The Greatest Show on Earth

Monday, May 31, 2010

Richard Dawkins, 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth is both a lovely, careful step-through of the process of evolution via natural selection, an explanation of many of the mountains of evidence supporting it, and a call to solidarity against those who would deny such evidence.  On this level alone I recommend this book in the strongest terms.

This is the third book I've finished by Dawkins, and by now I'm getting a sense of the hallmarks of his style.  They include an easy confidence combined with infectious enthusiasm for his subject, a ready humor tinged with a bit of didacticism, acknowledgment of retread ground, and friendly recognition of criticism with merit.

In a sense, this occupies a middle ground between the two previous works I read, with a similar amount of scientific explanation as The Selfish Gene while tempering the righteous anger of The God Delusion to a frustration tinged with hope.
Evolution is a fact.  Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact....It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips...continue the list as long as desired.  That didn't have to be true.  It is not self-evidently, tautologically, obviously true, and there was a time when most people, even educated people, thought it wasn't.  It didn't have to be true, but it is.
There weren't many basic ideas or subjects presented here that I was unfamiliar with, for example: carbon-dating, parallels with artificial selection, lab-created amino-acids, protein folding, etc..  Many of the details, however, I was unaware of or had slipped my mind.  The chapter on embryology was particularly fascinating for me; a subject I hadn't considered in years.  It is all laid out in an easily accessible style, and clear illustrations abound.

Highlights for me included a reproduction of the Hillis group phylogenetic tree, several fascinating examples of the balance between predator pressure and sexual selection, an explanation of daisy-chaining tree-ring calendars, and a first hand account of the dissection of a giraffe.

Dawkins does dwell a bit too long on his own poetical lauding of Darwin's foresight, but offsets this by including plenty of right-up-to-press-time information which covers cutting-edge developments.

He doesn't bother with some of the old discredited chestnuts like the eye or the wing, except to remind us that the eye is 'installed' backwards, and to touch on the vast range of wings developed by gliding mammals or discarded by flightless birds and insects.

The last chapter is an appendix which runs down the depressing poll statistics that make this book and others like it necessary.
One example:

Far more depressing for me, however, was an account tucked in an earlier chapter, a transcript of an argument between Dawkins and Wendy Wright, excerpted in part below:
Wendy:....if evolution has had the actual evidence then it would be displayed in museum not just in illustration.
Richard: I just told you about Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo sapiens – archaic Homo sapiens and then modern Homo sapiens – that's a beautiful series of intermediates.
Wendy: You're still lacking the material evidence so...
Richard: The material evidence is there.  Go to the museum and look at it...I don't have them here obviously, but you can go to any museum and you can see Australopithecus, you can see....Why do you keep saying 'Present me with the evidence' when I've done so? Go to the museum and look.
Wendy: And I have.  I have gone to the museum and there are so many of us who still are not convinced...

Richard: Have you seen, have you seen Homo erectus?  .....
Wendy: ...If they were in the museums which I've been to many times, then I would look at them objectively, but what I go back to is...
Richard: They are in the museum.

It goes on like that for a while.  This is the real terror for me, not the numbers, but the intractability.  How does one converse with someone who has no interest in engaging?

Luckily, I deal with no outspoken evolution deniers in my day-to-day life, but gladly consider myself forearmed.

I admit to a level of anger where the willfully ignorant are concerned.  For others, I must admit to a level of pity.  I have a vivid memory of one of the first times I felt that, a conversation I had with a close friend in eighth grade.

Me: So, do you really believe in that whole 'Adam and Eve' thing?
Her: I guess
Me [dumbfounded but curious]: Why?
Her: Because I'm scared if I didn't I would go to Hell.

I have never forgotten this interchange, and it informs my worldview even now.  I strongly agree with Dawkins' goal: inspiring others to a deeper understanding of and greater fascination with the universe.

So I'm going to leave it, this week, with a little inspirational music:

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Next Week: Phantastes, by George Macdonald

Free Comic Book Day 2010 - Part Two

Monday, May 24, 2010

Last week we started a trip through this year's crop of Free Comic Book Day books.  See previous post for the full intro, and stay tuned at the bottom for what I actually paid cash for on said day.

And now, the second half.

Irredeemable/Incorruptible     Boom Studios   
Two half-issue stories is a good way to introduce more than one title in a free issue without overwhelming me with super-short snippets.  Both in the same world, even.  I preferred Incorruptible to Irredeemable, but both had decent writing/art.
Rating:  4     Buy another?  Probably not

Love and Capes     Maerkle Press
Better than last year's sample of this largely unambitious superhero “sitcom”.  Which is saying it's been upgraded from awful to “shrug”.
Rating:  3     Buy another?  Nope

Mouse Guard/Fraggle Rock     Archaia
Oh, Huzzah!  The short Mouse Guard tale was beautiful and sweet, and the Fraggle Rock two-fer read like, well, a mediocre episode.  Not a great episode, but not outside of the spirit of the show, either.  And the art was quite nice.  I see that Archaia has also picked up spin-offs of Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.  Despite their irregular production schedule, this company seems to put enough work into the art of their books that those might be worth looking into.  (I can't stand the BOOM! Studios' Muppet comics because I dislike the art so strongly.)
Rating:  5     Buy another?  Yup

ONI Free for All     ONI Press
Cute assortment of short pieces here.  Nothing annoying or offensive, but neither are they super engaging.
Rating:  4     Buy another?  Probably not

Owly and Friends     Top Shelf
I love Owly and Korgi every year. :)  Both wordless all ages comics, they're simple and adorable, and the art in Korgi is gorgeous.
Rating:  5     Buy another?  Possible

Radical     Radical Comics
Looks at first like another “fancy art, pathetic writing” company, but the writing wasn't actually too bad, although I didn't feel like I really got into the premise of any of their snippets.
Rating:  4     Buy another?  Probably not

Shrek/The Penguins of Madagascar     Ape Entertainment, Kizoic
Not as terrible as I expected.  Not good, but not terrible.  Except the Penguins.  They were pretty terrible.
Rating:  2     Buy another?  No Way

The Sixth Gun     ONI Press
Intriguing piece, although not quite enough info for me to be sure whether I'd be into this supernatural Old West tale.
Rating:  4     Buy another?  Possible

Sonic the Hedgehog     ArchieComics
I have a soft spot for Sonic.  I like his cheesy comics.  This one does fall into the FCBD trap of spending too much time on what's-been-happening-in-the-comic instead of just giving us a sense of a standard issue, but is still okay.
Rating:  3     Buy another?  Probably not

Storm Lion     Storm Lion
The main story “Devolution” didn't completely suck, even though it was very very obvious.  This is another one of those “high-end” art, lame writing, companies.  Also, I hate it when FCBD books pad out their issues with concept art for other series.
Rating:  2     Buy another?  Nope

The Stuff of Legends/City of Bones     Th3rd World Studios
I liked the Stuff of Legend freebie last year, and continue to like the aesthetic.  Although I'm not really sure why I wouldn't just re-read A Game of You and watch Toy Story for a similar feel.  City of Bones was meh. And the webcomics printed in the center of this issue were idiotic.
Rating:  4     Buy another?  Probably not

The Tick     NEC
This is a reprint of Tick #1, which I've read before.  Even though I personally prefer the lighter touch of the animated series, I do love this comic.
Rating:  5     Buy another?  Possible

Toy Story     Boom Kids
Cute.  I don't think it's something I would collect, but it seems like a solid kids' title from this preview.
Rating:  4     Buy another?  Probably not

War of the Supermen     DC
Clip Show! This is a "issue zero" event-prep sum up, so you could, in theory, read this, and then pick up War of the Supermen when it comes out and understand it.  Good luck with that.  Although some of the story snippets were fun.  I should also note that I was strangely drawn to almost all of the ads in this one, so while I have no interest in War of the Supermen, if I hear that the new Birds of Prey, Legion of Superheroes, or Zatanna are good, I'm there.  (The last page is even an ad for new Who!  They know me.)
Rating:  3     Buy another?  Nope, but they did interest me in other titles.

WeatherCraft     Fantagraphic
Ugh.  I am not the right person to review abstract avant guarde stuff.  I hate this sort of thing, and have no idea whether people who like this sort of thing would like this particular random assortment of shit.
Rating:  1     Buy another?  No Way

Worlds of Aspen     Aspen
I always read these, and I always think the same thing: Ooh, she's not wearing that dialogue is silly.  I like the shiny half-manga style art enough on first glance to want to like the various series, but most of them seem to revolve around scantily clad magic chicks.
Rating:  2     Buy another? Nope

Yow!     Drawn & Quarterly
I'm surprised by the amount of surrealism and magic going on in these reprints of old comics.  I like it.
Rating:  3     Buy another?  Nope

And there you have the free books.  No real surprises this year, although a few titles I may keep an eye on. 

Quick recap: books receiving top score of 5 stars:
Atomic Robo, EC Sampler, Fractured Fables, Mouse Guard/Fraggle Rock, Owly and Friends, The Tick.

However, I said last week that I often buy things on Free Comic Book Day.  This year was no exception.  The first issue of Mouse Guard we bought, that started us collecting them, was bought on a FCBD.

So what did I actually pay, not just money, but full price for, on this Free Comic Book Day?  In truth, I had one of those moments that FCBD is about.  I was in the store, had gotten my free stuff, and suddenly stopped dead in the aisle.  Oh, I thought, I didn't even know they were doing this.  I must have it.  NOW.


This makes me deliriously happy.  And now I'm collecting another series.  Score one for you, Free Comic Book Day.

Next Week:  The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins
Two Weeks:  New Theme!  Pre-Tolkien Fantasy, Book One: Phantastes by George MacDonald 

Free Comic Book Day 2010 - Part One

Monday, May 17, 2010

Free Comic Book Day 2010

So every year Erin and I do a trip through the big NYC comic shops on Free Comic Book Day. This means we end up with a lot of comics.  Many of them are duplicates, which we distribute among our friends and coworkers who had to be elsewhere on the first Saturday in May, but we still end up with a sizable assortment. 

Why does Free Comic Book Day exist?  Everyone gets something they want.  We get free comic books.  The stores get a high volume of traffic, some of whom buy something.  (And yes, I pretty much always buy something on Free Comic Book Day.)  The publishers get a sample book into the hands of potential new customers.

I always read all our FCBD books, even though many of them are uninteresting.  This year, I'm sharing that experience with you.  Aren't you lucky?  For each book, I'll tell you the title, the publisher if possible, what I thought of it, rate it from 1 to 5, and tell you how likely reading this book has made me to purchase further issues of the title.  Because aren't those potential sales the true measure of free promotional stuff?  Titles with a / in the middle indicate a double-sided book, in which I have arbitrarily chosen one side to be the front.  Along the way, we'll get a sense of the breadth of material comics actually covers.

In alphabetical order, with pictures!

Action & Adventure/Blondie     IDW
Fun little sampling of reprints of classic newspaper strips.  Seeing just a few of the serial-style in a row, though, reminds one that the characters spend most of their time stating the obvious.  The art is really cool, though.  And as far as writing, I liked the Blondie ones best, surprisingly!   
Rating:  4     Buy another?  Nope

The Action Bible
Oh dear.  This is funny in all the wrong ways.  I almost soaked this with a spit-take when I saw the ad on the inside cover promoting it as both ACTION-PACKED and HISTORICALLY-ACCURATE!  Yeah... no.  Although it was about the Plagues, so you can't get too boring.  Plus a point for making the "Angel of Death" look like a Ringwraith.
Rating:  2     Buy another?  No Way

Archie's Summer Splash     ArchieComics
I get one of these for free once a year, and for some reason, instead of using it to protect my table from paint, I read it first.  This is always a mistake.   
Rating:  1     Buy another?  No Way

Artifacts     Top Cow
Hey, a Witchblade comic I actually kinda found intriguing!  I want to like Witchblade, although I'm not sure why, but have never gotten into it.  This issue is a intro to what looks like a standard assemble-all-the-magic-items story, but that actually makes it more accessible for me.
Rating:  4     Buy another?  Possible

Atomic Robo     Red 5 Comics
I really liked Atomic Robo last year, and it was pretty cute this year too.  In tone, it's a bit like a less dark Hellboy.  The other main sample in this issue is of NeoZoic.  Ninja chick fights dinosaurs.  In the right mood, I could be all over this.   
Rating:  5     Buy another?  Possible

Bongo Comics Free-For-All     Bongo
Par for this title, which is to say: boring.  The best I can say is it manages to be inoffensive
Rating:  2     Buy another?  No Way

Captain America 600     Marvel
A back issue from last year being pushed as a freebie, it looked like Jim Hanley's Universe had ordered way too many of this back in August, considering how many they plainly still had.  An “event” comic taking place a year after the death of Cap, it's last summer's re-cap, leading into bringing back the character.  It didn't suck, although some of the scattered stories were silly.   
Rating:  4     Buy another?  Nope

DC Kids Mega Sampler     DC
Nothing special here. Slightly less annoying than last year's Tiny Titans, this has an assortment of short pieces from DC's All Ages titles.  The Magic of Shazam and Batman:Brave and the Bold didn't suck, and even the Tiny Titans piece had a nice moment.  But nothing stands out here for me.
Rating:  3     Buy another?  Nope

Del Rey Showcase
Handful of excerpts from book-to-comic adaptations here.  Pride and Predjudice and Zombies had some nice moments, but was incoherent in its brevity.  The Talisman adaptation looks serviceable, but the other two were dull, and very poorly laid out.
Rating:  3     Buy another?  Probably not

Doctor Solar/Magnus     Dark Horse
Fun revamp of some old heroes.  Two decent sized story-intros in this issue, nice art, good writing, but probably not something I'll follow up on, just not quite my taste.  Although we did get a copy signed by the writer and artist, which is cool.
Rating:  4     Buy another?  Possible

Dope Flounder 
Surprisingly not-sucky for an indie sampler, those usually completely turn me off.  Short autobiographical pieces, not bad at all, but not something I would seek out.   
Rating:  3     Buy another?  Nope

Dose II     Indelible Comics
This is actually a Back Issue that was being given away.  It wasn't as openly offensive either to my sensibilites or my intelligence as I expected, but it was boring.
Rating:  2     Buy another?  No Way

EC Sampler     Gemstone Publishing
Actually a FCBD book from a few years back, I've read it before.  It was worth re-reading, though.  A selection of really great shorts, reprinted from the 50's.  I approve.  I'd be more likely to purchase additional EC comics if the compilations weren't so expensive!
Rating:  5     Buy another?  Possible

Fractured Fables     Image
Complete short stories here, with a range of art and writing styles.  I found it fairly charming overall, although I think the first one (a fairly obvious spin on Red Riding Hood) was my favorite.
Rating:  5     Buy another?  Possible

GI Joe A Real American Hero     IDW
Wow.  They have some guts to put this out as their FCBD title.  It's a continuation of the original GI Joe comic.  The one that  last published in 1994.  And good luck making heads or tails of this if you're not already a fan.  I was cautiously intrigued, and liked the art.  It did remind me of the experience of buying comics as a kid.  I only had a couple, purchased from different series at widely disparate times.  So you have this tiny sliver of story and character, and this sense that there is more, but it's hard to deduce from the material at time.  Good luck to them with this series, though.
Rating:  3     Buy another?  Nope

Green Hornet     Dynamite
They try to preview too many books here, giving each only a couple pages.  That isn't enough to get a sense of anything.
Rating:  3     Buy another?  Nope

Iron Man Nova     Marvel
Not quite as good as the previous years' Marvel Superheroes issue, (which was my favorite FCBD book last year) but still a cute all ages romp, despite some weak writing.  I have a soft spot for one-issue superhero stories that are gently campy but still coherent.
Rating:  4     Buy another?  Possible

Iron Man Thor     Marvel
Didn't suck.  Decent moments for both Stark and Thor.  I appreciate FCBD books that tell a complete story, though they have to rush to do it.
Rating:  4     Buy another?  Probably not

Next Week: Free Comic Book Day - Part 2

The Red Wolf Conspiracy

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Red Wolf Conspiracy (The Chathrand Voyages, Bk 1)
Robert V. S. Redick, 2008

I heard about this book getting high praise on a blog somewhere, and as fantasies and books set on boats are both genres I enjoy, I picked up The Red Wolf Conspiracy when it appeared at my local library.

This story doesn't start very strong, but does get better.  It's a solid fantasy adventure--downtrodden heroes, magical races, evil politicians, powerful talismans--with perhaps one or two too many sidetracks in the plot.  Yes, it's an original world, not a clone of another series, but that's the minimum requirement these days.

I think the author may have flirted a few too many times with the line between too much exposition and not enough.  There were aspects and whole species that took me a while to figure out from context, and the prose might be even more unforgiving to novice fantasy readers.

On the other hand, some of the fantasy elements were fine deduced from context, such as “woken” animals.  I did sometimes get the sense that the author went back and forth with how “magical” he wanted his world to be.  The tone of the writing generally seems very practical and down-to-earth, such that the sheer number of unconnected fantasy/magical elements feels startling.  Also, several fairly important elements were introduced rather late, and every time I thought I had a handle on the 'level' of magic in the world, he'd throw in some new wrinkle.  Which isn't necessarily bad, but in some cases here it made the world-building feel amorphous, incomplete.

Sadly, I was unimpressed with the level of nautical detail as well. It was decent and all, but I have very high expectations for books on boats.

All this is not to say that I disliked the book.  It was good.  I'm sure that of most of the books that come out in any given span of time, most are of inferior quality to this.  But it was good, not great.  This doesn't mean I won't pick up the sequel if it appears at my local library (it does have rats in the title), but I wouldn't necessarily go out of my way to seek it out.  Your mileage, of course, may vary.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Next Week: a survey of the haul from FREE COMIC BOOK DAY 2010.  (Possibly Part 1 of 2)

Put a stake in it and call it done.

Monday, May 3, 2010

So I've come to the end of my trip through vampire country, for now anyway.  Although I have picked up the first two issues of the new comic book American Vampire.  It's currently split into two related story-lines, written by Scott Snyder and Stephen King, and set respectively in LA in the 20's and in the 'Old West' in the 1880's.  Given the title, no surprise that it's about uniquely American vampires.  So far I'm intrigued, and I like the art, so I'll probably collect it through this first arc (five issues, I understand) and see where it goes.

I'm not going to make a big chart of vampire characteristics and powers, but the one at Wikipedia is pretty great

Also of interest, if you missed this link in a previous article: the Sliding Scale of Vampire Friendliness (Productivity warning, that's a TVTropes link...)

Instead, today I'm going to give you a quick meditation on the importance of opening lines.  A good opening encourages the reader to keep reading, but I think that a great opening should be both an effective 'hook', and tell you something immediate about the book.  Many books have memorable openings, but I noticed that all of the vampire books had appropriate opening lines.  Some are better hooks, some more banal, but each conveys something strong about the story to come.

Jonathan Harker's Journal
3 May. Bistritz.--Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets.
It's a fairly benign opening, since Stoker chooses to build his menace slowly and cautiously.  The most  important information I immediately get here is that the writing is a first person account, and opening with the mundane chatter of travel helps to cement the reality of the chronicler.  Also, given that we know perfectly well that that there are bad things to come, Harker's na├»ve excitement to be in this “wonderful” foreign place only foreshadows the horror he will be subjected to before he returns home.  Not a exciting opening, but suitable grounding, before the creeping unease that shortly envelops the hapless traveler.

I am Legend
On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.
Awesome, right?  I instantly know the character is in danger from some mass of things that fear the sun. Secondary implication: that he has been so for some time.  It is an immediate sense of the world that the book will inhabit, and introduces the bleak, almost fatalistic tone that much of the narrative has.

Salem's Lot
Almost everyone thought the man and the boy were father and son.
This is from the prologue, which takes place after the main action of the book.  Besides just having a nice lilt to it, this simple line is intriguing.  The two characters are not related, but are together, and not discouraging others from assuming this relationship, why?  The next line reveals that they are traveling, possibly fleeing.  It also sets up one of King's most common motifs: that the bonds of people thrown together by fate are stronger than blood.

Interview with the Vampire
“I see...” said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window.  For a long time he stood there against the dim light from Divisadero Street and the passing beams of traffic.
Now, I find this opening sort of dull, but I found this book sort of dull.  It actually beautifully sets up the whole premise: there is a vampire, and he is standing in a room, calmly speaking.  It's a meditative opening for a meditative book, so really it's perfect.  Not a strong hook, but fitting for what follows.

Guilty Pleasures
Willie McCoy had been a jerk before he died.  His being dead didn't change that.

A strong, colorful opening, perfectly appropriate for this work.  I know it's in first person, that the narrator is sarcastic, and is facing an annoying, but apparently not threatening, undead.

I'd never given much thought to how I would die – though I'd had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this. - from the Preface.
Decent, and suitable.  The meandering phrasing introduces us to Bella's narrative style, the completely overblown dramatic thoughts that follow presage the overly dramatic characters, and we know there's going to be some action.  It's intriguing, really.  My only problem with this passage is that it's a flash forward to the climax, but when I got to the scene that it should be from, she neither repeated this mental dialogue, or even noted it with a hokey 'This is where you came in' style acknowledgement.  The fact that there is a very similar scene in the opening of the sequel (provided in the back of my library copy) confirms my sense of this preface as a shlocky tacked-on device.  But in first reading it, it does work well.

The Strain
“Once upon a time,” said Abraham Setrakian's grandmother, “there was a giant.”
The first chapter of The Strain, while not giving the reader a heads-up on the modern aspects of the story, does firmly establish the attitude of myth and legend.  Settle in, this says to the reader, the monsters are coming.  This one is a bit of a flip on Interview, it's a good hook, but doesn't give you much information about the rest of the book.

So much for the undead.  On to the fantastic!

Book posts resume normally next week with The Red Wolf Conspiracy

Coming Soon: New Theme: Pre-Tolkien Fantasy