The Ampersand

We’re going to talk about China Meiville’s Railsea and it’s going to include spoilers. You’ve been warned.

That said, we’re not actually going to talk about the plot of Railsea but the worldbuilding. Knowing this doesn’t change the story itself in any way. But, in many respects, the best part of Railsea is… well, the railsea. Everything in this strange, topsy-turvy world runs on rails and the book is full of strange little touches that help you remember that this is not the world you know.

What’s nice is that the story never goes out of its way to shove those moments into your face. They’re subtle and pointed, always clearly intended to illustrate some aspect of Meiville’s world that is different from ours. Well, most of the worldbuilding is that way. There was one aspect of it that shows up on the first page, digs its claws into you and won’t stop annoying you for at least fifty more pages. The phenomenon is thus: the prose never uses a comma in lists but rather stringing them together with a series of ands. Except the letters “a”, “n” and “d” are never written in that order anywhere in the text of the book. Every instance of the word “and” is replaced with The Ampersand. You can even begin sentences with &, removing the need for capital letters.

To make a confession: I hated this tendency at first. The prose was cluttered with unnecessary conjunctions and the ampersand jumped out at me whenever it was used, never quite enough to break the flow of the story but enough to grab at the back of the mind. It was wrong but I was enjoying the rest of the book enough to struggle through. Eventually, the ampersands faded into the background. Then I reached Railsea chapter 33 and read these words:

“The lines of the railsea go everywhere but from one place straight to another. It is always switchback, junction, coils around & over our own train-trails.

What word better could there be to symbolize the railsea that connects and separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself? Where else does the railsea take us but to this place & that one & that one & that one, & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than ‘&’?”

Mind. Blown.

Most of us think of worldbuilding in terms of what happened in the history of the world, or what they eat, or how they dress, or what kind of governments there are, what kind of buildings they build, what kind of rituals they have for births, marriages and deaths. That kind of stuff is well and good. It’s an important part of cultures and traditions to understand these things. The same is true for ecology, environment and larger scale parts of the picture. But what Meiville did with The Ampersand was go a level deeper.

He asked the very simple question, “If the world is fundamentally like this, what kind of changes might happen to the very ways people think? The way they talk? The way they write?”

Then, instead of a long Martin-esque exposition about traditions and rituals, he just shows us the people of that world acting like they would and lets us get used to it, no matter how odd it first strikes us. In time the curtain is pulled back for us but when it is we’ve already grown so used to the strangeness that the explanation is just icing on the cake.

This kind of worldbuilding is great but have care. Without the other worldbuilding, the careful assembly of ideas into a coherent culture and environment, you can’t come up with something like The Ampersand. What makes The Ampersand so striking is that Meiville did all that work and then went a level further. He came up with an idea that fit his world so perfectly then went back and hid all his tracks, weaving it into the fabric of his tale page by page until he found the right time to share it. This is not a technique to try and use at the start of worldbuilding but at the end. But if you do use it that way and you’re very patient it can make for a great culmination to the work.

 

Kado, The Right Answer

Science fiction is about the politics and societies of the future. There’s no better example of that than one of it’s landmark works, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which focuses on those topics exclusively. But in its focus on these two subjects the genre very often gets distracted from the thing that makes questions of society and politics important: the individual. After all, it is the individual impact of these questions that drives people to consider them at all. While many people will set aside their own concerns of health and happiness if they think it’s for a greater good; without a clear statement of how deprivation might serve the greater good it’s unlikely any will make such sacrifices. Conversely, if you want to prevent people from giving of themselves the simplest way to do it is to convince them there is nothing greater than themselves worth looking for.

But beyond all that, there is another question science fiction is often interested in. Namely, what is the nature of individual?

Kado, The Right Answer is interested in all three of these questions. Sadly, it’s not always adept at answering them.

The basic premise of Kado is scifi gold, beginning with a bizarre extradimensional object intruding into our world over an airport in Japan, absorbing an airplane and making itself at home. Most of the first episode is devoted to the Japanese government trying to figure out what they’re dealing with and ends with a passenger from the plane appearing on top of the object as an ambassador for the entity within. The second episode gives us events from the passenger’s perspective. The rest of the show is about what the entity wants and how humanity will react to it.

Kado plays with many of the wonderful hypotheticals futurists like to dream about, like limitless energy and the impact such technology might have. But it doesn’t explore any of them with a great deal of depth, as the story plays out over a matter of a few months, not nearly enough time to examine the deep changes that might result from a power source that theoretically anyone can create. By the same token even more fantastic technology is introduced in the second half of the show and given freely to humanity by the entity from beyond but what that might mean for humanity in the long run is never really unpacked.

The political ramifications are explored to an extent, with the UN becoming involved and Japan facing everything from threats of sanctions to prying business executives. While the Japanese government plays around these things in gutsy and amusing ways the real depths of these political machinations aren’t deeply explored either.

Finally, two thirds of the way through the season, the question of human nature and what it might mean in the face of life altering technology and beings from other dimensions is introduced. Unfortunately, Kado has been more interested in it’s clever technologies and shallow machinations than in developing its characters. There were hints of who the people dealing directly with Kado and it’s enigmatic passenger were but not quite enough to move them beyond fairly one dimensional characters. While Kado never disrespects it’s characters or treats them as props to a poorly conceived plot it never quite manages to let us get to know them enough to be invested in the existential crisis that Kado’s appearance ultimately provokes.

With twelve full twenty minute episodes plus a prequel it might seem like Kado wasn’t pressed for time to unpack it’s ideas but the show felt overstuffed, like it might have been able to make more of its high concepts if only there had been time to play around with them. Many interesting side characters never developed beyond a single note and the main trio are sketched well but without nuance. And, as I already said, none of the futurist ideas that the story introduces are explored with any depth. I wanted to like Kado, the Right Answer more than I did, and if you’re a sucker for scifi in general or first contact stories specifically you’ll probably still like this show. But casual scifi fans or the general public should give it a pass.

Always Be Afraid

Netflix – the great timesink of our era. I’ll admit that I don’t watch much with the eight bucks a month it costs me but shows like Trollhunters certainly make it worthwhile. I’ll also admit that when I heard about a kid’s show written by Guillermo del Toro I had about the same hopes as I had for a bedtime story by M. Night Shyalaman, which was not a whole lot. But I watched it all the same as it came well recommended and I was pleasantly surprised.

Long story short, Jim Lake is a kid in high school who finds an amulet that lets him turn into the Trollhunter, a sort of U.S. Marshall for trolls, those weird looking guys who turn into rock if they’re touched by sunlight. Jim is the first non-troll to be accepted by the amulet and gain the powers of the Trollhunter, which amount to summoning a suit of armor and sword composed of daylight and deadly to trolls, and he joins with a couple of trolls, Blinky and AARGH, and his friend Toby to keep trolls safe while trying to keep the amulet out of the hands of trolls who are up to no good.

Jim’s story is sadly typical for kids his age: No father, mother working too hard to keep the household together, crush on a girl he doesn’t know how to approach and no role model to work off of. Well, except for Mr. Strickler, one of the teachers at school, and maybe Blinky, the troll in charge of teaching him the lore of the trollhunters. But life was hard enough without mystical amulets and bloodthirsty troll generals chasing wherever he goes.

So let’s talk about stuff in a spoilery fashion.

Trollhunters has the potential to be a very generic tale. A couple of things set it apart from other young adult stories of this stripe. First, Jim’s relationship with his mother is very well developed and rings true. Jim cares for his mother and tries to take up as much of the slack as he can even as she tries to be two parents at once. It’s sweet and sad at the same time. The one disappointment in this is that Jim doesn’t share his new job with his mom like he does with his friend Toby and, when she eventually does find out about it, a plot contrivance wipes her memory soon after. I liked the dynamic between the two when Jim was struggling to make his mom see how important his place in the troll world was and she was struggling to let him do what she knew made him whole. Taking it out of play so quickly felt cheap.

Mr. Strickler fixes one of the problems many YA tales have – good villains. We watch him ascend from a lackey to a legitimate player in the power struggle in the troll kingdoms through ruthlessness and cunning. The show is replete with clever dialog for him, especially after Jim learns who he is and Strickler starts giving him warnings in coded language in public. There’s a brilliant scene where he visits Jim and his mother (still in the dark at the time) at their home for dinner. He spars with Jim, verbally and physically, all while both dance around Barbara out of a mutual desire to keep her in the dark. It’s one of the best moments in the whole show.

Finally there’s Blinky, the wonky, many-eyed troll that teaches Jim the ropes. He’s a different kind of mentor figure, eccentric and intellectual without ever being distant or unapproachable. Too often today intelligence is associated with emotional dysfunction. Blinky is a an emotionally functional but very smart troll, full of sage advice and strategic insight. He’s not a brave troll himself, nor does he have the strength to fight in the first place. He’s more of a Merlin to Jim’s Arthur, on hand with books, wise words and the fix when social situations pose a problem, but rarely taking a hand in fights.

Speaking of Merlin, one of the most interesting parts of Trollhunters is the lore of the world. Jim’s amulet is activated with the phrase, “For the glory of Merlin, Daylight is mine to command!” This touch of Arthurian lore adds an interesting twist to the show. After all, the Lady of the Lake made Arthur a king so what does that say about Jim Lake? Or about his father?

There’s lots of other fun bits of lore scattered about, like the way we learn how to defeat the ultimate bad guy or the troll facts Blinky is always sharing out. But my favorite has to be the first rule of trollhunting: Always be afraid. Frank Hubbard sneered at fear as a weakness, del Toro reminds us it’s something that can help us so long as we don’t let it control us. That kind of simple, practical and time tested life advice is the foundation of every story in Trollhunters and it’s hard not to love the story for it.

Two Strings and a Clockwork Orange

Kubo and the Two Strings is a wonderfully written and animated movie that I found profoundly disturbing. I want to talk about what I loved about it but I also want to talk about what bothered me and in order to do the second part I’m going to have to get into major spoilers. Like, discussing how Kubo finally defeated his villain and what the fallout of that was. You’ve been warned.

Let me start with the basics. Kubo is a kid missing his dad and his mom isn’t always there, mentally speaking. He can also control paper by playing music on his shamisen (a Japanese instrument vaguely like a banjo) and he’s missing an eye that his grandfather, the Moon King, stole from him when he was a baby. Naturally, the plot kicks off when Kubo’s grandfather discovers where his grandson has been hiding all these years.

Kubo leaves his mother and, with the help of Monkey, a guardian statue turned real, and Beetle, an anthropomorphic beetle who claims to know Kubo’s father somehow and lost his memories to the Moon King, the boy must collect the three pieces of a legendary suit of armor and defeat his grandfather.

When Kubo is slow and meandering it’s still pretty good. When the story moves then it’s great. I particularly liked the character moments between Monkey, Beetle and Kubo. The three aren’t together long before it becomes clear that these are the parents Kubo never had – quite literally as the Monkey contains the fragment of his mother’s soul that was lacking in her for so long and the Beetle is Kubo’s father, transformed and rendered amnesiac by the Moon King’s power. The bristly but unified way Kubo’s parents act before they realize this fact makes their odd couple romance plainly obvious to the audience while not shoving in our face. I also appreciate the fact that, even when they don’t know who the other is, there’s never any competition between the two or any attempt on the screenwriter’s part to make one look better than the other.

Beetle is focused on goals, finishing Kubo’s quest and making him strong and independent. Monkey focuses on keeping him safe and provided for. It’s a pleasing dynamic and conflict in it comes very naturally and is resolved in equally satisfying ways. More movie families should be written like this one.

The Moon King was an interesting but underdeveloped character. His sense of personal perfection was an understandable driving force and I liked the symbolism of his taking Kubo’s eyes to represent his trying to blind him to the value of others. His winding up with the eye he took from Kubo replacing one of his blind eyes was a nice touch.

My one gripe with the writing is how obvious they made it that the momentos from Kubo’s parents – a lock of hair from his mother and his father’s bowstring – would form new strings for the shamisen after Kubo broke the old ones. I think it would have bothered me less if he hadn’t broken his instruments strings until after he had both momentos or if the old strings hadn’t broken at all and replacing them had been a necessary part of his working his final magic. Or, y’know, if that little plot element hadn’t been spoiled in the title of the movie.

So yeah, the movie was written great and animated in a fun and distinct way which I found beautiful and expressive but can’t really explain well in writing. (I know, I know, I got one job…) All that said, why did the movie disturb me?

Because it’s a kids film and it portrays A Clockwork Orange as a recipe for utopian paradise. Let me explain.

In addition to giving his grandfather his left eye, Kubo also brainwashes the Moon King. After Kubo works his final magic the Moon King has no memories, just like Kubo’s father in beetle form. So Kubo tell the Moon King he is a man of compassion and kindness. The movie has established Kubo as a great storyteller and entertainer and Kubo turns his abilities to convincing the Moon King he’s never been anything but a kind old grandfather in a small village and said village joins in the scam. This leads directly to the film’s “happy ending”.

“The stories we tell ourselves” is a running theme through Kubo and, as a storyteller myself, I kind of understand what they’re saying. Seeing our life as a story is a tool to help us make some sense of it. We could look at it that way and draw some solace from that fact, I have no problem with that notion so long as we keep in mind that we’re not the entirety of the story but a part of a much larger story unfolding all around us. That philosophical rabbit hole is not where we’re going today.

What bothers me about the ending of Kubo and the Two Strings is that Kubo stole his grandfather’s story by force, just as the Moon King stole from Kubo’s father and mother. Worse, Kubo replaced the Moon King’s identity with a lie. Sure, the story glosses that over with a happy ending but Kubo’s solution is nothing of the kind. Lies always get found out and, no matter how well intentioned they might be, the destroy trust between the liar and the victim. If the Moon King was an implacable and dangerous foe before being violated in such a way what will he be after the deception comes to light? Kubo didn’t tell a story to help someone know themselves, he told them a story to hide the truth from them and in doing so he let down the author’s first duty, to his audience.

Worse, the Moon King’s entire purpose in the story was undermined. Instead of being confronted with his shortcomings by Kubo’s stronger character the Moon King was just swept under a rug, he was never given the chance to overcome the villain he was nor did his villainy destroy him. He’s never confronted by how his lack of compassion would destroy him and he’s poorer for it, as are we the audience.

Ultimately, while Kubo and the Two Strings does a great job showing us it’s characters and their struggles the only thing I can take away from the tale is this: Kubo’s flawed human compassion was no better than the Moon King’s lack of compassion. What was needed was a story of perfect compassion.

Reading List, Part Five

Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis

Genre(s): Science Fiction

Sequels: First in a trilogy

Out of the Silent Planet is the beginning of Lewis’ greatest series of novels. While Narnia may be his best known franchise those who’s exposure to his fiction ends there are truly missing out. (His greatest single novel is undoubtedly Til We Have Faces, which is a topic for another time.) Oddly enough this story started as a sort of dare between Lewis and his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien where Lewis was to write a spacefaring story and Tolkien a time traveling one. Sadly, Tolkien’s story doesn’t exist in it’s entirety. But Out of the Silent Planet does and it’s pretty good.

Dr. Elwin Ransom, a character loosely based on Tolkien, is a student of languages who attempts to help a person he sees being abducted but winds up an abductee himself. A few drugs later he finds himself in a spaceship headed towards Mars. Once on planet Ransom escapes his captors and makes contact with the locals, setting in motion a long trip to meet the guardian of the planet and a deeper understanding of the solar system.

While Out of the Silent Planet is not the most exciting or gripping book on it’s own it does serve as the foundation for the trilogy. Perelandra, the sequel is arguably the best and well worth struggling through the slower parts of Silent Planet. After all, where else can you read about Not-Quite-Tolkien fighting hand to hand with the devil incarnate? That Hideous Strength combines the high concepts of the first two books with a sense of foreboding and suspense that you won’t get anywhere else in Lewis’ writing. All three books are well worth the read.

Lost Triumph, by Tom Carhart

Genre(s): Military History, Nonfiction

The third day of the Battle of Gettysburg is a mystery to many. The almost invincible Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent a division under the command of Major General George Pickett into the teeth of Major General George Meade’s Union positions. After a short, desperate contest Pickett’s men fell back, broken and bleeding. Many people believe that the Confederacy was defeated that day and the furthest point the charge reached is often called the high watermark of the Confederacy. The mystery of the day is simple.

Why would a general of Lee’s quality send his men into what almost everyone agreed was certain defeat?

There’s no answer on record, of course. But in this book Carhart suggests what he may have been attempting. Lost Triumph is divided into two basic sections. The first explores Lee, his command philosophy and his relations with his generals. Lee was Commandant at the West Point Military Academy for a time before the Civil War and his curriculum and later real life victories all point to certain strategies he believed most effective and Carhart sketches how Pickett’s attack might have been part of a greater scheme to break the back of the Union army.

The second half of the book is a gripping account of the other things occurring at Gettysburg just before and during Pickett’s Charge. It tells the story of Major General J.E.B. Stuart, leader of the Invincibles, the Confederacy’s most famous cavalry division, and how they tried to round the Union flank. And it tells how they, and possibly all of Lee’s plans, were undone by a combination of superior weaponry, dedicated fighting and gallant leadership.

Lee’s trust in Stuart was legendary and Stuart’s trust in his own men was equally strong. The Army of Northern Virginia thought them capable of anything, hence the nickname Invincibles. It would make sense that the second half of Lee’s plan, if any grander plan existed, would fall to Stuart’s cavalry. Ironically, that unfounded confidence would lead to their defeat by a brigade of the Union cavalry that Confederate horsemen thought so little of.

A brigade led by Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer.

Court of the Air, by Stephen Hunt

Genre(s): Fantasy, Steam Punk

Sequels: Five novels and a few short stories

The Kingdom of Jackals, the Republic with a King, is one of the preeminent nations in its world. They have the Royal Aerostatic Navy, one of the world’s only working democracies and a culture stretching back centuries. For all that, it’s not a great place for the likes of Molly Templar, a young girl who keeps finding the people around her dead. Someone’s out to get her and even with the help of an internationally recognized archaeologist, a thinking machine and a retired smuggler she may not make it to see another day.

Oliver Brooks had it pretty easy until his uncle was murdered and someone tried to pin the death on him. Now he’s on the run with an agent of Jackal’s most secret police force – the Court of the Air, who look down from above the clouds and will judge all they see, even those beyond the law.

Problem is, something’s rotten in the good Kingdom of Jackals and even the Court is blind to it. Only Molly has the key to saving the nation but the poor girl just wants to write books. If she and Oliver can’t rally their friends, figure out the secrets of the Court and set things right disaster looms as enough power to lock the world in a new Ice Age lays just beyond the grasp of a madman.

Hunt’s stories are crazy trips with just about every idea he can get his hands on thrown into the stew. Steam powered robots walk side by side with political commentary and the threat of a pantheon of gods that worship other gods. While none of the commentary is particularly deep and the characters are sometimes a little flat there’s enough pulpy nonsense here to make for a riproaring good time.

Cobra, by Timothy Zahn

Genre(s): Science Fiction

Sequels: A good ten so far, with more coming

Yes, I love just about everything this guy writes.

Cobra is the story of Johnny Moreau, who joins an elite supersoldier unit called the COBRAs, gaining nearly unbreakable bones, motorized joints and a computer that runs it all and gives him a near-inhuman reaction speed and precision of movement. It’s also not your average war story.

In the typical book of this type we’d follow the protagonist through training and onto the field until he’d won a few significant victories and we were left waiting for the sequel.

Johnny’s war ends in victory by the end of the first act.

The problem is, the computer that controls Cobra’s combat reflexes cannot be reprogrammed (by design, to make them impossible to subvert that way) and can’t be removed without basically crippling them. Cobras are the lethal killing machines the people needed but they can’t stop being those machines after the war is over. Thus the Dominion of Man is left with a conundrum – what to do with these people no one quite trusts with their safety but who still deserve to be treated as heroes?

While not a groundbreaking book, Cobra offers an interesting take on the cost of war and how the future is unlikely to change it. Not everything has an easy solution and Cobra doesn’t offer those either. But it does show that, difficult though it may be, those solutions are worth looking for.

Dave Barry in Cyberspace, by Dave Barry

Genre(s): Humor, Satire, Nonfiction

Pulitzer Prize winning satirist Dave Barry once wrote a book about computers. This was in 1996, back when the DOS prompt was still a thing. I know you kids don’t know what that is, but suffice it to say we didn’t just poke pictures on a screen and have computers do what we want. We had to work to waste time on our computers.

In this book Barry goes on a romp through all the different ways we’ve complicated our lives using technology and it’s well worth the price of admission. Beginning from the destruction of the 1890 census – the first such census to use computing technology as part of the tabulation of data – Barry shows how the computer has not been our friend. It’s just another wild creature that humanity needs to beat into submission, one face slamming into the keyboard at a time.

Whether you’re looking for an amusing history of computers two decades ago or just want to relive the halcyon days of BAD COMMAND OR FILENAME then this is a book that you’ll love.

Silence of the Lions

In the decade since Rei Kiriyama’s family died in a car crash he’s made very little progress. Orphaned at the age of seven, and already emotionally subdued to begin with, Rei has become a master introvert. His only real gift is for shogi, a Japanese board game halfway between chess and checkers. Fortunately, Rei is very good at shogi and makes a living as a professional shogi player in between attending classes at school and living alone. It might seem like a great way to live but for Rei it’s a necessity. Life with the family that adopted him wasn’t easy. His adoptive siblings resented him and he felt awful about it. His adoptive father was a shogi pro, after all, and Rei was the only one of his children skilled enough to follow in his footsteps. There are many things plaguing Rei as it turns out. Plenty of reasons to become more sullen and withdrawn.

Naturally, the world keeps throwing funny, cheerful and energetic people in his path.

For me, it was this conflict, the clash between Rei’s normal disposition and that of the people around him, that really kept me involved in March Comes In Like a Lion. Yes, there’s good character conflict in the story, Rei’s shogi matches have solid stakes for both him and his opponents and there’s a lot of good humor and serious situations. But far and away the best part of the show is in how it sets up great contrasts between the conflicting moods Rei grapples with.

At it’s heart, March Comes In Like a Lion is a study in how an emotionally wounded introvert faces the world and how the people around him help him to do that. The broad strokes of the conflict are character versus the world and the show brings these points to bear by showing us the two sides in strikingly different terms.

The first minute of March Comes In Like a Lion, opening credits aside, are a series of stark monochrome images showing Rei’s silhouette, images of running water and roiling clouds, and a truly beautiful sequence of Rei standing under a bridge as gusting winds batter him. A mocking female voice over reminds Rei of how he is alone and lost until her words are lost in the sound of howling wind. The title card tells us this is Chapter One, Rei Kiriyama.

Rei wakes up and goes through his morning routine in total silence, then walks to the Shogi Hall, upbeat yet wistful music playing in the background. He greets his opponent, a man who appears to know him well, and then proceeds to best him in a game of shogi. The man compliments Rei on his growth as a shogi player, mentions that, “Ayumu and Kyoko miss you,” and departs.

The first words we hear Rei say accuse his opponent of lying, although we are the only ones that can hear it and we’re not sure if Rei thinks part or all of the other man’s statement is a lie.

As he’s headed home Rei gets a text message inviting him somewhere for dinner. He’s about to refuse when he gets another message asking him to pick up ingridient’s for the meal on his way. Just like that the chessmaster is checkmated. Abruptly the story turns from a gripping look at a grieving young man to a fish out of water comedy as Rei goes to visit a small family – a grandfather and three granddaughters. While it’s not slapstick it is funny and irreverent, going so far as to give the pet cats their own internal monologues. Rei can barely squeeze a word in edgewise but, quiet nature aside, is barely recognizable as the character we saw in the first half of the show. He’s unsure, unsteady and bemused the whole time. The contrast is striking, and encapsulates the appeal of the show quite well.

What’s so impressive about March Comes In Like a Lion is how it manages to have it’s main character say so little while expressing so much. Rei’s posture, expression, even the way he moves around the world tells us a great deal about his moods and how he is thinking. That level of expression extends to every character in the show but, as Rei talks so little, the strength of the animation comes through that much more. March Comes In Like a Lion is a masterclass in emotional storytelling and in no small part due to how little it’s protagonist says. Check it out if you get the chance.

The Reading List, Act Four

See previous reading lists here, there and everywhere!

Let’s get to it, shall we?

Doomed by Cartoon by John Adler

Genres: Nonfiction, Political History

The election was tense. A controversial candidate was running for office, backed by the corrupt New York political machine and partisan journalists, only to find the way blocked by a ragtag conglomeration of other partisan writers. The final thorn in the side was a constant barrage of stinging pictures aimed to highlight the ridiculous, corrupt nature of the Democratic party. In the end, they were swept from power.

It was 1871 and Thomas Nast, father of the American Cartoon, had won his greatest victory.

After three years of campaigning “Boss” William Tweed and the Tammany Hall political machine that had bilked New York for millions of dollars was driven from public office. Doomed by Cartoon is a history of how it happened and includes every cartoon Nast drew against Tweed and his conspirators. As much a record of the formation of modern political cartooning – Nast is credited with inventing or popularizing both the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey – this book analyzes each of Nast’s cartoons, their themes and what context led him to draw them. It’s a fascinating look at an era of politics that, lets face it, we still live in.

It’s also a study in ironies both delicious and tragic. A must for anyone who loves politics.

Irredeemable by Mark Waid

Genres: Comic Book, Superheroes

Volumes: Ten in total

Comic writing legend Mark Waid wrote this tour de force to explore the question of what happens when the man the whole world counts on goes bad. This series isn’t tied to either DC or Marvel’s comic universes, although it takes strong cues from the lore of DC. It focuses entirely on the central conceit and never shies away from the idea that sometimes people who have legitimately earned our love and respect can be come reprehensible villains. The question we must answer is, are they irredeemable?

Not to spoil anything – it’s never a plot point in much debate – but the Plutonian, who was the Superman of his world in both power and moral character, doesn’t go bad because of mind control or coercion. He just makes a choice to stop being a protector and start being a destroyer. Worse, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy with why he did it.

But the Plutonian’s swath of destruction takes a horrific toll and the people who used to support him are faced with hard questions. How far do you go in fighting a friend? When is he no longer the person you knew? Is there a point where mercy for a criminal is the greatest crime? And how do you take the measure of a man who is both the world’s greatest hero and it most despicable villain?

Incorruptible by Mark Waid

Genres: Comic Book, Superheroes

Volumes: Seven in total

The companion to Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, Incorruptible gives us Max Damage, perpetual anarchist. Few people on earth hated the Plutonian as much as Max. To Max, he was the symbol of everything keeping the little guy down – morality, social acclaim and order. Unfortunately for Max, he was there the day the Plutonian went mad.

If the Plutonian was the world’s greatest pillar of order his fall from grace was the world’s greatest moment of chaos. Max saw that and it doesn’t look like he enjoyed it as much as an apparent hardcore anarchist should. After a month off the scene Max comes back, burns all his illegally obtained cash, turns his gang in to the police and sets himself up as the new protector of his home city of Coalville.

People are naturally skeptical. For a long time he was a vicious and self serving man. Worse, Max’s superpower makes him stronger and tougher in proportion to how long he’s been awake. While the nature of his unique metabolism spares him the physical fatigue of staying awake his mind still goes loopy – and who wants a superhero suffering chronic sleep deprivation?

Still, Max is sure he can handle it. He was one of the world’s supreme supervillains for years. All it takes to be a hero is to do all the villainous things in reverse.

…right?

Pegasus Bridge by Stephen E. Ambrose

Genres: Nonfiction, Military History

Bridges are probably the most important structure in warfare. Without them it is difficult, if not impossible, to get all the things an army needs where they need to go. In medieval times a bridge could be held for hours or even days by a handful of people with the right armor, enough supplies and strong nerves. In modern war they can be taken by the same. Only a few people have done both in the same day. If you’ve ever read about Operation Market/Garden (a recommend book on the subject is A Bridge Too Far, mentioned in one of my other reading list posts) you know how badly it can go when an airborne division paradrops into enemy territory to do just that.

But you probably haven’t heard the story that proved that, as badly as Market/Garden went, what they were trying to do was more than plausible. It happened successfully just months before.

Operation Overlord was the turning point of the battle for Fortress Europe, the beginning of the fall of the Nazi war machine. The first stage of the journey was called Operation Deadstick, a simple operation by the British 6th Parachute Division. All they had to do was precision land their gliders full of gear near a river, rush across a bridge rigged to explode before anyone blew it up, kick the Nazis off and not let them drive their tanks up and get the bridge back.

And the Sixth did just that.

Pegasus Bridge is the story of how they did it and how the people in England and Normandy helped. It’s the story of courage under fire. And it’s an explanation of why a bridge came to be named for a flying horse – the same flying horse the soldiers who took the bridge wore.

Angelmass by Timothy Zahn

Genres: Science Fiction

Sequels: It stands alone

Premise: A handful of worlds in the galaxy lie clustered around a microscopic black hole from which emanate unique particles called angels. These worlds work together to harvest these particles and distribute them to as many people as they can, particularly leaders in politics, military and law. Why? Because angels make people nearby good.

Nothing sinister to see there.

Okay, there’s probably something sinister there. To the point that the government outside has sent in a military ship to seize the black hole, known as Angelmass, and deal with the local government. Meanwhile, a physicist has gone in to study the angels and try and figure out how they work and a down on her luck drifter takes a job with an angel harvesting crew in the hopes she can pick up an angel and make a quick buck. By the time the dust settles, nothing that people thought they knew will hold true.

Angelmass is a fun, fast tale about free will, morality and the ways people get in touch with their better angels. While hardly a home to Zahn’s most inventive ideas or his twistiest plots, it is a great introduction to the work of one of SciFi’s most prolific and zany authors.