I have not been good at keeping up with writing about books as I finish them here. To clear the slate at the beginning of the year, I'm going to do a short round-up.
Radicalized by Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow is the master at sci-fi as a polemic. His stories are pointed but also dense with allegory and moral lessons. Radicalized is his return to shorter fiction. It's a series of four novellas. Though Doctorow is fond of saying that science fiction is a genre about rewriting the present, these four stories all feel written to address the present political moment specifically. Unauthorized Bread is about the way that DRM makes us all passively criminals, and selective enforcement is a privilege afforded the rich and middle-class. Model Minority finds out what happens when Superman, ahem, the American Eagle goes up against police brutality and the right-wing press. Radicalized sees angry white guys turning the ire from minorities to the insurance companies whose policies let their loved ones die by denying coverage. Masque of the Red Death is about the pointlessness of survivalism and it's origins in power fantasy. These are pointedly political, but Doctorow's strength is creating human characters to ensure the worlds feel real. The stories aren't a policy position with cardboard cutouts to act out the right and wrong way to do things. The world is messy and complicated, and the people in these stories are human enough that you empathize with them. Doctorow uses that empathy to guide you to his conclusion. So even if you don't agree with him completely, you have a real human picture of his political leanings.
Die by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans
One of Kieron Gillen's best skills as a comic writer is that he can take a simple premise like "Jumanji, but D&D" and expand it into something engaging. Die is about a lot more than that, just in the way that The Wicked + The Divine was about more than pop stars as reincarnated gods. Looking at the idea that our desires to escape change in adulthood, the story manages to introduce us to the characters as well as their game world counterparts. The art is lush, especially in the fantasy world. Die doesn't feel like a riff on any existing game system, Gillen created something original. He even went so far as to create a ruleset if you want to play the game yourself.
The Diver's Game by Jesse Ball
Jesse Ball crafts the best kind of dystopia in The Diver's Game. Like 1984 or Brave New World, it isn't about logical consistency. It's a symbolic representation of the current world; this novel is a perfect example of Doctorow's ideas about science fiction. In a society where the poor and refugees can be gassed at any time for any reason, and the rich live in protected enclaves might seem heavy-handed. Yet, Ball has excellent use of language that drifts between lyrical and impressionistic, which allows the world to breathe enough that you don't feel like you're being pummeled by the message of the book. Instead, you're given humans in a space acting like actual people. Ball is a real talent and has a mastery of language.
The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu
Though Cixin Liu has a major trilogy buried in awards, I started with his short story collection after seeing the movie based on the titular story: This Wandering Earth. (Which lead to an essay about dumbing down science fiction for the screen.) Though these are short stories, most of them clock in around 50-100 pages. Liu doesn't do simple plots. Each of these stories is built around a single technological idea and exploring its effects on society. His handling of characters and how they interact reminds me of Asimov. The characters are there to serve the world and the plot. There's not a lot of emotional depth, but some of that might be the translation. The flat characters aside, Liu builds fantastic worlds, and even in shorter works manages to work on a vast scale.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and, Harmony Becker
George Takei may have been best known as Mr. Sulu, then as an outspoken social media presence, but he's lead an extraordinary life. They Called Us Enemy is based on his time in the US Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. While it is undoubtedly infuriating, Takei doesn't make it all doom and gloom. He singles out the work his parents did to make sure that he and his little brother avoided the darker sides of the camp. In what is, unfortunately, an evergreen message, this book is about how easy it was to dehumanize neighbors and the scars it leaves.
Alien 3 by William Gibson and Johnnie Christmas
William Gibson's Alien 3 was one of those open secrets that floated around the internet for years. Considering that the reputation of Alien 3 wasn't stellar, it was always a "what could have been" for the franchise. Dark Horse brings that script to comics, with some details from a later draft not leaked, and it is a fun read. Ripley retains her crew from Aliens, Newt, Hicks, and Bishop are all here. Instead of a prison planet, it's two space stations, corporate espionage, and galactic cold war. This version probably would have been a better successor to Aliens, and Gibson brings a fair amount of his signature weirdness here. Though it's considerably muted when compared to his novels. Johnnie Christmas' art style matches the 80's tone of the story, and it matches the classic Aliens comics Dark Horse put out. If you're looking more for the way that the movie would have played out, there's an audio drama version with Lance Henricksen and Michael Bein reprising their roles from the film.
Bad Weekend by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Ed Brubaker created some of the storylines that became the basis for the MCU, but he's also writing the best crime comics. Bad Weekend is set at an unnamed Comic-Con centered on a misanthropic has-been and his old apprentice. Brubaker takes us into the fringe parts of the business, and the seedy underbelly not celebrated in the big halls full of Disney stars. The book's writing and art come together to make a '70s style noir story. I tore through this in a night; it's got human characters and a story that keeps moving from start to finish. I'd really like more comics like this.
Friendo by Alex Paknadel and Martin Simmonds
Friendo is the sort of gonzo cyberpunk that there isn't enough of. Mixing hallucinatory technology, celebrity-obsessed social networking, and the fame economy: Friendo is a biting satire of the current moment. It's a bit on the heavy-handed side, but it's over the top nature channels genre classics like Rudy Rucker's Ware Teratology. This story really could have taken a right turn at boring Black Mirror knockoff, and instead, it stays genuinely weird and entertaining in its own right.
Dryer's English by Benjamin Dryer
Getting writing advice from Benjamin Dryer, the Copy Chief of Random House, is valuable for even hobbyist writers, which is why I picked up his book, Dryer's English. What was surprising is how engaging and funny this book is. Almost every page is peppered with jokes and often footnotes with more jokes. You'll learn the house style for one of the big publishers, along with the reason behind the rules. This book is getting a spot on my desk as a reference book but was entertaining enough to warrant a cover-to-cover read.
Cured by Lol Tolhurst
Lol Tolhurst left the Cure just after they became a stadium band, so his memoir of the rise of the Cure takes us from their humble origins in Crowley to being one of the biggest bands in the world. That'd be an engaging story, but Cured also follows his descent into alcoholism. So there's a weird tinge that almost every high in this book leads either some catastrophic low from a blackout or the revelation that Tolhurst doesn't remember what should have been one of his life's triumphant moments. For Cure fans, this book is a peek behind the scenes and the band's journey from post-punk through the MTV Alternative era. Though it does work as a rehab memoir, I'm not sure it would be that compelling if you're not at least familiar with the band. Tolhurst doesn't pull any punches on himself and doesn't bash anyone; instead, in most places, he's more than complimentary of everyone involved in The Cure. Cured was a great reason to revisit the albums as I read along with the story of their creation.
Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration by Bryan Caplan and Zack Weinersmith
Economist Bryan Caplan and cartoonist Zack Weinersmith come together to present a clear-eyed argument for open borders via a comic. Caplan is an economist and bases almost all of his reasons on the economic benefits of immigration. The latter half of Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration is devoted to debunking the most common anti-immigration talking points. Caplan supports his points with plenty of cited sources. The book is just long enough to avoid sinking into a rut of making the same points page after page and finishes strong. If you're looking for a book that explains immigration from an economic freedom point of view without having to dig deep into academic sources, check this out. Weinersmith's art helps keep the subject light and adds a bit of humor throughout.
Burning Bridges To Light The Way by David Thorne
David Thorne is probably best known for his spoof emails making fun of terrible meetings and people asking graphic designers to work for free. As his work has evolved, he's become more of an essayist. Burning the Bridges to Light the Way mixes essays about growing up as a weird kid in Australia with his usual stories about office life. There's also still his signature email chains and Photoshop jokes, can't deviate too far from the formula. I tore through this book in a night; it's a fun and easy read.
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