Saturday, April 17, 2021

Book Review: Whole Wide World

Book Review: 'Whole Wide World' by Paul McAuley

4 / 5 Stars

'Whole Wide World' first was printed in 2001 in hardcover. This mass market paperback (376 pp.) was issued by Tor in December, 2003. The cover design is by Drive Communications.

'Whole Wide World' utilizes a near-future setting: a dystopian United Kingdom of the mid-2010s, several years after the 'InfoWar', a mass riot perpetrated by antifas, nearly eliminated the nation's telecommunications grid. 

A more repressive and authoritarian UK government now uses multiple cyber-police agencies to monitor content on the Web. The Autonomous Distributed Expert Surveillance System (ADESS), a massive network of CCTV cameras, scrutinizes the streets of London to deter antisocial behavior. Checkpoints control access to selected areas of the city, and the police have a less than cordial relationship with the populace they serve.

The protagonist of 'Whole Wide' is a middle-aged policeman named John (his surname never is disclosed) who works for T12, the London police force's cybercrime investigative unit. John formerly had a high-profile position with the police's Hostage and Extortion Unit, but has fallen from grace, and now works as one of numerous T12 officers investigating cybercrimes (such as the distribution of digital pornography).

When John, in his capacity as a computer expert, is called to the scene of the brutal murder of a coed he discovers that the murdered girl, Sophie Booth, was performing erotic pantomimes for an online audience. Not content to serve a mere supportive role as the T12 liaison to the homicide team, John embarks on his own, unsanctioned investigation of the murder. 

So doing will bring him into conflict with powerful people in the U.K. government; a systems engineer whose designs for ADESS go far beyond simple surveillance; and the amoral world of online sleaze merchants, merchants who are quite willing to use violence to deter anyone who is asking the wrong kinds of questions.............

I finished 'Whole Wide World' thinking it a sold 4-star modern cyberpunk novel. Author McAuley's London is a reasonably accurate extrapolation given the state of the Information Age as of 2001, when the book was published. The villains are sufficiently odious to make John's dogged pursuit understandable, and the ins and outs of the criminal investigation process and the accompanying bureaucracy are convincingly rendered (McAuley published a crime thriller, 'Players', in 2007, signaling his familiarity with the genre).

Where 'Whole Wide' seemed to lose momentum was in its length; at 376 pages, the process of learning Whodunit is protracted, and although the identity of the murderer is provided around the novel's halfway point, lots of attention remains to be given to the wider theme of the disturbing implications of having the modern Surveillance State manipulated by those with nefarious motives. 

The final 100 pages of 'Whole Wide' are dependent on rather uninspired plot devices (such as having villains easily suborned into giving rants in which they disclose their guilt, and having John increasingly prone to committing bullheaded actions which, coincidently, prevent the narrative from getting too sluggish). 

The novel's transition into a detective novel, rather than a cyberpunk novel, in its closing chapters left me with the impression that an opportunity to do something particularly offbeat and imaginative with 'Whole Wide World' likely had been missed. Hence, my 4-star Review.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Dot's Homestyle Pretzels

 Dot's Homestyle Pretzels

I'm not much of a pretzel eater. But then I saw a post at Barstool Sports for these pretzels, in which the poster stated of Dot's Homestyle Pretzels:

You can't stop eating them when you pop open the bag. I'm at the point now where I can't get in the car or walk home from the store without opening the bag and blowing through half the bag before I even get to my front door.

I thought it wise to check them out. Here in Charlottesville, Virginia, I found the 1 lb bags for sale at Harris-Teeter; with my VIC Card, they were $4.99.

Dot's Homestyle Pretzels have an unusual flavor. It's uniquely savory and sharp, staying on your tongue for some time after you eat them. I do have to exert Portion Control when I begin to eat them.

'Dot' is Dorothy “Dot” Henke, a resident of Velva, North Dakota, who created her pretzels in 2007 and began selling them in 2012. A mini-documentary on her story is available here.

In addition to the Homestyle flavor, there is a Southwest flavor. And you can buy crumbled pretzels for use as a breading.

As of 2019, Dot's are sold in 48 states, but their on-shelf retailers tend to be stores located in the Midwest. In Virginia, besides Harris-Teeter, I've seen Dot's on-shelf at Ace Hardware stores. Major retailers, such as Target, Walmart, and amazon, offer Dot's online, but these have high markups. If you can't find an on-shelf retailer in your immediate area, it may be best to go directly to Dot's website to, as they say, 'get your fix'.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Battling Britons

Battling Britons
by Justin Marriott
April, 2021
Like most Baby Boomers of American pedigree I grew up reading war comics, most of them from DC, occasionally from Charlton. I thought the Sergeant Rock stories in Our Army at War were overwrought and melodramatic, but I liked Weird War Tales, Star Spangled War Stories, and G.I. Combat.

I never even knew that the UK had its war comics until the Fall of 1984, when I picked up some 2000 AD Yearbooks from the bargain bin of a comic book store near the Louisiana State University campus in Baton Rouge. One of the Yearbooks had a brief interview with artist Carlos Ezquerra, and an accompanying illustration of 'Major Eazy'. Thus did I become aware that the UK did, indeed, publish war comics. But getting hold of any of them was simply not feasible back in those days. There were no shipments of Commando or Battle Picture Weekly being flown or sailed across the Atlantic to comic book stores in the States.........

Well, the indefatigable Justin Marriott, the UK’s leading expert on mass market paperbacks, returns with another publication devoted to Anglophone popular culture........and this one deals with war comics published in the UK from the 1960s to the 2000s: 'Battling Britons'.

Interestingly, unlike the smaller sizing usually deployed for Marriott’s ‘bookzines’, ‘Battling Britons’ opts for a 8 ½ x 11 inch sizing (refer to my photograph for a side-by-side comparison).

Like Marriott’s bookzines, ‘Battling Britons’ is print-on-demand, so for me, as a Virginia resident, ordering the book from amazon took only a couple of days to complete.
Mindful that a substantial part of the readership is likely to be American, ‘Britons’ includes an introductory assay describing the publishing history of war comics in the UK. The bulk of these comics were (and still are) issued as 64-page, black-and-white ‘pocket’ books, similar to the comics digests published in the USA.
The digest titles, which include the venerable Commando, usually presented two panels per page, and took advantage of their length to offer more in-depth storytelling and characterization. 

In 1974, Scottish publisher D. C. Thompson launched the anthology series Warlord, which adhered to the A4 sizing (8 ¼ x 11 ¾  inches) used in the UK for weekly comic books. Warlord was a major success and prompted rival publisher IPC to issue its own weekly war anthology, Battle Picture Library

Although printed in black-and-white on a rougher grade of paper, and with their stories limited to four-page installments each week, the weeklies managed to gain a substantial following among UK readers well into the 1980s. 

Within its 162 pages, ‘Battling Britons’ provides more than 200 reviews of war comics that appeared in either the digest or weekly formats. A ‘grenade’ rating system, from 1 grenade (don’t bother) to 5 grenades (a classic that belongs in every fan’s hands) is given to each review. The bulk of the reviews are authored by Marriott, with additional reviews from veteran contributors to Marriott’s publications: Steve Myall, Jim O’Brien, and James Reasoner. 
There are copious black-and-white illustrations throughout the book, and while there is no denying the fact that the printing processes used in the comics issued during the profiled era were decidedly ‘low-resolution’, still, it’s possible to see that many titles featured work by accomplished artists, and Marriott and his co-contributors make note of this in their reviews. 

A ‘Sources’ section of the book provides information on how one can obtain copies or reprints of the profiled war comics; The Treasury of British Comics, an imprint maintained by Oxford publisher Rebellion, is an obvious first stop, as it has issued compilations of such renowned titles as ‘Charley’s War’, ‘Death Squad’, ‘Major Eazy’, and ‘Battler Britton’.
Thumbing through the pages of ‘Battling Britons’ surely will spark nostalgia among Brits of the Baby Boomer era. For Americans, the material will of course be less familiar, emphasizing as it does the British perspective on World Wars I and II (although other conflicts, such as the Napoleonic Wars, receive treatment). 
Some of the psychological underpinnings of these comics can be a bit hard to grasp, such as the conflicts between the officers ('donkeys') and the enlisted men ('the lions'), which reflect to some extent the inherent conflict of the British class system. But you can argue that the inclusion of these aspects of the British war experience gives these comics a novelty that you likely won't find in their American counterparts.

The verdict ? If you are an American Baby Boomer who enjoyed the war comics of Charlton, DC, and Marvel, then you’re certainly going to find some intriguing and worthwhile content in ‘Battling Britons’. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

Book Review: Black Glass

Book Review: 'Black Glass' by John Shirley
3 / 5 Stars

‘Black Glass: The Lost Cyberpunk Novel’ (310 pp.) was published as a trade paperback in November 2008 by Elder Signs Press, a since-defunct small press / vanity press publisher.

In an essay written in 2009, John Shirley relates that in the early 80s he and William Gibson had a meeting with an anonymous Hollywood director about making a cyberpunk-themed movie using a script, tentatively titled ‘Microchip’, that Shirley and Gibson had conceptualized. The movie deal never came through and Shirley didn’t pay much attention to ‘Microchip’ until 2007, when he decided to revise it and publish it as ‘Black Glass’.

In Shirley’s words,

I just had to update its tech, environmental and cultural references and recognize that my pulp-inflected metaphor may be at the pop end of art, but it’s vitalized by the pointed honesty of its symbols.

‘Black Glass’ is set in the near future, in a dystopian USA where corporations, rather than politicians, run things......and society is divided into the Haves, and the Have Nothings. As the novel opens, Richard Candle, a former L.A. police officer, is being released from prison, where he was serving a four-year sentence under the aegis of ‘UnMinding’, a sort of reversible lobotomization designed to make inmates cooperative and compliant.

Candle went to prison to take the fall for his brother Danny, a dissipated punk-rocker who made the risky decision to try and profit off the theft of high-value software from the powerful Slakon corporation. Knowing Danny couldn’t survive a stint in the pen, Richard sacrificed his own career and good name………and four years of his life. 

With Richard now free, Terrence Grist, the odious CEO of Slakon, orders Candle to be trailed by a team of operatives in hopes of recovering the stolen software. As the novel unfolds, Candle negotiates the trash-strewn, polluted slums of L.A. and their louche denizens. His goals: find a way to wean his brother off an addiction to Virtual Reality; make some badly-needed money on the online black market; and find the stolen software and use it to keep Slakon at bay.

Or better yet, use the software to take Slakon, and Terrence Grist, down and out………

I found ‘Black Glass’ to be a three-star novel. The things that Shirley did well in his cyberpunk novels and short stories from the 80s and early 90s - atmosphere, characterization, an authentic 'street-level' perception of the cyberpunk milieu - are present and accounted for in 'Black Glass' :

Rack Nidd wasn’t happy to see Danny Candle. Danny could tell by the way the robot scorpion on Rack’s left shoulder was rearing up and chittering warningly……Rack just stood there in the doorway of his loft, twining a long piece of his greasy hair with his finger. He didn’t have much hair to twine; he had a disease that made his hair prematurely gray and patchy; what there was grew out all droopy long from the patches. His grimace was patchy too; he was missing every third tooth.……Rack Nidd wasn’t his real name, of course. He’d once owned a nu-punk aggregate site, before going into illegal VR: Arachnid Recordings. He stood there, now, pot-bellied, all but naked, wearing only a pair of vintage boxers shorts with some cartoon on them from an earlier era. A yellow cartoon kid with a pincushion head was saying “Ay Caramba !” on one of the boxer’s panels. Rack’s Japanese thongs completed the picture; the rank smell completed the experience.

Where 'Black Glass' suffers is in its plotting, which tends to meander. Too often, the narrative veers into tangents that lengthen the novel, but don't contribute all that much to it; for example, a segment in which Richard Candle communes with his Buddhist Master could have been excised without penalty, as could multiple, redundant segments designed to display the villainy of Terrence Grist. And the denouement of 'Black Glass' relies on a plot development to ensure that all the loose ends get tied up, a plot development that I found gimmicky and contrived.

The verdict ? Fans of Shirley's cyberpunk works of the 80s and early 90s likely will find 'Black Glass' rewarding despite its plotting deficiencies, but honestly, I can't see many younger fans of the genre, who have been reared on the careful wordsmithing and plotting of contemporary cyberpunk books (such as William Gibson's 'Blue Ant' novels, or the novels of Paolo Bacigalupi) eagerly diving into 'Black Glass'. This is one for the Old School readership.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Excalibur, April 10 1981

Warner Bros.
April 10, 1981
I remember seeing the movie Excalibur when it was released 40 years ago in April of 1981. It was the first of what would be a steady stream of fantasy-themed films that were issued in the 80s, with Dragonslayer coming out a few months later, and The Sword and the Sorcerer, The BeastmasterConan the Barbarian and The Dark Crystal coming in 1982.

Even after the passage of 40 years, Excalibur remains entertaining. It was a particularly 'British' film and that, I think, is one of the reasons for its success. The inclusion of a Joseph Campbell-esque theme, and the use of the Wagner music for the soundtrack, gave the film a gravitas that counters the occasionally stilted dialogue and less-than-stellar acting.

The 50-minute, 2013 documentary Behind the Sword in the Stone, recently retitled Excalibur: Behind the Movie, is available at a number of streaming platforms. 
It contains interesting anecdotes anecdotes and observations about the making of the film, and is well worth watching. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Every now and then..........

 Every Now and Then......

........I discover that the website provides a 'blurb'. 

So it is in the case of this DAW book from 2013, where my review was used to fashion a back cover blurb......

Certainly this is every blogger's aspiration (?!)

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Book Review: The Traveler

Book Review: 'The Traveler' by John Twelve Hawks

4 / 5 Stars

'The Traveler' first was published in 2005 in hardcover by Doubleday. This mass market paperback (480 pp.) was issued by Vintage Books in July 2006. The cover design is by Song Hee Kim.

'The Traveler' is the first book in the so-called 'Fourth Realm' trilogy; the other two volumes in the series are 'The Dark River' (2007) and 'The Golden City' (2009; issued as a trade paperback, rather than a mass-market paperback, by Vintage).

'The Traveler' is set in the near future, and revolves around a covert war, waged between two cabals, that has been going on for centuries. One cabal, which resembles The Illuminati, is called the Tabula, and is comprised of individuals who believe that subjecting Mankind to absolute and uncompromising control best secures the future of the planet.

Warring against the Tabula is an alliance of humanists known as the Travelers: mystics who possess the ability to project their souls, or consciousnesses, into other realms. Throughout history the Travelers, often being hailed as saints and visionaries, have been catalysts for transcendent change in society. The Travelers stand for individuality, freedom, and mutability, traits that are anathema to the Tabula.

Being pacifistic as well as numinous, the Travelers are quite vulnerable to the depredations of the Tabula. Luckily a caste of warrior-assassins, known as the Harlequins, have pledged to protect the Travelers. The Harlequins have been raised from birth to excel in combat, employing - with superhuman abilities - all manner of weapons (although they favor swords).

As the novel opens, the age-old conflict has been tipped in the favor of the Tabula, thanks to the advent of the computer-driven Information Age and the accompanying rise of the Surveillance State. Having infiltrated every government, the Tabula are able to quickly identify Travelers and pursue their elimination. The coming victory of the Tabula will leave the ability of the human race to embrace new ideas, and new philosophies, permanently extinguished. Soon, all of world's peoples will live as unwitting prisoners of the Global Panopticon.

However, hope lingers in the form of the brothers Gabriel and Michael Corrigan, nascent Travelers with only a vague awareness of their capabilities. Having been enjoined by their parents to live lives 'off the grid', the Corrigans so far have escaped the notice of the Tabula. But the Tabula, led by the scheming General Kennard Nash, are closing in on the brothers.

One of the few remaining Harlequins is a young woman named Maya Thorn. Ambivalent about participating in the conflict with the Tabula, Maya initially is reluctant to abandon her life as an office worker in order to take up an existence as a Harlequin. But when the Tabula mounts an attack on her family, Maya has no choice but to respond. And her response will forever change the fates of the Corrigan brothers............

'The Traveler' is a thriller that presents with a healthy number of sci-fi and cyberpunk tropes, including AI-mediated mass surveillance; quantum computing; other dimensions; astral bodies; genetic engineering; and other topics that I won't disclose because they're Spoilers. These are introduced in a common-sense way that contributes to the novel's sense of believability. 

Author Twelve Hawks relies on short chapters and a clipped, declarative prose style to impart momentum to the novel, and in the main this works well, although - somewhat inevitably, for a 480-page novel  - the middle sections of 'The Traveler' display a slowing in pacing. And, because the plot has to be extended into two more volumes, the ending has something of an underwhelming character to it. 

The verdict ? 'The Traveler' is a solid 4-star Modern Cyberpunk novel, and well worth picking up. 

And its depiction of a near-future USA under the control of a secretive cabal that uses information technology to monitor and control the population ? An entertaining exploration of paranoia ? 

Maybe. But then, have you been to the website of ID2020 ?!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

April is modern cyberpunk month

Here at the PorPor Books blog, to break the monotony that comes from continually reviewing sci-fi, fantasy, and horror paperbacks from the interval from 1968 - 1988, we occasionally shift our attention to other genres of literature.

For April 2021, we'll be reviewing five novels that represent 'modern' cyberpunk.

This of course begs the question: what do I mean by 'modern' cyberpunk ?

Well, if we use William Gibson's novels as a guide for both thematic and publishing histories, I would call the 'Sprawl' trilogy (Neuromancer, 1984; Count Zero, 1986; Mona Lisa Overdrive, 1988) first-generation cyberpunk. 

The 'Bridge' trilogy (Virtual Light, 1993; Idoru, 1996; All Tomorrow's Parties, 1999) represents second-generation cyberpunk. 

And the 'Blue Ant' trilogy (Pattern Recognition, 2003; Spook Country, 2007; and Zero History, 2010) represents third-generation cyberpunk. 

So 'modern' cyberpunk is represented by novels published during the second- and third- generations of the genre, i.e., during the period bounded roughly by the mid-1990s to the mid 2000s.

The five novels being reviewed all share some themes common to modern cyberpunk. For example, there is a healthy regard for paranoia, as every transaction - purchases, phone calls, and emails - is recorded, and even walking on the street is documented by closed-circuit television cameras (The Traveler, Whole Wide World). 

Another prominent theme is the advent of megalomaniacal AIs or supercomputers (The Deus Machine, Black Glass, Daemon). Misuse of biotechnology is showcased in The Deus Machine, and also features in The Traveler

And overarching all these themes is the grander theme of dehumanization at the hands of faceless, all-powerful corporate entities.

One thing's for sure: the five books pictured above all are lengthy. The Deus Machine is over 500 pp. long, Whole Wide World is 376 pp. long, Daemon is 640 pp. long. Sci-fi novels published during the interval from 1968 - 1988 rarely were that lengthy.........Dhalgren was the exception, not the rule. It's an indication of how much has changed since the days when it wasn't unusual for a sci-fi novel to be under 200 pages in length.............

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Book Review: Strangers

Book Review: 'Strangers' by Gardner Dozois

3 / 5 Stars

‘Strangers’ first appeared as a novelette in the 1974 anthology New Dimensions IV, edited by Robert Silverberg. Dozois received sufficient interest from publishers to expand 'Strangers' into a novel, which which was issued in hardcover in 1978. 

This Berkley Books mass market paperback edition (166 pp.) of the expanded 'Strangers' was published in December, 1978. The cover artist is uncredited.

‘Strangers’ is set on the planet of Lisle; the country of Shasine; the city of Aei. Lisle is populated by a race of Vaguely Otter-ish humanoids known as the 'Cian'. The novel’s protagonist is a young German man named Joseph Farber, who works as a photographer for the Terran Mission to Lisle.
Self-absorbed, and often consumed with self-pity, Farber is neither a companionable fellow, nor very bright. As the novel opens, Farber – alienated from his fellow Mission staffers – wanders the night-time streets of Aei, where a festival is taking place. He meets a young Cian woman named Liraun, who is alienated from her own society, and an improbable interspecies romance begins.

When his fellow Terrans, and the elders of Cian society, disapprove, it serves only to spark petulance in Farber, and he makes a fateful decision to submit to the biotech scientists of Cian. The biotech scientists permanently alter his genetic makeup, allowing him to father children with Liraun. Subsequently, the two marry according to Cian rites, and set up house together in the Old Quarter of Aei.

Farber has, for the first time in his life, found a measure of happiness. But as time goes on, an awareness filters into his consciousness that the inscrutable nature of Cian culture hides some very disturbing secrets….and he has blundered into a situation from which there is no easy egress...........  

Some novelettes can survive being expanded to novel length, but in my opinion, ‘Strangers’ might better have been left as a shorter piece. To flesh out the narrative and its simple, straightforward plot, author Dozois relies on inserting dense passages, related in poetic and ornate language, that expound on the enigmatic behaviors and rituals of the Cian, while ever-so-slowly advancing the novel towards its Big Revelation. Negotiating these passages of the novel can require determination.

The Big Revelation, when it does arrive, is effective. 

‘Strangers’ is a novel whose deliberate, contemplative storyline may be rewarding to those sci-fi fans who like stories revolving around alien sociology and psychology, a topic much explored during the height of the New Wave Era. However, those readers looking for a fast-moving, action-oriented narrative will not find it in the pages of this novel.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Loner from Wildcat

Eagle / Wildcat, 1988 - 1990
The British boy's paper Wildcat was introduced in October, 1988, by UK publisher Fleetway. 

Wildcat was a sci-fi paper and featured four individual comics, all centered on the premise of the starship 'Wildcat' and its search of the galaxy for a new home for mankind. The captain of the Wildcat was a man named Turbo Jones, and its crew included the feminist Kitten Magee ('ex-leader of World Campaign Against Male Domination'), an alien named.....Joe Alien.........and Loner, a 'former mercenary'. 

Wildcat only lasted for 12 issues, until March 1989, when it was merged with the fellow Fleetway boy's paper Eagle. The four comics featuring Turbo Jones, Joe Alien, Kitten Magee, and Loner rotated through issues of Eagle until April 1990.

According to the Down the Tubes website, the artists for the 'Wildcat' strips consisted of  David Pugh, José Ortiz, Ron Smith and Vanyo working on all or most issues, with additional contributions from Massimo Belardinelli, Joan Boix, Ian Kennedy, Horacio Lalia, Carlos Pino, Jesus Redondo and Mike White.

'Loner' (and the other three Wildcat titles) didn't stray too far from the formatting that worked so well for Fleetway's premiere science fiction comic, 2000 AD. The black-and-white strips, usually about six pages in length per installment, emphasized action, and in the case of Loner, a remarkably inventive population of bug-eyed monsters (!). 

The casting of Loner as a black man with a Jimi Hendrix-style afro and headband is worth noting, as to my eye he seems very much a cousin to the character 'Sabre', created by the U.S. team of Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy in 1978 and later released in 1982 as an Eclipse comic book.

Below are two installments of Loner from Eagle from early 1989. Some great artwork here, well deserving of being reprinted for a modern audience.