colony (2015) by Nicolas Debon

“All that we have done here, we have done out of our own free will”

Nicolas Debon’s The Colony (published in 2015 as L’Essai in French, meaning “The Experiment”) is a standalone graphic novel, and non-fiction. A graphic retelling of actual events. In 1903, a Frenchman named Fortuné Henry buys a lot in the forests in the northeast of France to build his own home and escape society. Others join him, all rejects from society, anarchists, people escaping poverty, convicts released from prison and others. Henry holds to an idealised vision of freedom from the state and from society. They found an anarchist commune to create a more satisfying life, free from masters and societal expectations, to search for a more harmonious, natural and authentic way of living together. Henry’s ideal was to free people from themselves, and then from others, to found the society of the future wherein freedom and love are more present. 

“When one man dreams alone, it is but a dream. When many dream together, it is the beginning of a new reality”

Debon’s beautiful paintings and drawings look simpler than they are. He brilliantly uses an understated colour palette that underscores the solitude of these settlers and the hardships that they have to endure in the rainy, cold forests. The greys, yellows and browns also reflect the anger and determination by the headstrong Henry that he feels in the right to turn his back to the rest of the world. It gives him the energy to do hard work in the rain and snow to create this self-sustaining colony. Debon excels in large, page-filling panels where nature itself takes the centre stage, where the people are small and have to survive in the forest. Geography and weather dominate their lives and they are only small humans who need to adapt to that. But it is also this newfound connection to nature that make them feel that they are living a fuller life.

So, do they all die in the woods? Well, the personality of the founder Henry turned out to have an outsized effect on how the commune was run, and in the end to a detrimental effect. For a while all seems to be going well: they built and built and more people joined them and they received sympathy and gifts from villagers around them. When it all begins to go wrong, Debon focuses inwards on Henry himself and the story becomes an exploration of his person and the relationships between him and his fellow anarchists. For that is where the problems began. Henry couldn’t stop fighting. He couldn’t stop and find happiness in the little commune that they had created, while the other people did in fact do that. 

It’s only a short novel, but gave me plenty of food for thought. These anarcho-communist experiments grew everywhere around France at the time and L’Essai wasn’t unique in that regard. The album ends with real photos of Henry and the houses they built in the forest. Henry’s character could have been explored further. In the end we understand him but only on a surface level. The story is quickly wrapped up where you would have expected more storytelling. But for the two hours that it takes to read this, it’s an interesting journey and beautifully painted.

7.5/10

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Michael Moorcock – Elric of Melniboné: The Elric Saga, Vol. 1 (review)

Comprising:

  • Elric of Melniboné (1972)
  • The Fortress of the Pearl (1989)
  • The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976)
  • The Weird of the White Wolf (1977)

7.5/10  – A rather exhaustive, rambly review:

Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories are recognised as an essential work of the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, alongside Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Frits Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series. But Elric is actually in opposition to sword-and-sorcery in its older, classical sense; it is written as a negative image of Howard’s Conan. Moorcock was engaged in an act of radical subversion and produced a series that was, at the time, something unique. Something new and inspirational. By now, it seems old and quaint and very much like many other fantasy series that were written since, which have actually been inspired by Moorcock. 

Consider Elric. He is a complex character, and often weak. A sickly albino who needs sorcery to stand upright. He rules the old kingdom of Melniboné, which is an ancient kingdom of arrogant Elvish shitheads; a kingdom of merciless sorcerer kings who are used to enslave people and perform bloody rituals. Elric is different. As a sickly child he read a lot instead of playing with weapons. He feels compassion. He believes that power does not equate to ruthless displays of violence. He could conquer all the human lands as a violent dictator but chooses not to, and the rest of his court looks down on him for that. We also learn that Elric has a doom hanging over him. He will slay his beloved and be the cause of the downfall of Melniboné, but let’s be honest, who will miss that pit of vipers? This is the opposite of the glorification of power and masculinity that is Conan, and the opposite of Tolkien’s noble elves. 

But Moorcock’s saga is more than just anti-Conan. One reason why it has been so influential is because Moorcock’s fantasy dimensions aren’t simply about struggles of good versus evil; they exist on another existential plane of morality. Elric feels guilt, and recognises that feeling as new and alien to the world. His universe is changing and that includes the new emotion of guilt and that will be part of Melniboné’s downfall. And why is it changing? Because of the eternal struggle between Law and Chaos, and Elric is a conduit for maintaining the balance between these forces in his world. This was a new, fresh concept, different from the old struggle of good versus evil, and has since been used also in Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber and Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and let’s not forget Moorcock’s Multiverse idea, which also finds its reflections in Zelazny’s and Erikson’s work, as if we could draw a straight line of inspiration and development from Moorcock through these other series.

(As an aside, Steven Erikson even has a homage to Elric walking around in his Malazan series, under the name of Anomander Rake. Rake even has a magical sword that drinks the souls of those it slays, just like Elric’s sword Stormbringer. Erikson says that he never read Moorcock’s series, but the co-creator of the Malazan world, Ian C. Esslemont, has. And where the Malazan series has warrens as other dimensions, the Elric Saga has planes. The first plane Elric visits is a shadow plane. And I suspect that there is influence from table-top roleplaying games. Elric is constantly imbibing potions and his adventures probably had influence on the development of roleplaying games, and Erikson’s Malazan series started out as a roleplaying game before he wrote it down. And, what about the Valyrians in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire? Is the Doom of Valyria and its dragon riders not similar to the doom of Melniboné, the Dragon Isle? Elric, with his white hair and red eyes, the Valyrians, with their white hair and violet eyes?)

The internal chronology and publication history of the Elric stories are exceedingly confusing, so much so that this Volume 1 has a 20 page reader’s guide at the end that only serves to confuse even more. Anyway, most of the original Elric material was written in the 1960s as a series of novellas that were later stitched together to make novels. And this first novel of the volume, Elric of Melniboné (1972), is not one of those. It was written afterwards as a prequel to those novellas and so is placed first in internal chronology. I hope you are still with me. Forget everything I just said and just read these Elric Saga volumes in order and it will be ok. Professionals have thought long and hard on this, I’m sure.

Elric of Melniboné (1972) introduces Elric while he is still emperor on the Ruby Throne and finds his sword Stormbringer. For those who like to see some actual fantasy in their fantasy, the Elric books are satisfyingly stuffed with gods, high gods, elementals, other planes of existence, time travel, demons, sorcerers and dragons. Moorcock’s writing style is easy to read but also a bit formal and expository. It reads as older, straightforward sword-and-sorcery with simple, episodic storytelling, but every time I fear that the story gets too simple or superficial, Moorcock surprises me. The scenes always serve more than one purpose and that is a sign of more complex storytelling. Action scenes are never just about the action itself, but also about Elric’s self-exploration, about the betrayals around him and about the slow downfall of his race. It reads more like a New-Wave ode to old pulp adventure stories than actual pulp itself. It takes up all the surface features of that subgenre while being just a little bit more complex. Moreover, it is a bit tongue-in-cheek about the old styles that it affects. Moorcock plays with anticipation by giving his chapters old-fashioned descriptive titles, and he handles some tropes with a little bit of irony. 

Elric is a compelling character. He’s introspective, quickly affected by moods, and being the only one of his race with a conscience he is trying to discover what that in fact means. He’s trying to pin down a philosophy for himself. It’s more important to him than the future of the Melniboneans. He’s also a doomed hero, not really an anti-hero but one doomed to suffer and leave destruction in his wake, which presses on his soul. He exists in a tension between making the right choices and doing what he does to survive. David Bowie would have been great casting for an adaptation. Elric’s “quest” is to understand mercy and to explore whether Melnibone can become a force for good in the world. I know of no other epic fantasy hero who sets out into the world to explore such ends. 

At the same time, he needs a therapist. Elric is awfully quick to consign himself to death. I had to laugh; in the first book Elric slips and falls into a swamp up to his waist. And his immediate reaction is: “Leave me brother. I am dying. You have to give up on me my friend.” It’s only waist deep for Christ sake. Book two opens with Elric lying exhausted on a bed and his inner monologue comes down to “I’m so tired, I guess I’ll just die now. Won’t be long before it happens.” Book three opens with the end of a high-speed chase and Elric decides to go to sleep, concluding that “This is the end for me, I guess. I don’t care if they find me. I’m gonna lay down. Better to be killed in my sleep.” He’s so depressed.

The Fortress of the Pearl (1989) was written 17 years later in 1989 and therefore sticks out like a sore thumb in this collection. I don’t mean that as criticism but there is a difference in style between this one and the other novels. Moorcock’s writing is more polished, more philosophical, Elric’s inner thoughts are worked out in more detail and in general the novel takes more time to tell its story. This is all for the better as it adds substance to Elric’s character, which we then take with us as we dive into the higher pace of the next two novels.

The main quest of The Fortress of the Pearl could be inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy as Elric travels through layers of dream realms. More accurately would be a comparison with James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen, as Elric confronts his lost loves and dreams. Dream-quests always suffer from the fact that anything seems to be possible and the journeys have no bearing on the outside world of the story. I am not a fan of them. But a positive effect is that we get an even deeper understanding of Elric’s personality. At his side is Oone, an intelligent and competent woman who is a good partner for Elric and as a female character she’s stronger than you would usually encounter in the sword and sorcery genre.

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976). The book with the best title, and the best book in the collection as well. This is where Moorcock dives deeply into his Multiverse idea and as a book it is quite unique in the fantasy genre. Moorcock uses the trappings of sword and sorcery but knots something wholly new out of it. 

Elric embarks on three journeys; one towards the future, which is dreamlike and Elric learns about his role as Eternal Champion; one towards the present, which is fairytale-like and one towards the past, which is an adventurous travelogue in which Elric learns about the past of his own people. On the first journey he joins three other heroes, Corum, Hawkmoon and Erekose, all from other universes and also from other series by Moorcock. They are all aspects of the Eternal Champion, including Elric.

On the face of it, these are just three simple short stories stitched together, but we get glimpses of the larger narrative of the Eternal Champion and of the Melniboneans. That is what I like about Moorcock’s series: it is not just one short story after another, but there is a world being built up that is far greater even than the Elric series itself, and Moorcock keeps adding parts about Elric’s past and about his moral journey. Every time that I fear that I’m reading just another random sword and sorcery story, Moorcock makes it a little bit more interesting than I expected.

The Weird of the White Wolf (1977). The whole tale of jealousy, love, hate and vengeance comes to a tragic end. Dragons and fireballs aplenty, in case you were missing them. For Elric, it is not the end, but a time of violent and tragic transformation. This book is again made up of three short stories stitched together, and the dramatic climax happens in the first, so that the rest of the book feels like an extended epilogue. The structure of the novel therefore feels a bit off, and the second and third short stories lack some originality. 

Final Thoughts

Moorcock’s writing is competent throughout, but a bit bland. The stories move episodically from action point to action point, making for predictable tension arcs, and are communicated through language that is adequate but never truly beautiful. All this kept me from feeling totally engrossed in the stories and characters, and sometimes made me feel that the stories were only going through the motions. Elric is interesting as a concept but not always interesting to read about, as there is a lot of repetition in the text about his state of mind. What I appreciate is that there is an overarching narrative and a form of continuity spanning over all the novels, but it is sketchily worked out with sudden jumps from location to location and holes in the timeline.

I can’t rate these books higher than a 7.5 out of ten for these reasons, although I’d like to up the rating because Moorcock has tons of interesting ideas. The conceptual framework around these stories is fascinating and changed the genre, but the writing and storytelling lacked flair. And then to think that these stories are already so famous and influential just in the way they are written now. Imagine what a true classic this would have been, had Moorcock’s writing been just a little less bland and messy. We can thank the strength of his ideas for doing the heavy lifting for this series. 

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Review: Aldebaran (1994-1998) by Léo

7/10

Aldebaran (1994-1998) is a science fiction epic, a space opera, that stretches out over a series of 5 volumes that isn’t all that long. The omnibus edition reads as a single graphic novel. It’s one of the most successful SF series coming out of France in the past decades; written in the 1990s, and then spawned a couple of follow-up series – Betelgeuse, Antares and more – that continue to this day in the 2020s. All are written and drawn by Luiz Eduardo de Oliveira (drawing as Léo), a Brazilian comics artist. It’s his life’s work.

Comparisons are made with Frank Herbert’s Dune, because of the interstellar setting and the focus on ecology, but that is where the comparison ends. Aldebaran’s storytelling isn’t focused on royal families but on the travels and adventures of a group of main characters. And through these travels, Léo slowly expands his universe. So, to start: Mark Sorensen, Kim Keller and their families live in a tiny fishing village in an environment that could easily be Mediterranean or Caribbean, were it not for many strange animals around them. The sea is full of big scary alien monsters. Birds are all weird too. They live on an alien planet, a century after a wave of space colonisation from Earth, but Earth has gone silent and Mark and Kim live a low-tech lifestyle. So, think Leo’s homeland Brazil but with alien beasts. The story opens with the day that some monster from the depths comes and destroys their village.

Then a series of adventures begins.

While Mark and Kim travel, we get little hints about the world beyond their little fishing village and things aren’t cozy out there. There’s a ruling class of lordly priests, music is forbidden, journalism is tightly controlled… a lot of authoritarianism. And all the alien creatures are wonderful, mysterious and creepy. In a storyline similar to Lem’s Solaris (1961), two biologists try to communicate with a giant, shapeshifting sea creature.

Mark Sorensen, Kim and Nelly Keller, they’re teenagers and stubborn, hotheaded and tend to dramatise stuff, but the writer is totally aware and in control of how he’s writing his characters. Mark and Kim have their deeper layers. They don’t always understand their own feelings and they drive each other to despair and then try to talk things out. They come to realisations about their own behaviour and feel shame or anger. There’s good character growth and I enjoyed following them, for the most part. Truth be told, Mark can be a bit of an annoying, self-centered teenager, and seeing him struggling with his pride and feelings of attraction and inadequacy is… recognisable but cringey too.

It’s a comic that you have to give a bit of time to get into. It’s not an American comic with dynamic superhero action. The story moves slowly, there’s lots of talking, the sci-fi elements pop up slowly over time, and you’ll probably need to get used to the characters and to the way Léo draws his faces, which are a bit static. The alien creatures are much more interesting to look at. I began to tire of his drawing style towards the end. By the final volumes, the story began to feel a little thin. A little spread out over too many pages and not very innovative. There is a subplot about an authoritarian government and one about visitors from Earth and it all gets solved at the end. Mark and Kim never leave the planet, and often find themselves in their underwear. 

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Review: The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire (1965-’82) by Mike Butterworth & Don Lawrence

The Trigan Empire series is one of the most cherished, celebrated series in the history of British comics. Written in the 1960s to ‘80s, it achieved fame mainly in Britain and mainland European countries. The Netherlands in particular embraced the artist Don Lawrence and offered him much work after this series was finished. Let’s take a closer look.

The story of the Trigan Empire series at first feels overblown, overdramatic and contrived. But it is a story where the truth of actual evens is two steps removed from us. The opening chapter tells of a UFO crashing on planet Earth and inside were found the crew and a set of beautifully bound books. These books were then translated into the story that we observe in the panels. Gene Wolfe would use a similar idea for his The Book of the New Sun a decade later. And what we get is a mythological story, an origin story of the Trigan Empire. Unsurprisingly, the characters are all larger than life. The plot is full of dramatic gestures – grand geniuses, terrible betrayals, masterplans, the stuff of myth and legend. We don’t know if it all actually happened the way we see it. A country like Turkmenistan could also produce an origin story like this.

That means that the artist, and I don’t mean Don Lawrence himself but the artist in the narrative, made choices in how to present this story of myth and legend in a form that is familiar to us. The story of Trigo and his founding of the Trigan Empire mirrors our legends of the founding of Rome. The enmity between Romulus and Remus, the founding of Rome on seven hills (Trigan City has five hills, and yes he named the city after himself) and the violent struggle against Rome’s neighbours in its early days. It is all mirrored in the comic, but also Roman architecture and outfits are drawn into the panels. 

So we have a story that vaguely resembles Virgil’s origin story of Rome, but it also has futuristic technology. It has ray guns and spacecraft. Alien ecosystems, blue horses and green men, strange human-like races, dinosaur-like monsters and so on. It is planetary romance; Virgil meets Edgar Rice Burroughs. And, what’s more, this series is a charming example of what we now call retro-futurism. Look how cute artists depicted rocket ships in the 1960s. And futuristic cities and laser blasters and helmets… Don Lawrence’s art is magnificent, let me make that clear. But very much of a certain time.

So far for the good stuff. Now for six paragraphs of criticism…

Lawrence’s art also makes the stories palatable. With a form of heightened realism he makes it look so exciting and easy to suspend disbelief, but without his art the stories would become preposterous. The hero Trigo is this blond, muscled guy who is the best in everything and the villains are over-the-top villainous. They build a megacity within a year and go from plain-dwelling nomads to space-farers within a decade. The pace of storytelling was also different at that time. The series was serialised in biweekly magazines, so Butterworth and Lawrence produced two or three pages for every new issue and had to keep readers invested for those pages. Therefore, the stories are very concise, with much of the plot told via omniscient narrators in floating text rectangles. Reading straight through feels a bit like running through a story, with one thing happening after another.

The series reads as a glorification of empire; and as a glorification of a blond, muscled Übermensch as an enlightened despot. Trigo is so just and honourable. Of course, the story could be an origin myth as it is translated from alien books, but that framing device is only ever brought up in the very first story and never touched upon again, and so quickly disappears from the reader’s mind. I don’t think that Butterworth wanted to keep using that device to maintain a tension about the reliability of the narrative. We are supposed to feel immersed in the stories without thinking too much about them, dragged along by Lawrence’s spellbinding paintings and a quick pace. And so the glory of the Trigans becomes an unquestioned part of the stories. Where the glorification fails is that Emperor Trigo frequently makes the dumbest decisions that are used as setups for stories of adventure. That, and that the empire inexplicably still sends prisoners to slave away in mines for the rest of their lives.

Every story is the same! There’s a format: (1) there will be some threat to the empire. Sometimes foreign invaders, sometimes aliens, sometimes a long lost member of the imperial family. (2) Trigo or sometimes his favourite nephew Janno (they are hard to keep apart) ends up in the wilderness. (3) They meet pirates or nomads or tribes and fight through or raise an army, (4) the genius philosopher Peric comes up with a solution to a problem, and (4) they return to win back Trigan City. Any aliens or tribes now want to become vassals of the empire because Trigo is so honourable. As the series progressed, Butterworth tried his hand at writing longer, more complicated stories, but found it hard to shake off the format I outlined above. Instead, he made the chapters longer by adding another adventure at the end, and another, and another, with the result that we have stories end in the middle of a chapter and then continuing into a second or third story where you would expect a chapter to end.

The writing is mediocre in more ways than just the format. The stories are full of plotholes, idiotic, spur-of-the-moment decisions, contrived writing and ex-machina twists. People and nations really don’t behave as they are portrayed in here. Much of the descriptive writing is unnecessary or clumsy, leading to text like: “And then… it happened!” The invented names are also all very weak. We’re on the planet Elektron, with its moon Bolus, and Trigo lives on the plain of Vorg with his brothers Brag and Klud, and the Vorgs are neighbours with the Tharvs and the Lokans ruled by Zorth, and so on. All dumb, simple names. I can’t count the number of antagonists with names like Yorro, Yarro, Zoggo, Zarro, Orro, etc. Butterworth also reuses descriptions constantly. One story, for example, features “the desolate sea of Mara” and repeats that same phrase over and over in the story. Or a person is described as “an old doddering fool” ten times in the same story.

In one story, The Tyrant, Trigo abdicates so that a republic can be formed, which then immediately falls apart due to corruption, so Trigo returns and is crowned emperor again before a cheering crowd. Butterworth really leans into the romantic ideal of empire. This same story is also a good example of other tropes that this series reuses again and again. Such as: (1) an emperor is drugged, hypnotized or telepathically controlled, (2) a lost underground kingdom is found beneath the earth and (3) favourite nephew Janno is the only one to escape to save the day. Halfway through the series, the episodes start to feel like cut and paste stories from an assembly line.

Don Lawrence’s art must have been the reason why this series became beloved and celebrated, because the stories are SF writing at its laziest. But, in that, not much different from much of the pulp SF written in the early 20th century. Go read it if simple, old pulp writing appeals to you and you appreciate the art style. But what really needs to happen is a reprint of the work Don Lawrence did after the Trigan Empire, namely the Storm series. It is available in English but terribly expensive. The Storm episodes have Lawrence’s best work and the stories are better too because they are more varied and original and take their time.

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