“The Cull”, by Robert Reed (2010) K

Date read: 9.8.10
Read from: Clarkesworld Magazine
Reviewer: Kakaner

Every station must have its doctor.

The first doctor was a collection of wetware and delicate machinery designed to serve deep-space astronauts. He was built because human doctors were too expensive, doing little most of the time while demanding space and oxygen and food. The modern doctor was essential because three Martian missions had failed, proving that no amount of training and pills could keep the best astronaut sane, much less happy. My ancestor knew all of tricks expected of an honorable physician: He could sew up a knife wound, prescribe an antipsychotic, and pluck the radiation-induced cancer out of pilot’s brain. But his most vital skill came from smart fingers implanted in every heroic brain—little slivers armed with sensors and electricity. A doctor can synthesize medicines, but more important is the cultivation of happiness and positive attitudes essential to every astronaut’s day.

I am the same machine, tweaked and improved a thousand ways but deeply tied to the men and women who first walked on Mars.

This is the narrator, half-human half-robot. More of which? We never really know. “The Cull” blends a slice-of-life snapshot aboard a space station with a dark insight into the methodology and sustenance of this future humanity incubated from, but at the same time reeling towards destruction. Reed paints the combination of human emotions and bleak reality in firm, knowing strokes yet never steps out of his narrator’s character. I wouldn’t necessarily say there are many hidden levels to this story, but I love that there’s at least one that examines the human psyche in a desperate society as well as a machine’s inability to refuse its programming. I’d go as far as to say this is one of my favorite sci-fi short stories I’ve read in a while, largely because its simple and elegant deliverance leaves enough room for the tragic beauty of the world’s circumstance to shine through.

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Robert Reed
Read “The Cull” at Clarkesworld Magazine

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne (1870) K

Date Read: 8.13.10 (reread)
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner


I recently made the perilous trek through Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: The Black Dossier, which was a constant reminder that I should reread some Jules Verne. There have also just been a smattering of references here and there so I thought I’d pick up my middle school favorite, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

My experience reading it the second time around was so appallingly different from my middle school read that I couldn’t believe it was the same book. Right before I cracked the cover, I excitedly recalled the dashing, dark, mysterious, yet loveable Captain Nemo, a brave man-gang shaking their fists (harpoons and electric wands too) at giant sea squid, the hulking science-defying metal warmachine of the Nautilus,  a whirlwind of action, climax and resolution under the sea, and what I found were… dry characters and lots and lots of taxonomy. So much that I’m pretty sure there was more science in that one itsy book than in my high school biology textbook. On the one hand, I greatly appreciated the, um, education, but on the other, it was frustrating to move along in the story only to screech to a halt and have to plod through terribly strained dialogue for setting up long monologues of classification. I felt like my brain was being taxed to its limit having to conjure up all these detailed mental images of fish.

This is not to say that I think 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea lacks imagination. I still fully understand why I loved it so much, proceeded to read all of Verne‘s books I could find, and cited him as a favorite author whenever prompted. The concept, story, and scarily accurate scientific predictions were still impressive the second time around, but it would have taken a miracle for the book to have held up to the expectations I built for it.

But no, Monsieur Arronax was not quite the adventurous and fresh man of science I had always envisioned him to be, Conseil was basically a non-character, and Ned was indeed a rather infuriating spoil sport. I’m afraid I must admit that I defeatedly returned my little used copy back to its place on the shelf and called Jules Verne up to end our little affair. However, The Mysterious Island remains on my reread list because I still vividly remember it being a league above the rest of the books and I owe it to Captain Nemo to give him a second chance.

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Jules Verne


Just a Pilgrim: Garden of Eden, by Garth Ennis, art by Carlos Ezquerra (2002) E

Date read: 5.5.10
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

On an Earth whose surface has been scorched into uninhabitability by the expanding sun, a lone, gun-toting traveler arrives at what may be humanity’s last outpost. At the bottom of the former Marianas Trench, a group of scientists have established a settlement complete with gardens and a space shuttle equipped for escape from the burned-out planet. The new arrival, who simply calls himself the Pilgrim, is at first welcomed as a much-needed defender against the various mutated beings that prowl the trench, but his fanaticism-fueled taste for destruction may bring unwanted consequences.

This mini-series (a sequel to the 2001 Just a Pilgrim, which I realized only belatedly) got a big meh from me. While the concepts and imagery are gratifyingly ambitious, the overall direction of the plot is way too obvious if you know anything at all about Garth Ennis and his pet topics, i.e. have read Preacher. As much as I love Preacher, Ennis’ expression of his anti-Christianity is so extreme and lacking in nuance that I had no interest in swallowing it twice. Just a Pilgrim was pretty hilarious to read shortly after seeing the recent film The Book of Eli, though, which is diametrically opposed in its message and about as lacking in depth – I think if you put a copy of Pilgrim and a recording of Eliin the same room, they’d explode each other.

Artwise, I did like Ezquerra’s monumental vistas and Paul Mounts’ mucky textures and bruised, sweltering color palette of intense purples and oranges, although occasionally the color choices did end up being hard on the eyes.

For the record, I also tried to read the original series but couldn’t maintain interest, for about the same set of reasons that I had a hard time getting through Garden of Eden, but also because the art had a much cruder look to it, despite the artistic team being the same.

Conclusion: if you’re looking for Western grit, post-apocalyptic atmosphere, and fairly mindless violence involving mutant jellyfish and hammerhead sharks, you may like this. Just don’t expect depth or anything approaching meaningful commentary on… anything, really.

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Garth Ennis
The Boys, by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson (2006-200*) E

Tales of madness and depravity

Reviewer: Emera

I liiiiive! Somewhat. There are still exams to come, but I have a comfortable breathing space at the moment, so I’m going to work on whittling down my absurd backlog of short story reviews. To start, here are two helpings of dark fantasy/sci-fi.


The nurse said that when I’m moved to my permanent home, there will be mirrors to see my reflection and windows made of glass instead of plexiglass. I do not know what a mirror is. I have read the word in the dictionary, of course, and heard it spoken. I know the press of the “m”, the sensuous delicacy of the “r”, as though biting a very soft peach. But the mechanics of the word — its sensation and definition — are different than the thing itself. I must have looked in a mirror before, although really, who knows?

Kelly Barnhill‘s “Tabula Rasa” (read 4.4.10, from The Three-Lobed Burning Eye) plays out a well-worn premise – an amnesiac patient recovering from an unknown operation slowly recovers troubling memories of her past – but even if none of the ideas are new, the execution is suspenseful and atmospheric, with great details and often lovely prose. I can never help imagining a moody graphic-novel adaptation, complete with blotty ink washes and scrawled lettering, whenever I read a story like this.

Michael S. Dodd‘s “The Madwoman” (read 4.4.10, from The Three-Lobed Burning Eye) makes a lot more sense if you read the bit in his bio where he says that it was inspired by Storm Constantine. Transfigurations with cosmic consequences, combined with high-pitched melodrama and mild abuse of the English language – vintage Constantine. Unlike Constantine, though, Dodd creates too-portentous-for-you protagonists who are irritating and implausible rather than endearing.

“If you do not tell me,” Ylsa intoned in a velvet voice, “I shall eat these delicate morsels, one at a time, until you do.” With that pronouncement, she reached into the jar and withdrew a handful of the packets, pressing one to her lips.

“No!” Marisel screamed, and Ylsa shrank back for a moment at the sheer volume of the cry.

Mmm… yeah. It’s a shame because the premise has great potential, and some of the details are fun – I like that the main character is a shady apothecary, for example.

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Kelly Barnhill
Michael S. Dodd

Wonder, bleakness, and beyond

PSA – just in case it wasn’t already sort of obvious, Bad Book Cover Fridays are on hiatus while I plumb new depths of procrastination finish my theses (holycrap).

In the meantime, please enjoy the ever-encyclopedic David Forbes’ mind-blowing essay,  “Sovereign Bleak” (via Coilhouse) on sci-fi landmarks and the philosophical trends that shaped them.

– E

“Evil Robot Monkey,” by Mary Robinette Kowal (2009) E

Date read: 1.4.10
Read from: Mary Robinette Kowal’s website
Reviewer: Emera

Evil Robot Monkey,” which was nominated for last year’s Hugos, got an “mmm… eh” from me. It’s a vignette framing the emotional experience of an intelligence-augmented chimpanzee who just wants to be left alone to make pottery. Though his warring destructive and creative impulses are viscerally conveyed, the story as a whole relies too much on clichés to do its thematic work – calling something a “hellish limbo” doesn’t do much towards convincing the reader that it actually is. As a character sketch, it’s okay; as speculative fiction, it’s predictable and lacks nuance.

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Mary Robinette Kowal

Crystal Singer, by Anne McCaffrey (1982) E

Date read: 4.8.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Blast from the past! Between the ages of about ten and thirteen, I made my way through most of Anne McCaffrey’s major series*, starting with (of course) the Dragonriders of Pern books. The Crystal Singer trilogy was always my favorite guilty pleasure, though, at least in part because re-reads entailed a lot less effort than a trek back through the monumental Pern series would have. Emphasis on the guilty part of the pleasure, also, because it’s one of her more brainless series – it’s world-building detail porn, with McCaffrey’s characteristic focus on the workings of an imagined elite profession.

In the first book, we follow the conveniently meteoric rise to fortune of Killashandra Ree, a headstrong, ambitious type who ditches her home planet and 10 years of rigorous operatic training after being told that her voice isn’t suitable for solo work. After learning that the only explicit entry requirement is perfect pitch, Killa becomes bent on becoming a member of the mysterious, fabulously wealthy Heptite Guild of the planet of Ballybran, whose silicate crystals provide the galaxy with unmatcheable communications and transportation technology.

The later books take Killa off-planet for more adventures, but the first book is basically an extended training montage set almost entirely on Ballybran. Crystal cutters, Killa learns, are those who have made a full transition to a symbiotic bacterium endemic to the planet. In consequence, they gain vastly augmented lifespans and sensory abilities, but also suffer from gradual onset of dementia and paranoia caused by addiction to the intensely sensual process of “singing” the planet’s resonating crystal ranges. On top of that, Ballybran’s three moons create intense storm systems that have claimed numerous victims. Nonetheless, Killa accepts the risks, and quickly rises to become a full-fledged crystal singer.

Continue reading Crystal Singer, by Anne McCaffrey (1982) E

“Brief Candle,” by Jason K. Chapman (2009) E

Date read: 11.15.09
Read from: Clarkesworld #38
Reviewer: Emera

Jason Chapman’s “Brief Candle” is a clever, winning tale of an unpreposessing sanitation robot onboard an imperiled ship. In an AI-fueled homage to Flowers for Algernon (down to the name of the protagonist), the robot finds himself taking on much more responsibility than, literally, he could have ever imagined. It’s a breezily entertaining story, with a quick, crisp narrative that revels in the meticulously imagined details that it unfolds.

Some of the humor was a bit too cute and obvious to work for me, and by the same token, the efficacy of the ending may depend on your willingness to have your heartstrings tugged; I felt a little resistant to the overt emotional appeal, but possibly I’m just being curmudgeonly. After all, I do tend to smile whenever I think of this story – it’s hard to be a grump about something so warm and fun.

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Jason K. Chapman

Sebastian O, by Grant Morrison, art by Steve Yeowell (1993) E

Date read: 6.11.08
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell - Sebastian O

“One must commit acts of the highest treason only when dressed in the most resplendent finery…”

After over four years of squalid captivity, the infamous dandy Sebastian O escapes from Bedlam Asylum, determined to seek revenge for the treacherous destruction of his Club de Paradis Artificiel, an association of “free-thinkers.” Battling officers of the Queen and crazed assassins alike, Sebastian makes his way through several wardrobe changes and the sewers and railways of an alternate Victorian England, where a strange conspiracy is beginning to make itself known.

Sebastian O is one of the earliest contemporary steampunk creations, as well as being an obvious tribute to Oscar Wilde. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of my absolute favorite comic series – I love sneaking re-reads of it whenever I’m feeling down and in need of some amoral, witticism-wielding libertines in my life. Unfortunately, it’s quite short – only 3 issues – and though Grant Morrison does excel at packing a lot of content and tight plotting into his mini-series, you’re left wanting much, much more of the characters and settings, all of which are colorful and vividly imagined. On top of that, it’s out of print, though used copies run cheap.

Artwise, I’m lukewarm on Tatjana Wood’s pastel palette, but it does work with Yeowell’s delicately lined, Beardsley-inspired art – one gets, appropriately, the sense of a brittle confection of spun-sugar. I also enjoy how Yeowell renders facial expressions, particularly Sebastian’s perpetual air of weary self-possession and amusement just a little too slight to be called mockery.

All told, Sebastian O is a perfectly paced, literarily aware romp through decadence and dandisme, full of gadgets, duels, one-liners, and speculative-fiction braincandy. I would love to see a full-length return to Sebastian’s London, but unfortunately, it looks unlikely to happen.

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Grant Morrison

The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau (2003) E

Date read: 1.26.10
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Jeanne DuPrau - The City of Ember

“The city of Ember was made for us long ago by the Builders. It is the only light in the dark world. Beyond Ember, the darkness goes on forever in all directions.”

At the age of twelve, every child in Ember is assigned a job. Curious, bright-spirited Lina Mayfleet longs to be a messenger, but is instead assigned to dreary, dirty work in the underground Pipeworks. Doon Harrow, her classmate, is convinced that the sporadic blackouts of the great lamps of Ember – the only lights in a world of immeasurable darkness – forebode worse troubles for the city. He longs to investigate the enormous generator in the Pipeworks that provides the city with all of its power, so when he receives the job of messenger, he and Lina eagerly swap their assignments. As the blackouts increase in frequency and fear spreads among Ember’s citizens, Lina soon comes to share Doon’s suspicions that Ember is a dying city. Together the two embark on a search to uncover Ember’s origins, and to find a way to lead their people to the bright city that Lina is sure exists somewhere in the Unknown Regions beyond Ember.

I didn’t enjoy The City of Ember nearly as much as I thought I would, for all that it’s a rather endearing book. The characters and setting are warmly evoked, with detailed and frequently beautiful descriptions, and of course the concept is fantastic to begin with – Ember is one of those fictional realms you wish you could visit, and more often than not end up carrying around with you in your head after reading. (I imagined it looking like a less anarchic version of the city in the film La Cité des Enfants Perdus/The City of Lost Children, and would pay a large amount of imaginary money to run along its streets and peer into its shops.)

Continue reading The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau (2003) E