Thursday, October 29, 2009
Summer Knight by Jim Butcher
"Hell's bells" count: 14
In the last book, Harry Dresden saved the day. He fought some of the strongest the Red Court of the Vampires had to offer and came out, well, more or less intact. To do so, he also managed to make himself the target of nearly everything in the Nevernever (the mystical other-world from which all the nasties and scaries ultimately come), lose his girlfriend to a bunch of bloodsucking fiends, and instigate an all-out, world-wide war between the White Council of the Wizards and the Red Court.
So yeah. Mixed blessings and all.
Now he's practically working himself to death to avoid actually being killed. After all, saving the day is nice, but it doesn't usually come with a check at the end of it, and there are bills to be paid. When we see Harry again, some months after the disastrous events at Bianca's nasty little costume party, he's working himself to the bone. He's become a recluse, hiding from as many people as he can. He does this for two reasons. First, he's spending a lot of time looking for an antidote to Susan's vampirism - or semi vampirism, anyway. She hasn't drunk from a person yet, you see, and until she does that she's not really a vampire. It's a hard job, though, which is why she not only turned down Harry's proposal of marriage but also left the country with instructions that he not try to follow her.
So the love of his life is incommunicado, and Harry doesn't know if she's alive or dead - or worse. What's more, he believes that it is his fault that she got this way, even if it really isn't. One of the criticisms that can be laid at the feet of Harry Dresden is his deep-seated male chauvinism. He doesn't believe that women are inferior or anything quite so barbaric as that. He believes that they're special, that they should be treated with an extra measure of care and respect. He hates the thought of harming a woman, and will go out of his way to see to it that the women he cares about are kept safe from anything that might hurt them.
Unfortunately for him, Harry tends to hang around with women who don't want to be taken care of, namely Susan Rodriguez and Karrin Murphy. Both of them are strong-willed women who want to be part of Harry's life, and neither one of them particularly appreciates being told to sit on the sidelines because they're girls. In fact, this attempt by Harry to protect them, more often than not, brings them more trouble than if he had trusted them to begin with.
I say this because it was good to see him make a little progress in this book. Following the events of Grave Peril, in which she was psychically tortured - though perhaps "raped" would be the better word - by the spells of a dead sorcerer, Murphy found herself broken. She couldn't sleep, she couldn't concentrate. She was afraid of everything, a shell of who she had been. So, in order to bring her back at least part of the way, Harry tells her everything - his dark past, the White Council, all the things he's not supposed to share. While it was by no means a magic recovery potion, it went a long way towards establishing their equality as fellow hunters of evil.
And all this really has little to do with the plot itself, which is a pretty straightforward murder mystery/supernatural power play. Queen Mab of the Winter Court of the Sidhe, needs Harry to find out who killed a servant of the Summer Court, the Summer Knight. Queen Titania of Summer thinks, and not without reason, that it was Mab who had the knight killed. Harry has to get to the truth, and he has to do it before Midsummer's Eve, lest the two courts go to war and take our world with them.
For the White Council, this is an excellent opportunity. If Dresden succeeds in helping Mab, she will give the Wizards safe passage through the Nevernever, which will in turn allow the Wizards to better prosecute their war against the vampires. If Dresden fails, the vampires will (in theory) be happy, and the war will end on its own. Either way, there's a very good chance that the White Council will finally rid itself of Harry Dresden, something they've been trying to do for quite some time.
So for a simple murder mystery, it's really not very simple at all. We get a good look at the expanded universe of Harry Dresden, and it's a scary place to be. This time he's going up against some truly heavy hitters, with some very serious stakes, not the least of which is his own life and his own free will. For the first time, we are privy to the workings of the White Council, how they work and how they don't work, and it's very easy to understand why they and Harry don't get along so well.
As with the other books, this gets my full recommendation. It's fast-paced and interesting, and there's some damn fine character work. A bit of very good banter between Murphy and Harry caught my eye that makes both of them much more interesting and believable (not that they weren't before). It's moments like that throughout the series that show Butcher's care for the characters and his desire that we see them as real as he does. Also, a very nice Indiana Jones reference, only involving unicorns.
So - and you're going to get tired of hearing me say this - go get this book. Go get all the Dresden books, and settle in for some good reading.
"As I pulled into the parking lot, I reflected that odds were that not a lot of clandestine meetings involving mystical assassination, theft of arcane power, and the between the realms of the supernatural had taken place in a Wal-Mart Super Center. But then again, maybe they had. Hell, for all I knew, the Mole Men used the changing rooms as a place to discuss plans for world domination with the Psychic Jellyfish from Planet X and the Disembodied Brains-in-a-Jar from the Klaatu Nebula. I know I wouldn't have looked for them there."
- Harry Dresden, Summer Knight
The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Summer Knight on Wikipedia
Summer Knight on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher's homepage
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Full disclosure: I have never read Pride and Prejudice. It's one of those novels that you're really supposed to read, and maybe I did read it back in high school English class, but if I did, my brain has scabbed it over. It's a book that, for reasons which I don't understand, is adored around the world.
The original book (according to Wikipedia and what I gleaned from reading this) is a tale of the Troubles of Rich People. It's a novel of manners, in which the conflict centers entirely around the personalities of the people involved. The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, is one of five daughters born to a house of moderate means. Since they're growing up in a patriarchal society, the only way for them to be at all successful in their lives is to get married - especially so that they might have some chance of inheriting part of their father's estate someday. Their father seems to resent that they were all born girls, and really wants nothing to do with the family at all. Their mother has but one wish, and that's to see her daughters all get married.
So when a handsome young man - Charles Bingley - moves into the neighborhood, the Bennet household is all a-flutter over the hopes that he might pick one of their girls to make into an honest woman. Unfortunately he brings his friend with him, Fitzwilliam Darcy, who is immediately unlikable, especially to headstrong and opinionated young Elizabeth.
I don't know if it was Austen who gave birth to this trope in fiction, but we all know what's going to happen when two characters are introduced that hate each other from the start.
The story goes on, propelled forward by the ever-evolving relationship between Darcy, whose brusque and unmannered exterior hides a deep and compassionate soul, and Elizabeth, whose independent and free-thinking nature is reined in by the discovery that what she assumes to be true very seldom is. It's a book about relationships and about passions, about manners and status and about 300 pages too long for me to deal with.
I like to think that I'm a cultured, intelligent person, but there's only so much I can take of this kind of thing. I find it really hard to care about people I have so little in common with - I have no property to protect, I don't really care about social class or about artificially inflated systems of manner. I don't come from a family that is concerned with marriage or status, and so I don't identify with the characters. In works of this nature the world is alien to me. I can't relate to the story and, more importantly, I don't want to relate to the story. I hope that I have better things to do with my life than worry about who has fallen in love with whom and who is hiding dark secrets from their past.
And so, the addition of zombies to the tale is just fine with me.
According to the co-author, Seth Grahame-Smith:
“You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there. It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence. From my perspective anyway."Smith saw a great opportunity, which I'm sure many other people will follow. Since Pride and Prejudice is a book in the public domain, anyone can do whatever they want to it without having to worry about copyright laws. If you want to make a movie or a play or a comic book or a porno movie out of it, you're free to do so. Smith saw a chance to create, for lack of a better term, a literary mash-up, bringing two types of story together into something completely new.
Now, the Bennet daughters are five of the fiercest fighters in England, devoted to holding back the zombie menace that has gripped the country for five and fifty years. Trained by the greatest Chinese masters in all the killing arts, the Bennet Sisters are famous for their merciless dealings with the unmentionables that roam the countryside, looking for fresh brains to sate their unnatural hunger. Elizabeth Bennet not only has an independent and free-thinking nature, but she's also not above killing ninjas, ripping out their hearts and eating them.
The combination of the two styles - the regency romance and the ultra-violent zombie mayhem - works rather well. Smith has done a fine job in not just shoehorning the zombies into Austen's tale, but making sure that the new version of the story is internally consistent. The zombies are a real and present force in this story, waylaying people on the road, occasionally delaying messages and causing very dramatic misunderstandings. And in this new and deadly environment, the dance of misunderstandings between Darcy and Elizabeth goes on, eventually - of course - ending up in the union of two of the greatest zombie hunters in England.
The best part, by the way, is the Readers' Discussion Guide in the back. In case you want to read this with your book club, the authors have included some ideas for discussion, such as "Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?" and "Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen's plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?" It's a very nice touch, I have to admit.
With some fantastically period illustrations of zombies, brain-eating and ninja-baiting (as well as a rather odd one of the Bennet sisters' favorite game, "Kiss Me Deer"), the book is kind of surreal, and I reckon it is one that will entertain a good number of readers, though certainly not all of them. For me, I found that the altered parts of the text - the zombies and the occasional ninja - were the most fun part. The characterization of the Bennet sisters as hardened warriors occasionally given over to fripperies was strange, but entertaining, especially since Graham-Smith made sure to keep the characters consistent. Elizabeth's thoughts and actions are primarily dictated by her Shaolin training, and many of her decisions are rooted in a deep sense of a warrior's honor, rather than a society girl's manners.
Furthermore, this strange new England was well made. It's a place where the zombies were a threat, but after fifty-five years, they've been downgraded to more of a dangerous annoyance. Kind of like FOX News. The zombies are a seasonal menace, less prevalent in the winter when the ground is hard, but like cicadas they burrow out of the ground in the spring to menace travelers and (unlike most cicadas) eat their brains.
The problem for me wasn't so much the zombies part of the book as it was the Pride and Prejudice part. As I said above, I don't really identify with what the characters care about, and once they got off the topic of the zombie menace, my eyes started to glaze over a little. Fortunately I knew that there would be another bit of mayhem on the way to perk me back up.
It made me think, though - there must be something that I'm missing. Not only has the book been around and popular for two centuries, but it's beloved enough that even a drastic modification of it would draw in readers. P&P&Z was a bestseller on the New York Times list and the mere announcement of its existence sent the blog world into an utter fangasm. The addition of zombies to an otherwise beloved tale was met with open arms, a sign that Pride and Prejudice held an honored place in the literary heart of the world. So if I don't get it, then there must be something wrong with me.... Ah, well. As I said of War and Peace, I'm not in this game to score points. So don't expect me to try and slog through the original just to see if it holds up to the zombified version.
The big question, of course, is What's Next? There are so many pieces of classic literature out there, all in the public domain and all just ripe for this kind of treatment. Tom Sawyer and the Wizards of the Mississippi? The Shape-Shifting Alien of Monte Cristo? Anne of Green Gables and the Robot Hordes from the Future? Mark my words, this book is only the beginning....
"No ninjas! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without any ninjas! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your safety."
- Lady Catherine, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at Wikipedia
Seth Grahame-Smith at Wikipedia
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at Amazon.com
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett
When you think of elves, what do you think of? The tall, fair-skinned beings of Tolkien's Middle Earth? The ebony warriors from Dungeons & Dragons? Delicious cookies?
Not on Discworld. On Discworld, the Elves are folk of legend, and dark legend at that. People there remember the elves, although not very well. They remember through old wives' tales, about leaving milk for the fairies and not going near the standing stones. Ask someone in the kingdom of Lancre, and they'll think of elves as you and I think of elves - pretty, wonderful, magical...
Ask Granny Weatherwax and she'll tell you the truth - that the Elves are not of this world, and don't belong here either. She'll tell you that when the barriers of the worlds grow thin, when the crop circles start to show up, the elves will be waiting, readying themselves to come back. For theirs is a parasite universe, a land of ice, and they desire ours for their... entertainment.
Such is the setup for Lords and Ladies, another one of Pratchett's darker Discworld books. There is still his customary humor, of course, which would be sorely missed were it absent. But it's also got a philosophical edge to it, as many of his books of this period do. It's about faith in stories, and knowing the difference between what is true and what you wish were true.
It's circle time again, where crop circles are appearing everywhere, and the parallel and parasite universes are coming into closer contact, and Granny Weatherwax knows that she is going to die.
Or is she? She can't be sure....
Esme Weatherwax is the consummate witch. Tall, thin and bony, she's the kind of woman who can wear the pointy black hat of a witch and dare you to think she's anything else. She's strong of mind, never afraid to speak the truth, the best witch in Lancre and not slow in admitting it. But many years ago, she was a headstrong young girl who was offered power by a mysterious woman in red who stood in the center of a stone circle. The woman promised power and freedom, but could not leave the circle. Rather than take the easy way to witchcraft, Granny worked, learned, and grew old. Which is always for the best.
As is the case with many Pratchett books, there are multiple plots that all center around the Elves and their newest attempt to gain the Discworld as their own world. Magrat Garlick, the third witch (because there must always be three) is going to marry Verence, the king of Lancre and a former Fool. Mustrum Ridcully, the Archchancellor of the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, is attending the wedding and at the same time remembering his days in Lancre chasing after the headstrong young girl who grew up to become Esme Weatherwax. And Granny herself is remembering things that happened to all possible Esme Weatherwaxes, and for someone as sure of herself as she is, is having a serious identity problem.
Something needs to be said here about the three witches of Lancre, recurring characters as they are in all of the Witches books of the series. Normally this would be done chronologically, upon reviewing the first book in which they appeared, but I want to do it now. Besides, I haven't read Equal Rites in a long time, but it's on my list.
Granny is as I have said - the unofficial chief witch of the region, who has attained the status of being almost mythical in the village of Bad Ass. She is feared and revered, but only because she is always who she is.
Nanny (Gytha) Ogg is Esme's polar opposite. She has a face like an apple left in the sun too long, her youth is filled with enough tawdry encounters to make a fraternity lose its breath, and her fondness for bawdy tunes (such as the ever-immortal Hedgehog song) has made her a figure of legend. But like any witch, Gytha is not to be underestimated. She can think faster than most anyone, and do so around corners. She's the grounding influence for Esme when Esme gets too high on herself, and while being fearsome in her own right, she is one of the more approachable witches Lancre has to offer.
And then there is Magrat Garlick, the third witch. She is the soppy one, the romantic one, the one with the collection of occult jewelry and a library in her cottage. She's the youngest, the least experienced, but not without potential. And while the other two witches may treat her like an ignorant stripling, they only do so because that's how you become a witch - by learning things, not by being told things.
But now Magrat is going to be Queen, and there are only the two witches. And the elves are coming....
This is, as I have said, a darker book. We get an interesting look into Granny Weatherwax's psyche - who she is, what she fears - and it's a little chilling. The reader is used to the utterly unflappable Granny Weatherwax, so to see her, well, flapped is kind of disturbing. At the same time, though, it makes her more human than before, which she needs to be if she is to defeat the elves.
This book also offers a good look into the human need for fantasy. The elves anchor themselves to the Discworld by belief - if enough people want the elves to come, then they will. But the longer they stay away, the more time we get without them, the more they become what we think they are. Stories. Myths. Cute magical critters who are to be watched, but not necessarily feared.
We need our stories to get us through the "iron times." Yes, we need elves, to help us escape from our lives from time to time, just as we need witches and wizards and gods. But we don't need them here. Here, in the real world, we have only ourselves to count on, and we need to be strong enough to do that. Stories are good, in their place. But never mistake a story for the real thing.
'But all them things exist,' said Nanny Ogg.
'That's no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages 'em.'
- from Lords and Ladies
Lords and Ladies at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett's page at HarperCollins
Lords and Ladies at Amazon.com
Discworld at Wikipedia
Lords and Ladies annotations
Lords and Ladies at Wikiquote
Thursday, October 8, 2009
It's Not News, It's FARK: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap as News by Drew Curtis
You all know FARK.com, right? What? You've never heard of it? I'm honestly and truly shocked - unless, of course, you've been away from the internet for the last ten years, in which case you may be forgiven. For the rest of you - SHAME!
FARK is a news aggregator website, though it differs from others in that it's entirely moderated. People submit stories that they think are interesting, add what they hope is a funny tag line or title, and see if it'll be green-lit to make the front page. Over the years, as FARK's audience has grown to make it one of the most influential websites out there, FARK has become a kind of go-to site for news and commentary, though probably not the erudite, level-headed commentary we all might want.
Whether site creator Drew Curtis intended it or not, FARK has become a de facto source of news for many people on the internet who are looking not so much for the top stories of the day, but for all the strange, cool, heroic and Florida-centered news that CNN claims to have too much dignity to run. Over its decade-long history, Curtis has seen thousands upon thousands of articles, moderated countless threads about the day's news and, therefore, believes he has a pretty good idea of how the mass media works.
In this book, Curtis uses his experience as a professional newshound to look at the trends in mass media, attempting to identify the reasons why there's so much irrelevant crap out there. We all know what he's talking about - the helicopter shots of motorcades, the Missing White Women, the shark attacks, internet predators and the top ten lists of household products that could kill you and your family. We've all seen this and asked, "Why are they bothering with this crap?"
According to this book, there's two big reasons: the endless, 24-hour news cycle and sheer human laziness.
There is only so much Real News in any given day, Curtis believes, and I agree with him. The question, of course, is "What is 'real news,'" and rather than try to determine what real news is, Curtis decides to explain what real news isn't. As for the rest, we'll know it when we see it.
Of the many ways that the mass media tries to fill time and space, Curtis points out seven major ones, my favorite being Media Fearmongering. I suppose I like this because it's just so obvious and so easy. Examples include the current hype over where to relocate the world-devouring supervillains from Guantanamo, the perennial articles about how hidden earthquake faults could kill us all, and the airplane crash stories. The recent crash of Air France 447 is an excellent example.
While it is certainly a terrible thing that the plane went down, and important to the families and friends of those who died on the plane, is it really a topic the needs a week of international coverage? 228 people died in that crash, and while it's not really fair to weigh one death against another, it is estimated that that many people die in car accidents every two and a half days in the United States. The same goes for suicides in Japan. So why does the media go nuts for a plane crash, but not for unsafe driving or suicide? My guess is that a plane crash is more spectacular, more mysterious and more likely to get people's attention. Reporting on the actual number of auto-related fatalities would hit too close to home. What's more, a plane crash story probably writes itself. Change a few names and numbers, and the reporting on one crash looks pretty much like every other. That combination of spectacle and sloth makes plane crashes a godsend for reporters and editors with time to fill.
Fearmongering in the media isn't harmless either. Last year, in the run-up to the activation of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, there were a lot of articles about whether or not the LHC would destroy the world. Rather than do some investigating, ask some experts and report back that it wouldn't, the media decided to teach the controversy. Matching another of Curtis' bad news categories, they gave Equal Time to Nutjobs who claimed that the work at the LHC would destroy the world. Rather than debunk the nutjobs, they played it for all it was worth, claiming that there actually was a controversy over the LHC, when in fact no such controversy existed.
One of the effects of this was the suicide of a girl in India, who believed in the end-of-the-world scenarios. She was sixteen years old, and the news convinced her that she and everyone she loved was going to die. Can we hold the mass media directly responsible for this girl's death? Only if we can hold them responsible for the other deaths their fearmongering has caused - and here I'm thinking of the "controversy" over whether vaccines cause autism. They don't, but it's more fun for people like Oprah Winfrey to pretend they do. And so kids die.
My other favorite Not News is Media Fatigue - what happens when the media eats itself. With twenty-four hours a day to fill, but without twenty-four hours of news to fill it, the competition for breaking news is incredibly fierce. The first network to report on a big story will basically own that story, and the other networks have to scramble to catch up. In that writhing, twisting nest of vipers, it's sometimes very hard for anyone to stop reporting on a story that has basically run its course - thus, media fatigue. Curtis has broken it down into five simple steps:
1. News breaks
2. Issue retractions
3. Talk it to death
4. Can't... stop... talking
5. Has The Media Gone Too Far?
By the time they stop focusing on the story and start talking about themselves, you can be pretty sure that you're seeing the end of it. Examples of Media Fatigue abound, and Curtis uses Dick Cheney's shooting spree and Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction as examples. Really, neither of these events were news of any import. Hunting accidents happen all the time, and Jackson's boob-flash was so quick and so low-def that most viewers didn't know they had seen it until they were told they had (and probably didn't know they should be outraged until there were told they should be). But both stories generated media storms that didn't blow out until way past their expiration dates.
The point is that while the concept of news on demand is good, the execution of it has been terrible. With networks talking about health care reform in the same breath as whether or not David Letterman made an inappropriate joke, it's hard for the audience to know what they should read and what they should ignore. While the news providers' position has always been 'We leave it up to the readers to judge what's important and what isn't," that flies in the face of what we all know about human nature: people can be really, really dumb. People don't have the time or the inclination to read every story, judge it on its merits and sort the wheat from the chaff, and to pretend otherwise reveals either a profound misunderstanding of human nature or a level of cynicism that makes me look like Pollyanna.
While it may seem all patriarchal, I think we do need someone to draw the line and say what is news and what isn't. I don't know who, or how, but someone should do it if only so that we can have a news source that we can trust to give us what we need to know. Put the Britney and Elvis stories in the tabloids - if we buy those, we know what we're getting - and leave the real news alone.
The book is a good, quick read, and while it's clear that Curtis may not have the academic or professional qualifications to be a media analyst, he has whatever the internet equivalent of "street smarts" is. He's snarky and cynical, in the mold of so many people whose job it is to sit back and observe society. You can only run a news-based site for so long without noticing some patterns. He also includes some of the stories featured on FARK and select comments from users, which are usually entertaining.
While Curtis believes that there may be a way to fix the media, he doesn't believe it'll ever be done. As a fellow cynic, I have to agree - it would be far too much work and cost far too many advertising dollars to whip things into shape. The current system, from the point of view of the media outlets, works, and there's no point in tinkering with it. Perhaps the much-prophesied Death of the Newspapers will help some - the local news outlet can be resurrected by a kind of local bloggers' co-op or somesuch. I'm sure there are people out there who follow the journalistic tradition of wanting to tell people what's going on. Unfortunately, those aren't the people that the media wants right now.
So give it a read, and keep your eyes open. When you see a story about something like "sexting" or whether Tom Cruise drinks puppy blood for breakfast, ask yourself - is this news, or is it just FARK?
"The real answer to Has The Media Gone Too Far? is yes, it goddamn very well has."
- Drew Curtis, It's Not News, it's FARK
It's Not News, It's FARK on Wikipedia
Drew Curtis on Wikipedia
It's Not News, It's FARK on Amazon.com
FARK on Wikipedia
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
There are times I look around me and think, "I love living in the future." I mean think about all that we have - even the simplest phones can call anywhere in the world, and the higher end ones are basically backup brains. Surgery that used to require horrible invasion can now be done with a fraction of the time and the pain. We can cure diseases that a century ago would have been thought of as afflictions by God. Our transportation networks have grown to a point where there is practically nowhere on Earth that cannot be reached in twenty-four hours, and advances in communication have provided us with more information than our ancestors could have hoped to see in their (briefer) lifetimes.
We live in an age of wonders, when you really think about it.
Leave it to Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, then, to show us what living in the future really means.
Transmetropolitan is set in the far, far future - so far ahead that even they don't know what year it is. It's set a in future that can do anything - cure any disease, bring people back from the dead, synthesize consumer goods from blocks of inert matter.... You can turn yourself into a dolphin for a day or into a sentient dust cloud for the rest of eternity. It's a future that defies imagination.
And yet, it is very similar to now. The same problems, the same mistakes and the same short-sightedness that plague us will be around in the future, no matter how good the technology is. Despite being able to have anything you want, there is still greed. Despite being able to reassemble matter on an atomic level, there is still hunger and homelessness. Despite the human form becoming malleable in a thousand different ways, there is still discrimination. This perfect future has a flaw, and like so many perfect things, its flaw is its people.
Our guide to this future is Spider Jerusalem, a celebrated journalist whose love of the truth eclipses his hate of the world he lives in, and he's determined to set the City straight, even if it kills him. He's an analogue of Hunter S. Thompson, with a little H.L. Mencken thrown in for balance, and he's the most awesome character to grace comics in a long time.
Spider is angry because he has to come back to The City, the nameless hypertropolis that both sustains him and drives him mad. He looks around and sees the ugliness under the shiny plastic shell of society and is instantly furious that no one has done anything about it yet. What's more, it's time to vote for President again, and this time it looks like it's a race between an incumbent so horrible that he was nicknamed The Beast and an utterly amoral snake called The Smiler, who wants to be President just because that's what he wants. Spider Jerusalem, whether he wants it or not, holds the keys to power for both of these men, and even his high moral sense isn't able to tell him which of the two villains should get it.
Keen observers of 20th century history will see a lot reflected in this series, deliberately and clearly, and Spider is Ellis' avatar His word is beyond dispute and his decisions are beyond question, which is why Warren Ellis is a kind of internet cult figure these days. He created a character that was a brash loudmouth who could scream the things that we're all thinking, but someone with whom we feel an almost immediate and unshakable sympathy. He's enough to make me want to be a journalist.
The future of Transmetropolitan is a place where Ellis was able to tell us everything that had been bugging him, from the hyper-escalation of technology to corrupt government to social apathy. The first few issues, before the real meat of the story kicks in, are "soapbox" issues, where Ellis rails against everything that's going wrong in our time by making it so much worse in the future. My favorite of these, of course, is the religion issue (#6, God Riding Shotgun) where Spider crashes - and trashes - a convention for new religions. Alien Love Gardeners, the Church of Cobain, and the Church of Release, where trepanation can be practiced as an act of evangelism are excellent examples.
Eventually the story settles down with the arrival of the Presidential Election and Spider's determination to bring down The Smiler no matter what it costs him.
The writing in this story is fantastic, of course, as we would expect nothing less from Warren Ellis. Spider is utterly, completely foul-mouthed, so don't let your children read it unless you want them to shock sailors. But there are touching moments and angry tirades and passionate speeches that dig right into your heart, and whether you love Spider or hate him, you know he's speaking from the core of his soul.
The art, too, is outstanding. It takes great skill to make such ugliness look beautiful, but Darick Robertson certainly has it. The City is a living, breathing place, and it has all of the beauty and horror of a living organism, if you look closely enough. Robertson can render gleaming cityscapes alongside the hollow eyes of child prostitutes with equal care and detail. While you read, be sure to look, because every panel is worth looking at.
Transmetropolitan is a story about truth, really. Or if we want to be specific, The Truth. Spider believes in The Truth, no matter who it hurts, and his mission as a journalist is to discover and promulgate the truth. Whether it's the truth about the alien-human hybrid prostitutes delivered to the presidential suite or the truth about a level of poverty in the City that would shame a third-world nation, Spider's aim is to show people what their world looks like and force them to take action. Unfortunately, he's fighting an uphill battle.
You see, much like in our world, people don't actually like truth. It's uncomfortable and unpleasant, especially because there's a very good chance that the truth could implicate us in some pretty horrible situations. What's worse, there are countless situations where you can have contradictory situations and explanations, and yet both can be considered "true." That's the unfortunate difference between fiction and real life.
Still, I would appreciate Spider Jerusalem today. In this world of instant news, where something that's an hour old is "old news" and where opinion is put side-by-side with fact as if there were some kind of controversy, we need someone to stand for the truth. Someone who doesn't care about what people think of him or the consequences of her quest for herself. Someone fearless enough to push as far as he can and then push farther. Someone to stand up and say, "This is what is true."
We may not listen to this person. In fact, given the way things are going right now, we may even come to hate the one who tells us how we are responsible for the world in which we live. But we need him nonetheless, and if Spider Jerusalem can inspire even a few of us to look at our societies and ourselves with a critical, unblinking, bloodshot eye, then perhaps his spirit lives, even if he doesn't.
These are the new streets of this city. Where the New Scum try to live. You and me. And here in these streets are the things that we want: sex and birth, votes and traits, money and guilt. Television and teddy bears. But all we've actually got is each other. You decide what that means.
- Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan
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