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Review: This Census-Taker

This Census-Taker

“Kafkaesque,” despite being a great word for Scrabble, is not a word I would use to describe very many books.  It expresses something ambiguous but unsettling, something dark and perplexing and vaguely ominous.  It is also the perfect descriptor for China Miéville’s most recent novella, This Census-Taker.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because much of the pleasure of the book lies in figuring out exactly what has happened, what is happening, and why.  But I can say this:  the story begins with a young boy running down a mountain to the city below, screaming, having witnessed something terrible.  What follows is a sort of existential horror story, about what happens to the boy and how he copes with the nightmarish situation in which he finds himself.

One of the most interesting aspects of This Census-Taker is its setting.  This setting is extremely small in scope, focusing on the unnamed boy’s house on the mountain and the small village below it.  But every now and again, Miéville lets slip a tantalizing glimpse of the world outside this village, and the history behind it.  Similarly, small details slowly reveal that the world this boy inhabits is very different from our own.

There are two main methods of worldbuilding in fantasy works like this.  One method, practiced by authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, is explication.  Every location, every character, every word has a lengthy backstory, and readers with enough time and patience can connect it all.  The other method, seen in works like this and many of Neil Gaiman’s stories, is implication.  The world is not fully fleshed out, but only hinted at through sly suggestions and veiled references.  It is up to the reader to fill in the gaps with her own imagination.  This power to evoke a lot with a little is one of This Census-Taker’s greatest strengths.

Mieville

China Miéville always looks like he wants to beat you up.

China Miéville is a stylistic chameleon.  In his baroque, sprawling New Crobuzon novels he adopts a similarly flowery and excessive writing style; in the noir-ish The City and The City, he takes up a more straightforward and almost hard-boiled prose.  In This Census-Taker, he slips into the voice of someone clearly not comfortable with language, both as a traumatized boy and as an adult writing about his youth in a language not his own.  The narrator slips between the first and third person at key moments, sometimes even referring to himself as “you.”  Names and proper nouns are in scarce supply, and outside of a few friends people are called by their functions—mother, father, the hunter, and of course the census-taker.  This ambiguity and even confusion at the level of language contributes to the unsettling and off-kilter tone of the book:  nothing feels safe, nothing feels known.

Overall, this was not one of my favorite books by China Miéville.  Not much happens—this is a book that focuses in on a single event and its repercussions instead of following a clear narrative—and despite some intriguing hints, the world feels a bit sparse compared to the overflowing Perdido Street Station.  However, I do think it is a successful book.  From the first page to the last, it gave me a profound sense of unease and discomfort, of entering an unsettling world full of ominous and unknowable authorities.  If that isn’t Kafkaesque, I don’t know what is.

.Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Review: Star Wars: Shattered Empire #1

Shattered Empire

When I heard about a new comics miniseries connecting the Star Wars Original Trilogy to The Force Awakens, I got excited.  Seeing all my favorite characters again in a new story?  Building up to the new Star Wars film, and maybe dropping a few secrets and clues in the process?  Sign me up!  I rushed to the comics shop to pick up Shattered Empire the day it hit the stands.  Alas, it did not live up to my expectations.

Shattered Empire #1 begins not after Return of the Jedi, but right at the climax of the story.  After an introduction in the classic trapezoidal scrawl, we are dropped right into the battle around the second Death Star, and we immediately see the comic’s greatest strength (the art) and its greatest weakness (the story).  Marco Checcheto’s dynamic art captures the breathless excitement of the space battles, and his character work is recognizable but stylized.  The comic is almost worth picking up for the art alone.  However, the script lets him down.  The comic’s first line is “Green Six, two coming in three-mark-seven!”  This dialogue is true to the space battles in the films, but it’s also a terrible way to introduce us to the story and characters.  When Luke attacks the Death Star at the climax of A New Hope, we have some sense of who he and his team are and what motivates them.  Here, we’re introduced to new characters with a confusing  jumble of names and callsigns.

Emphasis on new characters.  After the battle, the story focuses in on two of the pilots for the Rebel Alliance, Shara Bey and her husband Kes Dameron.  I’d been hoping for a story about Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, and their adventures after the Battle of Endor–and the comic’s cover, which shows these characters reunited and smiling, certainly capitalizes on that nostalgia.  But although they all make cameo appearances in the comic, this is clearly not their story.  This wouldn’t be such an issue if Shara and Kes were interesting characters in their own right, but they are not.  Shara receives little development outside of “good pilot, loves her husband;” and Kes, who bizarrely tells his wife “I was thinking we need to find a nice planet and build a house” before rushing into battle, couldn’t have a target printed on him more clearly if he was one day away from retirement.

Note:  NOT from Shattered Empire.  Although every story could benefit from space-velociraptors.

Note: NOT from Shattered Empire. Although every story could benefit from space-velociraptors.

More than anything, Shattered Empire reminds me of The Truce at Bakura–that bizarre Expanded Universe story where the heroes of Star Wars rushed off to fight space-velociraptors before Darth Vader’s ashes had a chance to cool (it, um, wasn’t the best of the Expanded Universe).  Alas, Shattered Empire has no Jedi-on-dinosaur action, but what the stories have in common is a need to tell the next story instead of a good story.  They’re filling in gaps that aren’t really all that important or all that interesting–something the Star Wars franchise has certainly been guilty of before.  After Shara and Kes help destroy the Death Star and return to Endor, they rush to the far side of the moon to finish off another Imperial base.  They already saved the galaxy:  now they’re just cleaning up leftovers.  With weak characters and a weak story, it’s difficult to recommend Shattered Empire, even with the terrific art.  I’m just hoping that The Force Awakens offers higher stakes and more compelling characters when it arrives this December.

In fairness, Shattered Empire #1 has a lot working against it.  As a first issue, it has to introduce us to the characters and story, and make us want to read more.  As a licensed Star Wars product, you know it must have faced severe restrictions on what it could reveal and what it could depict.  A lot of talented people worked on it, and honestly, we’re probably lucky it ended up as good as it did.  I just wish it has something to add to the Star Wars mythos, instead of riding its coattails.  The force is not strong with Shattered Empire, and this particular Star Wars fan will be waiting for The Force Awakens to see what happens next.

Rating:  2 out of 5 stars.

Review: Armada

Armada

For any gamer, the premise of Ernest Cline’s Armada is pure wish fulfillment:  geeky teen Zack Lightman discovers that his favorite video game is actually a training simulation for a real life war against alien invaders.  Suddenly, his leet skillz make him the most important person on Earth, and quite possibly the savior of humankind.  But as he rockets from high school fights to airborne battles, Zack begins to suspect that not everything is as it seems…

If the premise sounds familiar, it should:  it’s pretty much the exact plot of the 1984 film The Last Starfighter.  Just like Cline’s first novel, Ready Player OneArmada wears its influences on its sleeve (sometimes literally–Zach has a jacket covered with patches from classic video games).  It’s full of quotes, references, and homages to films, books, and video games like The Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game, and Iron Eagle–not to mention Star Trek and Star Wars.  At one point, Zack’s two best friends have a lengthy argument over which fictional weapon was the best, Thor’s Mjolnir or Frodo’s Sting (a fruitless discussion–the correct answer is obviously Axe Cop’s axe).

This kind of nerdy banter is one of the best things about Armada.  For someone who likes video games, comics, and cheesy sci-fi movies, reading a book by Cline is like hanging out with a smart, funny friend.  Some readers called Ready Player One “nostalgia porn,” but for me there’s a huge difference between Armada and cynical cash-grabs like Pixels:  Cline genuinely seems to love this stuff, and love talking about it.  In fact, one of the most fun and exciting moments in the book is just a play-by-play description of Zack playing his favorite video game.

Also, the dust jacket doubles as a blueprint for one of the spaceships. How cool is that?

Also, the dust jacket doubles as a blueprint for one of the spaceships. How cool is that?

Unfortunately this delight in all things geeky, which made Ready Player One such a joy, feels a little out of place in Armada.  This is a book with a literal doomsday clock, a rapidly declining countdown until the aliens arrive and start tearing Earth apart.  It feels a little out of place when characters take a break to make a Yoda joke or talk about their characters in Dungeons and Dragons.  The tone swings wildly between grim war story, nerdy diatribe, and family melodrama.  It’s as if Rorschach took a break in the middle of Watchmen to discuss what an underrated show Mork and Mindy was.

The ending of the book also feels rushed and incomplete.  There’s a revelation about the aliens I won’t reveal here, but it’s foreshadowed so early and so frequently that when it finally arrives it feels a bit anticlimactic.  What promises to be an epic final battle is compressed into a few short pages, and feels more like we’ve been given an outline of the battle than actually experienced it firsthand.  It’s odd that this encounter falls so flat, compared to the exciting and downright joyful depictions of Zack’s in-game missions early in the book.  The last two chapters feel like they could have been an entirely separate book, a condition I like to call The World’s End Syndrome.

Despite all this, I enjoyed Armada.  I think Ready Player One is a better book–it has fewer weaknesses, and they are easier to ignore.  But for anyone who has ever cranked up the stereo, fired up some video games, and felt like a hero, Armada is a welcome escape.  If nothing else, it would make a terrific movie.  I can even think of a title…

The moral of the story is, Hollywood really needs to remake this movie!

The moral of the story is, Hollywood really needs to remake this movie!

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars