Monday, September 21, 2009

My Top Five Sci-Fi Books for Kids

At the behest of Bookmonkey, here's some of my favorite sci-fi books for kids, or at least some of the ones I liked as a kid. By the by, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Terry Pratchett's 'Only You Can Save Mankind', and Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars are really great, too. There are hundreds of great sf books for kids and I only scratched the surface while I was on my way from child to giant man-child.

5.Keeper of the Isis Light- Monica Hughes 1980. Olwen lives on planet Isis with her Guardian, runs a space-lighthouse, is turning 16, and is about to meet people from Earth for the first time. She learns that there is nothing easy about being an alien.
This is a lonely book for lonely, weird kids, like I was.
O.K., First of all, it's Canadian content, so you gotta love that. I read this book in elementary, then dove into Hughes' 'Crisis on Conshelf Ten' about a kid from the moon who moves to an ocean city, which is also, coin a phrase, stellar. Like Podkayne of Mars which, darn it, really should have made this list (I don't know what I am thinking!) it has a girl protagonist, and I was still o.k. with that as a seven or eight year old boy. I had a very open mind- as long as there was a spaceship, a robot, and didn't involve sports I was into it.
This wasn't the cover of the copy I got from the library, but this new one is a lot cooler.

4.Danny Dunn- This science-themed adventure series was written between 1956 and 1977 by Raymond Abrashkin & Jay Williams, mostly Jay Williams, since Mr. Abrashkin was dead. To get the premise you pretty much watch the t.v. series 'My Secret Identity' without a super-hero. Derek McGrath would make a great Professor Bullfinch, who was always inventing astonishing things in his garage. Bullfinch's housekeeper's son Danny was like Archie Andrews, average red-haired kid getting into shenanigans with his dour Jughead-like buddy Joe and their friend Irene (who was better than either Betty or Ronnie because she was smart). I loved Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint, where they repelled gravity and nearly shot out of the solar system! Pictured here, D.D. Invisible Boy, featuring a telepresence robot dragonfly surveillance camera, with the standard moral dilemma of what to do when you have the power to spy on people without them knowing.

3.Not Quite Human- Seth McElvoy's 1985-1986 series saw Dr. Jonas Carson build a robot son called Chip, and his human daughter, Becky having to assume the responsibilty for a very literal-minded mechanical brother. As sort of a Turing test, Chip was meant to pass as human for a year in school, and hijinx ensue.
I utterly DEVOURED these books (also, my dog ate one, I think). If you want to watch the Disney movie adaptation, (and frankly, why WOULDN'T YOU?) you can just skip over the lackluster first one and sup-par third one and watch Not Quite Human 2. I frickin' LOVE that cheesy freak-fest.
Before I met a loveable android called Mr. Data, there was the 'emotionless' and literal-minded metal nerd called Chip Carson, who manages to find love...? OF COURSE he does!

2.Killobyte- Piers Anthony's 1993 thriller is best for a mature kid, but I read it anyway. Walter is a former cop, now in a wheelchair escaping his pain in a VR fantasy game, where he 'meets' Baal, a homely woman avoiding her feelings about her diabetes in the same fantasy world. And Phreak is a mad hacker who will turn the game deadly if his demands are not met. There is sex, and violence, and I assure you, those things HELP make this a REALLY good book. I was rather more of a prude as a kid than I am now, but darn it all, this is a page turner and I remember it fondly. Also, you had best read the Xanth series by the same author. Those ones are fantasy, not sci-fi, and they are not for prudes, sensitives, or beings with an aversion to puns, but I read a fair number of them as a horny young man and that side of me was never disappointed.

1.Have Spacesuit Will Travel. Robert A. Heinlein, 1958. It was the last book the great man wrote entirely aimed at kids, and very possibly the first sci-fi book I ever read. This is the one to blame for who I am, ladies and gentlefiends, it had EVERYTHING I was looking for. I burned through it for days and a night. (ruining my eyes under the blankets, no doubt) And thus the science fiction genre had a new acolyte called Mike. I still love this one. Farmboy Kip Russell wins a jingle contest and the prize is an old spacesuit. He fixes it up all summer long, dreaming of the space travel he can never afford, when suddenly he is shanghied by an irritating girl called Peewee and her alien protector, Mother Thing. They whisk him to the moon to help them battle the evil Wormfaces, and all too soon they all end up imprisoned on Pluto. Kip freezes to death in the escape attempt and then things get a bit strange.
I don't know how to oversell this book, it is JUST THAT GOOD. Heinlein's frank and down-to-earth dialouge in the midst of the bizarre settings is like a plain old hot dog on a fairground ride. It's a very summertime book. A very Kids' book. A very human book. This is the Boys' Adventure Tale Supreme. I never stopped reading Heinlein books for months after this one: Red Planet, Starman Jones, the aforementioned Podkayne of Mars (Girls' Adventure Tale Supreme?), all the way up to 'Variable Star' a few years ago. I've read a lot of Heinlein but I thank my lucky stars I haven't read them all- I still have tons to look forward to.

Sci-Fi is all about looking forward. Maybe the spot you're in right now ain't so perfect. Maybe you're poor, you're lonely, you're sick, you're afraid. Maybe you're part robot or a little bit green around the gills. You're just a regular, plain, old, ordinary kid. You probably don't even HAVE a genius scientist neighbour OR a jingle contest spacesuit, you poor soul. But there's always tomorrow. You never know what might happen next.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Captain Complainy: Kirby Equals Unsexy

I'm reading "Was Superman A Spy?" by Brian Cronin, a collection of legends about the comics industry from his blog 'Comics Should Be Good'. I came across the one about how in the 70's DC comics hired artistic legend Jack Kirby away from Marvel amid great brouhaha and fanfare, then proceeded to advertise and crow and count their money because they had Kirby as an artist!
Then they went and PASTED other artists' illustrations of Superman's face over Kirby's faces to match the 'house style'.
I've gotta say, I'm deeply conflicted on this one. Morally? I vehemently object to hiring and praising a guy to his face for his ground-breaking NEW LOOK and then re-doing his art to look like the regular stuff. That's low, brother. However... Aesthetically? I'll just have to say it, I'm in complete agreement.
Kirby's Supes is on the left, and Al Plastino's Curt Swan-style Supes is on the right. Maybe it's just me, but Kirby's Superman's face looks like a squashed toad. As do most of his male AND female characters. Creepy bug-eyed men and women with wide, weird maws.
I'm dead serious. Why are Kirby's Reed Richards and his Thor always shouting things toward the reader with outstretched arms and a grimace of what appears to be constipation?
I first realized this while staring at a 'pin-up' Kirby did of Sue Storm (Richards). It just didn't DO IT for me, you know?
The man drew a HELL of a good monster. He drew SQUAJILLIONS of good monsters.
Thing, Hulk, Mole Man, Mole Man's horrifying underground armies, every screaming ugly weird-ass troll and freaky-deaky nightmare for over a decade at Marvel was probably his doing. And let's not forget Etrigan, Darkseid, Granny Goodness, Desaad and every other creepy thing the darkness ever congealed over at DC.
AND his regular, ordinary, down-to-earth HUMAN people look like toads! I'm slightly ashamed of my own stomach-knotting jealousy, but they do, they DO look like toads!
I KNOW Jack was the King! I KNOW he inspired a generation of artists! But look at one of the guys he inspired for a moment. John Byrne. An example of a student whose skills surpassed his teacher in his very earliest years, at least in certain areas.
This is how John Byrne draws Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four.
And this is how Kirby draws the same woman.
OH! I'm kidding! Too soon!
I hear you baying for my blood. 'How dare you denigrate Mighty Kirby? Pistols at dawn on planet Apokalips, sir! My Female Furies shall disembowel you!'
Well, I say, bring it. Your Kirby Furies against my Frank Cho Furies and we'll JUST SEE whose are sexiest in the cold light of day!
(Or something else threatening that makes more sense.)
Look, the last thing I wanna do is crap on Kirby. The man was an Art Master whose shoes I'm not worthy to shit in. Is his art dynamic? Hells, yeah. Was he prolific? NOBODY could match his output. Did he work himself to death in relative obscurity and revolutionize an industry that gave him (while alive) little credit? I venture YES. He worked his butt off for a pittance, an early grave and just oodles of post-death accolades from everybody who ever read him. Were his drawings of women (or men) sexy? I venture NO.
I also have to assume he wasn't trying to be. The beauty of his work is in the STRAIN and the PAIN, the eye-bags, the veins-a-poppin', the bared tooth and claw, the bristly beards, the calloused hands, the wailing mouths, the sunken, haunted eyes. The dark side of humanity.
Assuming that's what you think is beautiful.
If I stared at stuff like that all the time, I'd never get any sleep!
So... very... tired.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why I Love Sci-Fi: The Lost Years

It was Luke Skywalker who hauntingly tells Leia "I have no memory of my mother. I never knew her."
Far less poignantly, but in a similar manner, I do not know what my first memories of sci-fi are. A computer-printout on my Uncle Cliff's wall depicting either Spock or Einstein, all done up in tiny ones and zeros? Watching Star Wars on 'CTV' and on grainy Beta videotapes thereafter? Not grainy originally, just from overuse.
My journals begin at age nine and are thoroughly, amazingly unhelpful. I loved the McDonald's Commandron Velocitor Happy Meal toy (couldn't find a pic online) and pleather E.T. doll as much as wildly more expensive toys like this one.

Playground jealousy reared its ugly head in a vague memory of Grade One (or kindergarten?) when AT-ATs like this one battled tauntauns at recess in snowdrifts (Canada is tailor-made to be planet Hoth). I saw Star Wars toys before I ever saw the movies. I thrilled at these war machines stomping around bigger than life in my imagination. My classmates told me wild, unlikely (and, as it happens, untrue) tales of what Star Wars was. I remember contemplating the concept that Darth Vader had ice cream under his helmet for most of a day- if you broke his helmet like a DQ dilly bar there would be vanilla ice cream underneath. Oh, the lies!
When the TV played Star Wars my brother and cousin and I had to rush right up the edge of the back porch as though it was a bottomless pit on the Death Star, not quite teetering over the edge... teetering... teetering... falling anyway and pretending we had grappeling hooks to swing away on.

Or did I see Star Trek first? I sure remember these little guys.
You couldn't be the nephew I was without hearing the purr of a tribble from the TV and hearing the 'dee-dee-Da-Dee Wah Wah deeDeedee' of a Star Trek comedy soundtrack unparallelled.
I cut the yellow pom-pom off the top of my toque to have a tribble of my very own.
I wasn't going to be left out of THAT craze, no sir.

I once saw a woman eat a rodent whole by distending her jaw like a lizard! And a prison camp where the moat was made of sand and whatever was under it could burrow really fast and eat you! THAT was a great one to keep you on the monkey bars and off the sand, boy howdy. Good old 'V'.

I raced breakfast cereal sprocket-wheel pull TRON lightcycles which, in retrospect, were NOTHING like the ones in the film.

V.I.N.Cent the robot HOVERED, dude! So did his smashed-up buddy B.O.B!That had R2-D2 beat right there. And Vin had a voice prissier than C-3PO's. Also Maximillian had whirling blades to cut you right to shreds! 'The Black Hole' is just NOT a kids movie! It's NOT! But I loved robots, man, and I loved robots HARD!

I have the creepiest feeling when I try to remember the first Doctor Who I ever saw. How old would I even have been? I cannot say. Five? The memory is SO nebulous. It was the fourth doctor in danger, I'm sure of that, but I knew no others then, so it was just the Doctor.
And there were several HORRIBLE monstrosities moving toward him down a corridor. Slowly, so slowly, creeping with menace... did they even have FEET? My scared little brain renders them as blobs, greenish brown, no faces, no limbs. Were they the Yeti? The Gel Guards? Neither of them menaced the fourth doctor. Probably the furry ones that crumbled into drug powder in 'The Nightmare of Eden'.
I was OFTEN scared watching Doctor Who, but I LOVED K-9. Any robot was the best robot as far as I was concerned. Seeing those classic episodes now I wonder why what scared me most wasn't Tom Baker himself. The monsters are nowhere near as strange as the lead actor.

So, who knows? In 1986 I was watching Back To the Future, the Battle For Endor, clamoring to get my parents to let me see Short Circuit. In 1990 I was secretly watching the 'lewd' Red Dwarf
series on YTV after I was supposed to be asleep. In 1991 I joined the Star Trek fan club.
Quantum Leap, Babylon 5, ALF, Starman, Gunbuster. I couldn't and can't get enough sci-fi. To this very day.
Whatever the FIRST images were, I bet they were furry like Ewoks, tribbles, yetis and Gremlins, hovering and making theremin noises, maybe even clanking and whirring like robots. Or possibly it was a duck facing off with a blank-faced little squirt in a skirt and sneakers trying to destroy the planet with an earth-shattering KA-BOOM because it obscured his view of Venus.
Long Live Sci-Fi!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Gushy McFanboy: Green Boobies are Groobies!

I just came back from a date with my wife. Romantic? Hells yeah! Cheap theater all the way, baby. That's 3.25 for each ticket but 23 bucks for popcorn and pop! We couldn't agree what to see so she went to The Hangover and I saw Star Trek (2009) again. Second time, and it's twice as awesome!! Music, effects, things that smash into other things, Two Spocks, Transwarp Beaming, Scotty, Romulan truckers with limited planning skills, Orbittal sky-diving, Giant Rubbery Hands, Ice Planets, Desert Planets, Ample Nacelles, Bad Robots, No Sign of Hugh Jackman, and best of all, no DIRECT ONSCREEN EVIDENCE of the highly probable but devoutly not-to-be-wished death of Orion Cadet Gaila!

That's right, kiddies, Jim Kirk's steamy green bunkmate, Uhura's pal, and the lady whose dubious alien sense of morality allowed her to reprogram Kirk's Kobiyashi Maru, was a member of Kirk's DEEPLY ILL-FATED graduating class is probably a cinder at the center of a black hole along with 6 billion Vulcans and (according to the novelization) the starships Newton, Armstrong, Defiant, Mayflower, and Excelsior.
However, I am still rooting for that plucky veridian vixen!
The novel ALSO lists such graduate assignments as Starbase 3, Odyssey, Regula One, Farragut, Drake, Potemkin, Bradbury, Kongo, Endeavor and Antares.
Both film and novel refer to the bulk of the starfleet rendezvousing in the Laurentian system. And that colorful hypothetical loophole is where I hope and pray that promiscuous paragon of pulchritude was a-headed...
Easiest of all, she could've been grinning at Uhura because she got a spot on the coveted (and lucky as a leprechaun) Enterprise herself.
No, no, therrre's no need to thank me. Saving the lives of fictional characters is my job, nay, my CALLING. Am I drunk? I'm not NOT drunk.
And on the subject of desperate and futile attempts to save doomed sci-fi gals with brightly colored skin, why not check out my Star Wars comic at
It's true. I'm a remarkable guy.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Perfect Panel Project #3

From the city once 'famous' as the Archie capital of planet Earth I bring you greetings and a panel perfectly encapsulating the friendship of Veronica Lodge and Elizabeth Cooper. Before the term 'Frenemies' existed, there was Ronnie and Betty. From Little Archie #4 1957 by Bob Bolling comes an eternal struggle which anyone with friends or siblings is sure to recognize.
Word at Pop Tate's has it that Archie and Ronnie may soon tie the knot, ending the triangle of bitterness... forever? Of course, this being comics, I also expect Archie will soon be making a deal with Mephisto to exchange Ronnie for Betty.
It's not dissimilar to the deal Mr. Weatherbee once made to make the populace of Riverdale immortal- reliving the same year of their lives over and over and over and over as the world moves on around them in a macabre dance of perpetual merriment and torment.
Keep abreast of the lighter side of the human condition by visiting your local comic store.
I recommend Happy Harbor Comics if you're ever up north in the Archie capital.
They'll be happy to be your new worst best friend.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

It's All Spock's Fault

Confusingly, this post is NOT about child care specialist Dr. Benjamin Spock! It's actually about Star Trek this time. That's a little TV show and franchise for which I have enormous affection bordering on mania. Pop culture sci-fi has been the focus of my fantasy life for all of my real life. I got into Star Trek for the same reason as other lanky, bookish, awkward teens: apparently what I needed was more Girl Repellent. Also, I loved and still love escapist adventure which also encouraged rational thought. While Star Wars (the one with Ewoks) lives in the heart of my child self, Star Trek (the one with Klingons) is the darling of my teenage self. Both franchises are beloved by me, written on my very DNA, and it boggles my mind that so many people love the one and loathe the other. C'mon, they're BOTH awesome! (most of the time)
My Uncle Cliff got me hooked on Trek. He's a computer programmer from the days of little precise holes punched in paper cards instead of big sparky holes punched through LCD screens in frustration. He identified with Spock in exactly the same way I would imprint on Data, shapeshift into Odo, and reprogram myself as the Holodoc. And even, like Phlox, pick up 'OPTIMISM!' as a watchword.
At last (probably viciously inaccurate) count I have read 278 Trek novels (that's about half of them) almost all the comics, own all the series and movies and am itching to own the bitchin' 2009 flick on DVD! Many single novels, comics, and even episodes are very terrible. Many are average to great. Some are sublime.
In the terrible column I would have put such things as bisexual Kirk and Spock playing pirates (was that in Black Fire?). I would have said it was one of the most ill-advised and terrifying things I've read, but of course decades later Captains Jack (Harkness and Sparrow) are certainly popular. So who knows? Fanfic and even slashfic clearly have their audience.
But in the sublime column there's Peter David, Diane Carey, Sherman & Shwartz, Brannon Braga, Ira Steven Behr, Ron Moore, oh, just oodles of brilliant, inspired writers!
I'm plugging my story in the anthology Strange New Worlds 9.
It got good reviews, too.
It was a remarkable time for me.
To describe the period since my failing to sell a second story the next year as writer's block doesn't give enough credit to laziness and blind stinking fear. But THIS summer has seen a slight return in productivity. Ron Gleason, fellow bookseller and theatre performer encourages regular blog use as exercise for the aspiring writer. Ty Templeton, writer of IDW's comic Star Trek:Mission's End said talent is a made-up word. He told me drawing, writing, all art was about practice, not inborn talent.
Practice what you're passionate about every day. Also, try and avoid the crushing jealousy you'll likely feel for the hundreds of people who are better than you at your chosen passion. (I'm looking with squinty eyes at you, Bookmonkey). In fact, allow the jealousy to become the motivator for practicing even more. It's got to be good for something!
As Mr. Spock might say 'To deprive the universe of your skill would be most illogical.'
Have a synthehol on me.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Perfect Panel Project #2

Thanks to the internet wag Linkara, I have a better understanding of the term 'The Silver Age'. It's a comic book term for the comics (DC's comics primarily) of the 1950's and 1960's. It is considered by many to begin when Barry Allen became the Flash and by some to end when Gwen Stacey is killed over at Marvel.
We're supposed to pretend this period never happened while reading modern DC comics.
Because, as my very pro-Marvel friend Diego once said, 'The DC Silver Age is a window into madness.'
Case in point is this panel in Adventure Comics #271 from 1960. I read it for Superboy's 'first' meeting with Luthor, but as a special bonus I found a panel that perfectly illustrates Silver Age Aquaman.

What I would like to express here is that this story 'The Second Deluge' uncredited, is indeed mad. It's barking. Captain Noah is gathering two of every animal aboard his modern ark as part of some cock-eyed scheme to harvest gold from seawater. Aquaman, naturally, foils him with octopi and fish telepathy.
And I also want to say how awesome that is. Ludicrous?
Absolutely. Unscientific? Indubitibly. Misspelled words? You bet your butte. But this addled era is chock-a-block with creativity. Nameless souls toiling beneath DC's cruel yoke pulling fish story after fish story out of the ether for delighted kids back when kids still read comics and got delighted. And that rocks. Imagination is a precious commodity that should be celebrated wherever it may be found. If you think hammerhead sharks can't be good riveters because they can't literally hammer with their eye-sockets then you just aren't thinking big enough, crazy enough, enough like a kid.
I envy them, the Silver Age writers. Not the living hand to mouth, working themselves into early graves in obscurity, wasting their lives on 'kiddie stuff'. Not the misogyny, everyday racism, oppressive cultural conformity and non-existent emotional outlets, either. Actually, as usual, I would NEVER VOLUNTEER TO GO TO THE PAST.
But... the sheer volume of imagination! I am frequently amazed by it.
Also, they appear to enjoy the odd story about spankings.
But I'll leave that for wiser heads to examine.
All hail the Silver Age, baby! It's nutty cuckoo and that's the way I likes it.

It's All Kirk's Fault

I never wanted to have more culture or expand my horizons. I still don't. My chosen genre is SPACE OPERA. POP Sci-Fi and POP Fantasy, primarily TV and movie tie-ins. And that's the way I liked it! But I declared my genre was science fiction which allowed Kirk the Bookmonkey to trick me into reading the Hugos. And in (god, 4 years?) I've liked about half of them. A small percentage I've ADORED. A small percentage I've DESPISED. Now that nasty old School isn't around to force me to read Madame Bovary I have the freedom to read any old garbage I like. Except for Kirk. I respect him. And because I don't want him to think I'm a complete numpty, I'm slogging through science fiction a commitee deemed 'worthy'. And most of them are. Sigh.
My five favorites I wouldn't have been likely to discover without him are as follows.

The Big Time- by Fritz Leiber
It takes place in one room and the whole of time and space is just outside. In a time war between the Spiders and the Snakes no one remembers who the good guy is and these doctors just do the repairs with a machine that can invert their patients. It's awesome. It's creepy. It's just plain great sci-fi and I wasn't likely to just run across it on my own.

Ringworld- by Larry Niven
O.K., it's just possible that I would one day have noticed the guy who wrote 'The Slaver Weapon' episode of Star Trek the Animated Series wrote a series of adventure, spectacle, comic and sexual antics, and the exoploration of a bizarre artificial world by a bizarre group of humans and aliens.
But probably not. And then I wouldn't have read the Ringworld Engineers, either. Also a treat. When I finally put these award-winners behind me I'll be able to get back to the series.

The Forever War- Joe Haldeman
Vietnam allegory, probable influence on the Gunbuster anime series I just enjoyed. Violent, time-travelley, my heart just bleeds for the lead character. Its semi-sequel Forever Peace also deserves special mention. An great author I wouldn't have spotted without the Bookmonkey.

The Uplift War- David Brin
It's not the one book so much as all of them. This is a splendid series. Humans meet the neighbours and discover just how culturally backward these aliens are- institutionalized eons of indentured servitiude are exacted from the beings raised or 'uplifted' to sentience. Humans and their sidekicks the chimps and dolphins are not looked on too kindly for their free-wheeling attitude to traditional slavery. Some meanness ensues.

To Say Nothing of the Dog- Connie Willis
I have to include a lady writer, frankly, so as not to appear sexist. And I got more laughs out of this one than almost any other Hugo, which, to be fair, are a pretty dour and serious bunch. It is a great one, and it forced me to read an excellent classic of English (ugh) literature into the bargain. Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men In A Boat is a delight that deserves its classic status every whit.

There should have been more of THESE in school. But then I probably would have hated them.
Because what I can't stand most of all is being told something is a classic and that I have to read it.
What a perverse little creature I am. I'd rather soldier on through an indistinguishable slush of cookie cutter genre fiction than try new things. And even as I write it I know how backward it sounds.
But the Hugo winning novels have been... worth it. They can be as long as a journey on foot to Alpha Centauri. They can be dull as the backside of, well, Uranus. Or as it was sensibly renamed, Urectum. For every Lois McMaster Bujold, churning out epics of delightful space battley goodness, there's a C.J. Cherryh lurking to make me want to bash these books against my brain at the indignity of reading literally THOUSANDS of pointless, turgid, tedious pages.
(Just a little tip: do not clone a rapist just because she was a smart old bird. There, I've just saved you reading Cyteen.)
So, I've got 8 more to go. AND two of them are Neil Gaiman! Goody goody goody goody...