Read This: Written in Stone

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How are you related to a duck-billed platypus? Do you know?

At a quick glance, you might suspect that mammalian evolution is like a flight of stairs. At the bottom, there’s reptiles. Take a step up, and you find the weirder egg-laying mammals, including our friend, the platypus. Another step up, and you’ve reached the marsupials, which are much less reptilian, but still don’t quite have the same reproductive system as we do. Finally, at the top, you find the majority of the mammal kingdom—creatures like us, neither egg-laying nor pouch-wearing.

This progression seems so obvious. It’s neat and tidy, and orderly. It’s also wrong.

The process of evolution is actually much, much messier. In its wake, it leaves multiple dead ends, whole orders or classes gone extinct, or whittled down to a sole surviving species—the last bastion of a once-proud lineage. And evolution does not work towards making humans. That’s entirely the wrong way to think about it. The creatures alive today are not our ancestors. Instead of a stair-step, with humans at the top, we stand alongside the kangaroo and the platypus, each of us at the end of its own narrow road. If we look back, into the past, we can see those paths turn and branch and cul-de-sac. Go far enough, and our paths meet at a crossroads. But in between that common ancestor and ourselves, the road is littered with cousins that didn’t quite make it.

It’s not an easy road map to follow. Not for us laypeople, certainly. That’s clear anytime you read a news story about a new fossil discovery, or watch yet another school board debate whether evolution should be taught at all. But the path of evolution wasn’t obvious to the people who first traced it, either. In fact, many of the mistakes and misconceptions common with the general public today were first made by natural historians and paleontologists, themselves. Evolution is messy, and the evolution of evolution was doubly so.

It’s that story—how the theory of evolution arose and how the details shifted to fit new evidence—that science blogger Brian Switek tells in his book Written in Stone, a handy primer for anyone who wants to better understand evolutionary theory, or the way that science, in general, works.

Continue reading “Read This: Written in Stone”

Elephantmen: Dr Moreau meets apocalyptic noir science fiction comic

I’m late to the party on Elephantmen — the comic has been running since 2006 and there’ve been three collections to date. I’ve just read the first one, Wounded Animals and I’ve got that happy, warm feeling that comes from discovering something great, finishing it, and realizing there’s plenty more where that came from (I discovered the series on a visit back to LA’s Secret Headquarters, where the curated collection of comics never lets me down).

Elephantmen (which spun out of Image Comics’s Hip Flask) is the a Dr Moreau-esque story of a race of human-animal chimeras created by a mad, savage doctor who wants to breed superwarriors to fight in an African war. The Elephantmen (who are not just elephant-human hybrids, but also hippos, rhinos, crocs, etc) are rescued from their maker and brought back to human society, the living brutalized evidence of the horrors of 23rd Century warfare. They are rehabilitated, given jobs and stipends, and eased into “normal life.”

But life can never be normal for the Elephantmen; they were brainwashed to be merciless killers, they are traumatized and stigmatized. Some are cruel, some are wounded — some are hunted.

Full of pathos and told in a series of disjointed, flashbulb vignettes, Elephantmen is great apocalyptic noir fiction, and the pulpy, over-the-top artwork (half EC comics, half Metal Hurlant) is a perfect complement.

Elephantmen Volume 1: Wounded Animals

DMZ: MIA Redemption without forgiveness

DMZ: MIA is the ninth collection of Brian Wood’s spectacular (anti-)war comic set in a Manhattan ravaged by an American civil war that is fuelled by scumbag profiteer military contractors, sensationalist right-wing cable news, hard-ass pandering politicos, and a redneck separatist army who’ve all converged on New York for a decade of house-to-house fighting amid gangs and co-ops and losers and heroes.

Hearts and Minds, the last volume of DMZ, finished with Matty in a terrible, howling moral vacuum, and this volume opens up with a series of guest-written/drawn sequences that offer flashbulb glimpses into the nobility and sacrifice, the venality and cowardice of war-torn New York.

Then Wood retakes the reins, and paints a picture of Matty Roth, transformed hero of the series, wracked by guilt and self-pity, careening toward self-annihilation, having lost all hope and will. But Wood’s not done with Matty, and by the time this episode ends, there’s a trademark Wood-ian mixture of redemption without forgiveness to be had through a series of satisfying plot twists that illuminate and confuse the story at the same time.

Wood’s written a lot of great stuff (I ran out and read everything he’d done as soon as I’d finished with DMZ one) but this is really his masterwork, an end-of-the-world story that refuses to buy into trite cozy apocalypse, into dog-eat-dog self-rationalized barbarism, or into Pollyanna fables about everyone kissing and making up.

I don’t think you can really read this volume without getting into the earlier ones (and I’d argue that the series is so big that it’s time for some giant hardcover omnibuses, like the Walking Dead hardcovers), but that just means you should go out and read those earlier ones.

DMZ: MIA

iZombie: snappy, sassy supernatural comic

iZombie: Dead to the World is the first collection of Chris Roberson and Michael Allred’s smart, sassy supernatural thriller comic about a crime-solving zombie gravedigger and her cadre of supernatural pals. Gwen Dylan, the titular zombie, is an attractive, twentysomething artist who can’t remember how she ended up dead (or undead), but she’s determined not to end up a shambler. So she leads a “normal” life among the living as a gravedigger, burying the hapless residents of Eugene, Oregon by day and digging them up once a month by night to (reluctantly, it must be said) eat their brains. So long as she gets her monthly helping of the grey stuff, she goes on being normal, sensate and in control.

It’s not easy being in Gwen’s situation, but she has good friends — a go-go-booted ghost of a swinging chick who kicked off 40 years ago (and is struggling to understand the modern world, all malapropisms about “inner-nets” and so on; a were-terrier with an unfortunate crush on her; and the waitress at a local mob-owned coffee shop who mercilessly critiques the paintings Gwen is moved to execute after feasting on brains. Because when you eat a dead person’s brains, you get that person’s memories, and if those memories include (for example), a murder, well, you have to solve the crime to get them out of your head again.

Supernatural Eugene hosts many spooks and haints beyond Gwen and her pals — there’s a gang of hottie vampire ladies who run a paintball gym where they can easily separate loners for a little bloodplay; an ancient and mysterious living mummy, and, of course, some monster-hunting dudes (including one stone fox whom Gwen can’t help but fall for).

Basically, this thing writes itself from here: you’ve got all these attractive, clever monsters and revenants and such, the business with the brains, and the op-art stylings of Michael Allred and it makes a fabulously entertaining package that’s fun and spooky and surprising. I’ll certainly be getting the future volumes of this one.

iZombie: Dead to the World

Anya’s Ghost: sweet and scary ghost story about identity

Anya’s Ghost, Vera Brosgol’s debut graphic novel, starts out as a simple young adult story about a girl who’s having a hard time fitting in at school, moves smoothly into a lighthearted story about an awkward girl and her ghostly BFF, and then slides precipitously (and scarily) into a no-fooling ghost story that’ll have you jumping out of your skin while you finish it off.

Anya Borzakovskaya is a Russian emigre attending the third-worst private school in her state. Her single mother can’t understand the pressures on Anya as she tries to Americanize herself and fit in to the sometimes vicious world of adolescence. Anya and her only friend, Siobhan, spend as much time feuding as they do helping each other out, and then there’s Dima, the only other Russian kid in school, who is “fobby” (Fresh off the Boat) and who makes Anya squirm with embarrassment (usually just before he gets clobbered by the more athletic kids). Anya sneaks away from school one day in a dark cloud of frustration and finds herself down a deep hole — with a skeleton.

A girl’s skeleton. A haunted girl’s skeleton. The haint that rises from the skeleton explains that she’s been trapped since her death 90 years before, and while she is scary and sad, it’s the ghost that gets Anya rescued. As Anya escapes from the pit, she accidentally scoops up a fingerbone from the skeleton, and inadvertently liberates the ghost. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise, though, as soon the ghost is helping Anya to pass her exams, stalk her secret-crush basketball star, and even dress and comport herself (the ghost is an avid reader of fashion and teen magazines and absorbs a lot about the world through them). She introduces herself to Anya as Emily Reilly, murdered by a passing stranger in her youth after being widowed by her beau in the trenches of WWI.

But Emily the ghost isn’t all sweetness. Indeed, Anya discovers that Emily expects her to take all the help that Emily offers, no questions asked, and that’s when it starts to get scary, as Anya realizes that she has befriended an altogether more sinister spirit than she thought.

Anya’s Ghost manages to be really sweet, really funny and really scary, and it’s got a powerful message about identity, fitting in, and the secret selfish bastard lurking in all of us and whether having such a goblin inside makes us irredeemable or merely human.

Anya’s Ghost

James Gleick’s tour-de-force: The Information, a natural history of information theory

I’ve just finished reading The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick’s tour-de-force history of information theory. I read Freeman Dyson’s early review of The Information with interest earlier in the month, and fell upon the book and read it nonstop when it arrived.

I lie. I stopped reading it a lot. I stopped to stare into space and go “huh” and “wow” and “huh” again. I stopped to try to explain the connections Gleick was making for me to my wife (with varying degrees of success), including an epic bedtime conversation that kept us up for an hour longer than we’d intended.

Gleick is one of the great science writers of all time, and that is, in part, because he is a science biographer. Not a biographer of scientists (although there is much biographical insight to scientists, mathematicians, lexicographers, writers and thinkers in The Information), but a biographer of the idea itself, and the way that it ricochets off disciplines, institutions and people, knocking them into new, higher orbits, setting them on collision courses.

I’ve been fascinated with information theory since a friend of a friend explained “Shannon limits” to me in the late 1990s. I remember the conversation, mostly because the description was tantalizingly frustrating and incomplete, this being a hallmark of really interesting ideas. This friend of a friend explained that there were theoretical limits to how much information any channel could carry, and that these limits included rigorous definitions for “channel” and “information.” I’ve read up on Claude Shannon rather a lot since (I’ve got a short story called Shannon’s Law in an upcoming Borderlands book, about a hacker named Shannon Klod who tries to violate the barrier between faerie and the human realm by routing a single packet using TCP-over-magic) and every time I do, it’s a revelation, because some new facet of information theory reveals itself to me.

But nothing has presented these ideas half so well as The Information, and that’s a tribute to Gleick’s storytelling mastery, his ability to pick out the threads of history that trace back and forward from the discipline’s central thesis. Gleick begins with early lexicographers, the primitive dictionaries, the phrasebooks that translated between the talking drum and western speech. He moves onto Babbage and Lovelace (and presents an account of their invention, rivalries, victories and failings that is as heartbreaking as it is informative), and then into telegraphy.

Telegraphy leads to codes, and codes to compression, and compression to logic, and logic to the first inklings of theories, and now you’ve got Einstein and Godel and Shannon and Turing meeting, debating, fighting and rubbishing each other in learned journals, arguing furiously with Margaret Mead at interdisciplinary conferences — a pellmell debate in full swing. On Gleick marches, to the double helix and Dawkins and memes, to a section on randomness that is so transcendently exciting that I couldn’t put the book down and read it while walking, so distracted I got lost twice within blocks of my office.

Gleick takes us through Wikipedia and the meaning of information, the debates about it, the helpelessness of information overload, the collisions in namespaces — even through his beloved chaos math — until he has spun out his skeins so that they wrap around the world and the universe, information theory at the heart of legal debates over trademark, physics feuds over Hawking radiation, epistemology and cryptography, even fights over Pokemon characters and their disambiguation.

The Information isn’t just a natural history of a powerful idea; it embodies and transmits that idea, it is a vector for its memes (as Dawkins has it), and it is a toolkit for disassembling the world. It is a book that vibrates with excitement, and it transmits that excited vibration with very little signal loss. It is a wonder.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

Settlers of Catan: the only other board game I can stand

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Photo by Nathan Jongewaard. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

(Read my earlier post about the game Carcassonne, and my dislike of most boardgames.)

The board game Settlers of Catan has been around since 1995, and has been awarded many prizes. Over 15 million copies of Settlers of Catan and other games in the series have been sold. However, I’d never heard of the game until a couple of years ago, and didn’t play it until last week. Now, I’m sorry I waited so long! I love this game.

I bought the iPad version of Settlers of Catan ($4.99) and played it with my seven-year-old daughter on Saturday. My wife was running errands, so Jane and I added a computer player to the mix. I’m glad we started with the iPad version, because the software handles the scoring and other mechanics of the game, and it was a good way to understand the rules (which are pretty simple). However, the playing board is pretty small on the iPad, and because players are supposed to keep certain cards hidden from view, there is a clunkiness to the digital version of the game. (Carcassonne, on the other hand, is wonderful on the iPad.)

The object of Catan is to be the first person to get 10 Victory Points, which are earned by building settlements and cities on an island made of 30 hexagons representing different kinds of terrain), and by acquiring certain Achievement cards. In order to build roads, settlements, and cities, players need to collect resources: bricks, ore, grain, sheep, and lumber. A big part of the fun of the game is trading resources with other players.

While Jane and I enjoyed playing Settlers of Catan on on the iPad, we loved playing the large, attractive game board version. ( I bought it for $43 at an incredible gaming store in Studio City, California called Knight Ware Inc. I went there on “Boardgame Day” and enjoyed watching a dozen or so folks at two tables playing some kind of sword and sorcery game).

When we play the board game version, my wife joins Jane and me. I don’t think it would be much fun with two players. (I searched online and noticed that people have come up with various sets of modified rules for two players. I haven’t tried those yet, and would be interested in hearing if they make the game fun for two players.)

There’s one problem with the board game: it’s too easy to disturb the small wooden pieces on the board with a clumsy throw of the dice. After about the third time my seven-year-old daughter did this, I downloaded a free dice rolling application for my iPhone and now we use that instead of rolling physical dice. Problem solved.

I found out that there is a travel edition of Settlers of Catan! As I plan on doing some traveling with my family in the near future, I just ordered it.

If you’re like me, and have avoided boardgames because you figured they all stink as much as Monopoly, Risk, Parcheesi, and Sorry, I recommend you give Settlers of Catan (and Carcassonne) a try. I never imagined I would enjoy board games, but these two titles have changed my mind.

Settlers of Catan is available on Amazon.com in the US for $33.60

Up Against It: smart, whiz-bang space opera pits astro-bureaucrats against rogue AIs

MJ Locke’s Up Against It is the cracking first volume of WAVE, a space-opera series that manages to be both original — full of smart new ways of looking at science fiction ideas — and old fashioned — full of the kind of whiz-bang action-adventure that made so many of us fall in love with the field in the first place.

The plot: Geoff and pals are a group of plucky young folks living in an asteroid habitat called Phocaea, a distant outpost of humanity on the Solar system’s frontier. They’re your basic high-spirited youngsters, enjoying such pass-times as hacking matter compilers to produce dancing skeletons that prance through the low-gee communal areas, using their rocket-bikes to salvage methane ice shrapnel that flies away when the colony brings in a big (and vital) rock of the stuff, and figuring out how to avoid the ubiquitous surveillance motes that are the million eyes of ‘Stroiders, a reality-TV show whose Earthside producers have paid handsomely for the privilege of spying on every detail of the Phocaeans’ lives. (See what I mean about whiz-bang space-opera nift?)

Things are not as good as they seem, though. A mysterious act of sabotage kills Geoff’s brother Carl and puts the entire colony at risk. And in short order, we discover that the whole thing may have been cooked up by the Martian mafia, as a means of executing a coup and turning Phocaea into a client-state. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a rogue AI that was spawned during the industrial emergency and slipped through the distracted safeguards, and a giant x-factor in the form of the Viridians, a transhumanist cult that lives in Phocaea’s bowels.

In addition to Geoff, the story revolves around Jane, the colony’s resource manager, and her scenes are every bit as engrossing as Geoff’s hijinx: Jane is a bureaucrat engineer in charge of keeping the plumbing running on an artificial island of humanity poised on the knife-edge of hard vacuum and unforgiving space. She’s more than a century old, and good at her job, but she is torn between the technical demands of the colony and the political realities of her situation, in which the fishbowl effect of ‘Stroiders is compounded by a reputation economy that turns every person into a beauty contest competitor. Locke’s account of the gubbins and manoeuvring involved in keeping politics and engineering in harmony are sure to warm every geek’s heart.

Though this is Locke’s debut novel, I have it on good authority that “Locke” is the pseudonym for an accomplished sf writer who is trying out some new directions, and certainly this doesn’t read like a first-timer’s book. Rather, it is sophisticated, smartly plotty, and full of science fictional gracenotes and in-jokes that tickled me pink.

Up Against It

Glenn Grant’s Burning Days: old school cyberpunk stories from the nostalgic contrafuture

Burning Days is Glenn Grant’s cyberpunk science fiction short story collection, and it’s got that old school, early days grittiness that made reading books like Mirrorshades and Burning Chrome so exciting: giant junk-mecha pit-fighting in illegal wastelands, secret cyborg cops working noir assassinations; deep greens fighting factional splits at massive post-apocalyptic burningmans; waterlogged climate refugees duking it out with economic crisis lumpenproletariat in the shadow of nanotech seawalls while improvised bombs detonate in the background.

And though this is all recent fiction, it has a kind of historical contrafactuality to it, as the Internet and the Web make no real recognizable appearance in these stories: instead, the stories exist in a world of extremely physical improvised technology that serves as a backdrop for tales of displacement, corruption, and sacrifice.

Grant has been working in the field for a long time; he even contributed to the paper edition of bOING!bOING! in the old days and published the excellent Edge Detector zine.

Grant’s work isn’t quite like anything else being written today, and it caught me up with a kind of nostalgic futurism that was a delight to experience. As Bruce Sterling says in his introduction to the volume, “Maybe Glenn doesn’t write stories all the time — but somebody’s got to write these things: memes, palindromes, fire-spinning debris, and all.”

Burning Days

Four Color Fear: delightful horror comics from the pre-Code era

Fantagraphics’ collection Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s, edited by Greg Sadowski, is a wonderfully creepy hurtle through the exuberant, cheerfully gross and icky horror comics that prevailed in the golden, pre-Comics-Code era. Four Color Fear focuses on the B-list comics, the non-EC titles that most of us have never seen in reprint before, and features hand-picked gems that range from outright psychedelia to gothic grossburgers full of shambling zombies, flying heads, puckered walls of human-devouring flesh, bogeys, creepies, crawlies and madness.

Most of these are morality plays of some kind, but they feature funny lessons — stories where the wronged wreak terrible, poetic vengeance on the wicked and walk away scott free; as well as plenty of tales in which the wicked get their comeuppance and everyone involved is punished alongside of them. There is exposition in plenty, and lots of the sort of surprise ending that Damon Knight called “Jar of Tang stories” (“For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!“).

Whatever the merits or demerits of the story, the art is brilliant: indistinct piles of slimy viscera, purple-green zombies, skull-faced vampires and demons, Satan in a dozen guises, witches and occult symbols, creatures from the eleven hells of the darkest mythos of the human spirit. This is the stuff that’s drawn me like a moth to a flame for as long as I can remember, the Basil Wolverton-y, Big Daddy Roth-y, Marc Davis-y, Elvira-y spookhouse stuff that makes no apologies for its exploitative nature (Fantagraphics has a great Flickr set of images from the book, and I’ve put some of my favorites after the jump).

And if you need some scholarship with your atavistic thrills, have no fear: the fascinating endnotes that close the book are filled with sharp analysis and great context for these forgotten treasures.

Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s

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