Tanj!

Time for some notes on a bit of recent reading!

:: As much as I love science fiction, I’m the first to admit that my reading history with it is full of holes, and that there are many, many authors who are pillars of the genre whom I have yet to read. I can scratch one off now, because I’ve finally read some Larry Niven. Specifically, the novel Ringworld.

I really don’t know anything about Niven at all, except that he’s done lots of work with Jerry Pournelle, and that he’s mainly known for a series of books or stories called “Known Space”. I’m not even sure if Ringworld is part of “Known Space”, but the book does stand on its own, somewhat – although it is clearly intended to establish a ground-floor of sorts for a possible series. And now I see, according to Wikipedia, that Ringworld is certainly part of “Known Space”, and boasts a number of direct sequels. It also won the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Ringworld is your archetypal “Team goes to investigate an anomaly” tale, and parts of it reminded me, in terms of mood, of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. The Ringworld is a very strange object indeed: an enormous construct built around a far-off star, that basically looks like an impossibly long band of metal (or something) running completely around the star, with the side of the band facing the star terraformed into something akin to a planet surface. The result is a planetscape that is thousands of times roomier than, say, the surface of the Earth. Circadian cycles on the Ringworld are approximated by enormous black panels that likewise orbit the star farther in, which block out the star’s light from points on the surface of Ringworld at regular intervals.

So our expedition quickly forms, consisting of four individuals: humans Louis Wu (a 200-year old man looking for some new solution to his boredom) and Teela Brown (a young woman with no particularly notable qualities, except her extraordinary luck); Nessus (a three-legged alien from a race called the Puppeteers); and Speaker-to-Animals of the warlike kzin race. How these individuals come together, and why, I’ll leave to anyone who wants to read the book, but in just about any story like this, the main source of conflict arises from the differences between the main members of our cast. That is certainly true here.

I won’t give anything away, except to note that the story unfolds in a lot of expected ways; the landing on Ringworld isn’t quite according to plan, and our heroes find a lot on Ringworld that they couldn’t have possibly expected. Niven does a good job of creating and sustaining mysteries on this world, and he also does a great job of conveying what the distances must be like on an object that is literally the size of Earth’s orbit. The immensity of the Ringworld is its dominant characteristic, and as we internalize how huge the thing is, the more mysterious it becomes – especially its relative lack of inhabitants. The mystery becomes, if some alien race surely built the Ringworld so they would have enough room, then why is there almost no sign of them? Niven’s possible answers to this question involve some interesting speculations on the psychology that would result in a species living on such a construct.

The four main characters are fairly interesting, but not tremendously so, and I found the whole notion of the Puppeteers genetically engineering people to select for their luck strained my credulity a bit. The biggest flaw in the book for me, though, was a linguistic tic: since Ringworld dates from an era when characters in SF weren’t allowed to use actual swear words, authors had to either resort to just telling us that their characters had sworn, inventing their own new metaphors for expletives, or – as Niven does here – making up his own swear words. Sometimes in a series this can work, but other times it’s almost nonsensical. In short, I had a very hard time with the word tanj, which is an acronym for “There ain’t no justice”. Every time someone would say “Tanj”, or “Tanjing”, or “Tanjit”, or some variant thereof, I found myself momentarily ejected from the book.

Still, this was an entertaining and intriguing read. Will I read further into Niven, the Ringworld, and Known Space? I’m not sure. But I won’t rule it out.

:: While I love to read comics, I find that I have almost no appetite for superhero comics anymore. At least, not the ones apparently being produced today, to judge by the collections I get from the library. It seems as though every title now, every hero, and every story about every hero, has to be some kind of depressing descent into the tremendous angst at that hero’s heart. And frankly…all that superheroic angst gets a bit boring. I almost want to say, “Yeah, I get it. Loads of pressure on you. You feel responsible for the world but can’t tell anyone because your identity is secret. You’re terrified of a horrible fate befalling your loved ones when your enemies find out. And since you’re a superhero, you’re likely to outlive every one you love, anyway. Buck up and get over it! Have fun!” Where the heck is the spirit of fun adventure that used to be the dominant characteristic of superhero comics?

I’m not claiming that some angsty stuff isn’t welcome. You can go too far the other way, too, and you need some inner conflict to keep the heroes interesting as characters. That’s why Spiderman’s always been one of my favorite superheroes: the very best Spidey stories always managed to blend that sense of fun with just the right amount of angst for Peter Parker. There are very dark things in Parker’s life story, but they’re not dominant and they don’t color his view of the entire world and they don’t cast his stories themselves into depressing light, as Batman’s tend to do.

I think this all started, maybe, with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which I didn’t like nearly as much as I think I was supposed to. Batman, in his current incarnations, tends to be a deeply depressing character. He’s the ultimate wet blanket on the superhero party. And I hate it when I read other titles that seem cut from that cloth. Hence, Spiderman: Reign. I was all prepared to be “Meh” on this book, but now I realize…I hated it.

Like Dark Knight Returns, Reign takes us forward in time, to Spiderman’s elder years, when he’s a white-haired, bearded Peter Parker whose personal life is every bit as much a wreck as it’s ever been. For one reason or another, Parker takes on the Spidey suit again, all the while subjecting us to depressing monologue after depressing monologue about how much he misses Mary Jane, his wife, who is now dead. (I assume this was before Marvel’s awful “Turning back of the clock” to before their marriage.) Why is she dead? I won’t spoil it here, but suffice it to say that it’s perfectly in keeping with the notion that the act of knowing Peter Parker is to commit oneself to an awful fate that’s supposed to be ironic or something.

In Reign, about the only sense of any fun at all comes from Spiderman’s never-ending habit of wisecracking with the people he’s fighting. Other than that, the book is dank and depressing. It reads like if the guy who does Funky Winkerbean wrote a superhero comic.

:: I didn’t hate Justice League: A League of One; I just found it kind of dull. Which is disappointing, because it’s a Wonder Woman story. Sure, the title says “Justice League”, but when Wonder Woman receives a prophecy that sounds like it’s foretelling the death of whoever fights an ancient evil that has just returned to life, she incapacitates all of her Justice League friends, one by one, until she’s left alone to face the threat. It was an interesting conceit, but it kind of illustrates another problem with these kinds of stories: if you want to tell a story about one hero in the DC Universe, you have to at some point explain why the other heroes who are all over the place, including the Man of Steel himself, either can’t or won’t pitch in to help.

This tale pits Wonder Woman against the most ancient of dragons, who had been slumbering beneath a mountain in Europe for centuries but who has now been awakened by some gnome-like creatures. The whole story feels a bit strange, really – as if Wonder Woman has been shoehorned into a tale from Teutonic myth. It doesn’t really work all that well, and in fact, its resolution feels almost perfunctory. The book seems to spend more pages dealing with Wonder Woman’s “betrayals” of her teammates than on her battle with the threat in the story.

:: Somewhat more successful, although still a bit less than the sum of its parts, is Wolverine: The Brotherhood. After Spiderman, Wolverine’s probably my second favorite superhero, mainly because he’s a bloodthirsty redneck with a sardonic sense of humor. I like that. He’s deeply intelligent but nobody realizes it at first, so in addition to his extreme skill at combat and his unbreakable claws, he’s got the built-in advantage in always being underestimated. When he’s well-written, Wolverine is as entertaining as they come.

This story, apparently from a six-issue run of one of the comics titled Wolverine (I’ve utterly lost track of the publication history of these titles and where the solo Wolvie stories fit in with X-Men continuity), has Wolverine living in a crappy apartment in Portland, OR, where he spends his days sitting in a local diner, reading and drinking coffee. He makes a connection with his waitress, a seventeen-year-old girl who keeps a journal in which she refers to Wolvie as “Mean man”. Before this friendship can blossom, Lucy (the girl) is murdered by a couple of machine-gun wielding hoodlums, who also riddle Wolvie with bullets when he comes out of his apartment to see what’s going on. (Lucy had lived next door to Wolvie.) Of course, filling Wolverine with bullets is never a good idea, and now Wolvie’s on the hunt.

His journey takes him into a world of illegal gun dealers and then to a compound somewhere in the mountains of Oregon, where a cultish figure is keeping a harem of kidnapped girls. This is all actually pretty intriguing stuff, and I like Wolverine’s solo stories like this. It always seems a bit more believable than Wolvie squaring off against supervillains, for some reason. My favorite Wolverine story is the Wolverine limited series from the 1980s, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller, which delves into Wolvie’s interactions with the Japanese culture and the idea of Wolvie as fallen Samurai; that tale doesn’t even pit Wolvie against any kind of supervillain at all. Same with this one, although it’s not as well written as the earlier series. The villain turns out to be simply garden variety, and the story seems to be set-up for a following plotline involving the Federal agent who is tailing Wolverine. The collected graphic novel comprises six issues of the series, of which the last consists of Wolverine sitting in a bar, talking with X-buddy Nightcrawler about…what else…his angsty issues. (With Wolverine, it’s his balancing of his human and animal natures.) It’s probably a bit unfair to judge this story on the basis that it’s simply not a complete story, but the talk-over-a-beer-with-Elf issue pretty much brings the story’s forward momentum to a halt. Kind of a shame.

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3 Responses to Tanj!

  1. Lynn says:

    I always liked the idea of the Ringworld a lot better than I liked the story. I felt like, "Okay, you've invented this incredible object now do something interesting with it." I actually sort of liked the word "tanj" though.

    I always like Niven better when he's writing with someone else. Besides books with Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes, there's a book he co-authored with Brenda Cooper, titled Building Harlequin's Moon that I liked a lot. The people and the community in it seemed more realistic to me.

  2. Call me Paul says:

    I found your comment mildly amusing about the Ringworld being perhaps thousands of times roomier than the Earth. One of the things Niven's main character continually has problems with in the novel is understanding the scale of his environment. See: Scale of the Ringworld. Think a bit about the number of people the Earth might comfortably hold… Do the math… It really is a staggering concept.

    I'm a big fan of Niven, and I highly recommend his short stories in the Known Space universe as solid background in which to frame his novels. Check out A Hole In Space, Neutron Star, and Tales Of Known Space.

  3. Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness says:

    If you want to read some fun superhero stuff try 'Gaurdians of the Galaxy', 'Ghost Rider' or 'Agents of Atlas' – all are great character books.

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