Starship Grifters

Starship Grifters by Robert Kroese is the first book in the Rex Nihilo Adventures series, but the 3rd volume I’ve read in this universe.

The first volume I read was the short The Chicolini Incident, featuring Rex Nihilo and Sasha, which I understand is included in the third book in the series, a prequel, Book 0, Out of the Soylent Planet. I enjoyed it enough to read this next book in the series.

The second was The Yanthus Prime Job, a damned fine novella featuring the character Pepper Melange, without Rex Nihilo or Sasha. Pepper Melange makes several appearances along the way in Starship Grifters. There’s also Aye, Robot, Book 2 of Rex Nihilo, which includes the Pepper Melange novella.

In spite of the name of the series, I wouldn’t actually say Rex Nihilo is the main character. The story is told from the viewpoint of Sasha, Rex’s robot sidekick. Rex Nihilo is basically an awful person who is more an antagonistic Murphy’s Law force of nature which beleaguers the life of the well-intentioned robot Sasha. This relationship is not at all unlike Zapp Brannigan and Kif Kroker from Futurama. Rex Nihilo also reminded me, for several reasons, of Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero.

I’m kinda pissed that by the very end of the novel I had been tricked into being sympathetic to Rex, because he’s really a total shit, but it was a good twist. I’ve had more than enough of people like him. I’m really just over it, even for humour factor. But, when taken as an antagonist within the story, Rex is certainly easy to hate.

But other than Rex’s constantly creeping ick factor while falling trippingly into success after success in spite of himself, usually being saved by other characters trying to survive the situations Rex creates, the story is amusing, and in places laugh-out-loud funny. There’s a lot of scifi in-jokes, especially at the expense of Star Wars. I guessed some twists way early, but others were well and truly surprising.

I read this synced to the audiobook, and both are well done. The one criticism I have for the audiobook is that the portrayal of Rex’s voice never quite seemed right to me. Maybe it’s an expectation from Zap Brannigan being obliviously boisterous, but for the audiobook Rex has a kind of gravelly voice that sounds like a smarmy Mark Twain to me, and doesn’t quite match the character in the story, or the image on the cover for that matter, to me.

I’m slightly ambivalent about reading more in the series, though it’s good enough. And, I’ve already got the next two books, so I’ll probably get around to them eventually. I find I’d be much more interested in Pepper Melange and Sasha teaming up, but realistically they’d be unstoppable; and Rex is a walking talking crisis creation device, so … Yeah, I just don’t really want to read about Rex anymore, but I might anyway for the rest of it.

I made 29 highlights.

Shibumi

I picked up Shibumi by Trevanian, pen name of the late Rodney William Whitaker, because it appears on screen in John Wick 2, and I was curious. I felt I found some inspirations from the book, but the two are very different.

For the first tenth of this book, I was increasingly righteously pissed off at how shitty it was: poorly written with massive continuity errors; and misogynistic, sexist, racist, prejudiced, semi-literate MRA wet-dream drek. I almost threw this book across the room into the trash. I tried to excuse it because the book was published in 1978, but that didn’t excuse narrative that seemed more a backward drop into the 40s or 50s. But then I realized something. I was reading satire. This isn’t an early James Bond novel. This is Our Man Flint. Partly. It turns into an oblique philosophical treatise, for the most part. At least, once I got over the expectation, the rest started to come into focus.

In fact, this is not at all a spy thriller as it seems to be billed in the promotional copy. There’s damned little spying, and what action around spying there is in this is drawn lightly on paper thin pages. This is a character study in contrasts, a kind of episodic explanation by what seems to be the author’s notion of an ideal man in conflict with a less than ideal world. There’s also a fair amount of resentment and vitriol about the world that seems very much like the author taking the opportunity to vent hardened personal feelings about life experiences not directly biographically detailed here.

In the front matter, the author writes with dry humor that “[a]ll other characters and organizations in this book lack any basis in reality—although some of them do not realize that.” And, there’s an early moment where the author reveals he’s completely self-aware of the tone: “He was out of patience with this fool, who was more a broad ethnic joke than a human being.” The thing is almost all of the characters in the first tenth are broad jokes. These remembered two hints allowed me to re-appraise the first tenth of the book, and I came to terms with most of my early criticism, even that the novel was poorly written. The most egregious continuity error was eventually explained, though not all were resolved.

This is the last book in the saga of Nicholai Hel by the original author, and my first read of any book by Trevanian. An earlier book in the series, The Eiger Sanction, was made into a movie, which I really don’t remember, though I’m sure I’d seen it; and besides, apparently, the author felt it was crap anyway. Trevanian makes several comments about Hollywood in the text and about the movie in footnotes which demonstrate the bad feelings he had for the experience of being adapted to the silver screen.

Nicholai Hel is without a doubt an ubermensch mary-sue, not, frankly, too unlike John Wick, to be honest, and, perhaps, an attempt by the author to paint his own idealized self-portrait. Like Hel’s companion Beñat Le Cagot is a fictional persona adopted by the fictional character. It’s really all onion peelings though when one realizes that the author Whitaker published “translations” of “Le Cagot” stories. Perhaps the foolish characters weren’t the only broad strokes to be found, eh?

“From that moment, Nicholai’s primary goal in life was to become a man of shibumi; a personality of overwhelming calm. It was a vocation open to him while, for reasons of breeding, education, and temperament, most vocations were closed. In pursuit of shibumi he could excel invisibly, without attracting the attention and vengeance of the tyrannical masses.”

And, of course, the way to “excel invisibly, without attracting the attention and vengeance of the tyrannical masses” is to become an infamous international assassin. What. What? Yeah, okay. Turns out it’s just the day job that paid for the semi-retirement-that-can’t-last. Turns out you can’t actually take the mary-sue out of the Great Game without blowback. Oops. Who knew?

In fact, I find Nicolai and Han reminding me a lot, in a general way, of the characters Colin Campbell and Gwendolyn Novak in Robert Heinlein’s later The Cat Who Walk Through Walls.

The thing is, even in contrast to the buffoonery of the antagonists, Hel is still a white German (even his mother’s family history in Russia is excused by her being pure unmiscegenated Habsburg) ubermensch of lofty breeding. There’s a definitely a strong case played out of eugenic superiority here, even if canonically Nazi notions are dismissed, by way of making Hel’s actually Nazi German father a kind of simple idiot sperm-donor. Ultimately this is not so much a contrast the the broad jokes, but rather an attempt to retell those jokes in a serious way. That attempt to seriously detail Hel’s mary-sue eugenic superiority, especially as a white person in Asia excellent at culturally specific tasks, mundane and mystic, became for me strikingly uncomfortable to read in a “white saviour” way.

As the framing story proceeds, almost as an afterthought, or as just enough excuse to tell the rest, the meat of the first half of the book is all biographical flashbacks offering insights into the life and character of Nicholai Hel. The story is travelling through time, catching up to the framing story eventually. Its an interesting mechanism, and lends to the dreamy lofty philosophical stance the is the primary payload delivered by the sneaky conceit of the framing story.

So, not at all a spy thriller. This is a kind of narrative manifesto about what the author feels a superior man is and does and thinks, especially in parallax.

I want to note that while I criticized the writing, the truth is more complex. There is a simplicity to the language which should make this novel very approachable for anyone, there is a technical depth of knowledge within that informs that approachability, and there is occasionally surprisingly erudite language. I ended up at the end feeling oddly ambivalent about the writing.

Many things about this book are both strong and weak. It’s good but not great. It’s interesting but also frustrating. I’m glad I read it, enjoyed a lot of it along with a large number of passages I found myself considering as highlight-worthy, but I have a hard time recommending it fully. Maybe if I’d read some of the earlier novels first, I’d have been less put off by the first tenth, but I feel I’d still be uncomfortable with some things I’ve mentioned that are essential throughout. I just can’t completely divorce the philosophical intrigue from the philosophical flaws. It’s a journey, though. So, take it for what it is in whole, if you’re interested.

After finishing Shibumi, I am less than interested beyond idle curiosity to check out the previous installments in Hel’s saga, and, that’s okay: I’ve no doubt I’d just find this installment the most interesting of the bunch anyway. I find I’m far more interested in the author Whitaker as a person. I’m likely to pick up his autobiographical The Crazyladies of Pearl Street, and am definitely curious about his forthcoming magnum opus, posthumously finished by his eldest daughter, Street of Four Winds.

I made 113 highlights.

Capitalist Realism

I picked up Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? by Mark Fisher, from Zero Books, as my first read and first exposure to Fisher’s work. When he passed away by his own hand, in January 2017, I was struck by how many people were talking about him, and since I hadn’t known of his work before, thought I’d dive into something, and Capitalist Realism was of note.

Although the work contains examples that are a bit dated and specific to the UK or UK academic experience, the topics are particularly fresh in this year of governance by Reality TV, a kind of apotheosis of capitalist realism and late-capitalism. A discussion of the context and meaning of a period with an apparent end of neoliberalism becoming a dystopia of reality warping PR symbolism over substance is new again these days.

The strongest part, but also probably the most dense in references, of the overall work for me was the last, Marxist Supernanny, which provided the hint of a takedown of narcissistic infantile Traditionalist individualism and proposed a direction forward toward organizing around a rejuvenated progressive collective will to address root causes instead of symptoms or distractions.

Overall, a timely-again volume worth reading in these days of surreality in discourse but dark dystopia in events that offers not hope so much as encouragement that hope is at least possible to contemplate.

I made 86 highlights.

Marvel 1602

Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, &al, is something I’ve wanted to read for a long time and finally got a round tuit.

This was originally an 8 issue series, now available as a collected graphic novel. Apparently there’s been others created in the 1602 universe, but this is the core story. This is an alternate universe story about the main Marvel superheroes out of time, for some reason, which is eventually revealed. On the main, the cool part is the period drama and how the heroes have turned out in another time, and an extended thought experiment about this alternate reality in which essential natures and essential stories still play out.

I think for me the real feature that drew me to this story was that it featured Doctor Strange, and moreover in the era of John Dee, but it turns out there’s a lot more I enjoyed. Lots of little things that tickled my interests, like Daredevil talking about mystery and audere, Fury and Peter Parker talking about secrets, powers and mysteries, & c.

I think I was really hoping that Doctor Strange would use Dee’s obsidian mirror, but if it was there, even in the background, I missed it. But there’s plenty I found interesting. Two moments that come to mind are the villainization of libertarian, individual as the myopic measure of right Doom opposed to the excellence in a collective of the various others coming together, and an almost Zen parable about tools and weapons that resolves into an oblique takedown of filthy lucre.

On the other hand, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that the Fantastic Four could be seen as the four classical elements. I still don’t enjoy FF much, but it’s a dimension to them I’d not thought about before, that’s kinda obvious now that I’ve read it.

The art is in that almost over-perfect style that is hand-drawn but finished on a computer, which tweaks that peculiar Alex Ross-like trigger of glossy detail while still being minimal. The writing is good, though not stunning, to be honest. The primary novelty is in the time-twist and what-if-ism, which does deliver a solid series. Overall, worth reading and a fun adventure that kept me interested and thinking beyond just what the story presented.

Rogue One

I saw a Rifftrax tweet about how A Star Wars Story: Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards, with Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, &al., was on Netflix (for which they have a riff available). I’d been waiting for The Defenders in August to renew my subscription, but decided to do that early, for less than the cost of buying the movie on disc or download, and watched Rogue One belatedly but finally.

Aaaaaand … Holy crap, y’all. I loved it. This movie is a love letter by a soldier on the front sent home from the final battle but lost in the mail to only arrive decades later to fill for a brief moment a still heartbroken empty absence.

I admit it: I cried. A lot. This and the previous A Force Awakens really do it for me on a deep, probably psychologically significant, Hephaestus-archetype level. I felt this movie coursing in my blood like a jolt of caffeine and rattling my bones like the crack of a compound fracture.

I sometimes forget how much I am a child who was weaned on Star Wars. Without doubt I saw A New Hope in the cinema more times than any other movie (I lost count decades ago of times seeing the first movie in a cinema after around 27), and overall have seen the Star Wars saga together more than any others in total.

The movie is obviously a love letter to the Star Wars saga, especially A New Hope. There’s a tender and joyful use of momentary and interwoven callbacks without going overboard. Rogue One is also a stirring homage to Pacific theatre war movies and Chinese wuxia, in the way that the saga were also homages, the trilogy to Saturday morning serials and Akira Kurosawa, the sequels to teen dramas, like A Rebel Without A Cause.

The movie is also a visual love letter to the use of light and shadow, and especially the transition from shadow to light, a constant and stunning use of light as a visual metaphor for hope. There were many times I found myself wowed by this central visual cue throughout.

The story is convincing and solid, but moreover, not only a worthy installment in the Star Wars saga, I dare say that Rogue One transcends the inspiration. This film is full of new and novel takes on the source saga, builds on and expands the mythos in significant and welcome ways, and steadily climbs to crescendo with a searingly fantastic finale.

As an aside, I desperately needed a unicorn chaser to soothe my heartache after the end of this movie and watched a couple episodes of The Worst Witch (2017), and was reminded that Rogue One star Felicity Jones played Ethel Hallow in series one of the earlier rendition of The Worst Witch (1998) and the sequel Weirdsister College.

Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular Activities, a short set in The Machineries of Empire series, by Yoon Ha Lee is a breezily written, as I understand, prequel that tells a bit of backstory about an interesting main character from the other novels in a richly developed future. The language is simple and not at all complex, so this short is an even quicker than expected finish. But, on the whole, the universe in which the story takes place has a beautiful complexity of culture and conception that proves ultimately this is worth more than the sliver of time it took to read.

The cultures of this fiction appear to be based on many social and aesthetic norms within various Asian nations, so if I were more versed in the history and those cultures then I may have recognized more analogy to the real world than I did just well-done fiction. It occurred to me while reading this that my personal immersion in Western and American culture, although I’d certainly claim to be at least cosmopolitan, helped to create a sense of otherness and alienness to the particulars of the story which I might not have felt otherwise. I wondered about the reverse of that experience for readers of sci fi from the East with so much of the science fiction futures that I’ve read have been my Western and American authors. Kinda obvious now that I’ve thought it, but I’m not sure I’d pondered that so specifically before, as I had while reading this. It occurred to me perhaps the world-building might not seem quite as inventive and novel for a reader within those cultures that seem represented in allegory.

It’s short, quick, cheap, and interesting. Plus, after reading this short, I’m certainly more interested than I was to read the full novels in the series. So, well done, author! Well done.

I made 2 highlights.

Legionnaire

Legionnaire, book 1 of the Galaxy’s Edge series, by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole is Generation Kill in space. In spite of the science fiction setting, the particulars are thinly veiled allegory for recent military misadventures, with all the usual suspects and situations. The danger didn’t quite reach the Hidden Fortress level of impossible-situation plot-twists, but it was an entertainingly constant chaos of complications.

For me there was cringingly uncomfortable racist overtones to the description and conception of the main alien species, with the double whammy of being both Innsmouth-look-ish (which for me added a whole other genre can-of-worms by reference) and clearly Middle Eastern inspiration, on the planet where the action takes place, but if you can get over that, or accept it as littérature vérité, the rest is a pretty strong and stirring story about the common (hu)man trying to survive a vertically-integrated perpetual-motion military-diplomatic clusterfuck.

The epilogue felt wildly out of place to me because that little story-within-a-story went completely wibbly-wobbly Flash Gordon science fantasy pastiche. I’m not sure how that bodes for the rest of the series. I hope that was just an anomaly. Otherwise this was a solid first installment in a series with promise for worthy visceral commentary on recent global political-military history through a very thinly-drawn distancing lens of uncomfortably-close-to-real fiction.

I made 7 highlights, but 3 of those were notes about errors.