Review of by “Not Pounded by Romance Wranglers of America: The Endless Cosmic Void” by Chuck Tingle

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Since the meltdown of the Romance Writers of America over racism charges is trending, I should probably take this opportunity to make another comment on author bullying. No surprise; I’ve been beaten to the punch by the ever-ready Chuck Tingle, so I’ll preface my remarks with a review of his story. His newest release is now available on Amazon, adding to a fairly extensive bibliography. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Chuck Tingle, he normally writes witty porn and crashed into prominence with a Hugo nomination in 2016 for Space Raptor Butt Invasion, a novel about an over-sexed dinosaur and an exotic dancer. Tingle seemed to be thrilled by his Hugo nomination and responded with Slammed in the Butt by My Hugo Award Nomination. Lately he seems to be leaning to satire and has produced several non-sexual adventures. As part of the promotion for this e-book release, Tingle put up a website for Romance Wranglers of America.

Gorblin Crimble has been writing romance novels with some success, but he’s starting to feel burned out. For support in getting through his next novel, he joins a local writers’ group. The first meeting goes well, and Gorblin makes friends with Amber, who suggests he should also apply to the larger romance writers’ organization Romance Wranglers of America. Their headquarters is only a short distance away, and Amber drives Gorblin there in her car. On the way, the two of them bond and start to wonder if they might be characters in a Chuck Tingle story. On arriving at the headquarters, they see a humanoid dinosaur stumbling away from the building, covered with a yukky tar-like substance. The building itself looks to have been infected with a black, cancerous growth that sticks out of huge cracks in the façade. It breathes softly like a horrific, living thing; pools of black ooze drip onto the sidewalk, and the whole place stinks like burning. They are greeted by a man named Demon, who explains the black ooze is a “remodel” project. Can Gorblin and Amber escape before they become infected?

Okay, so Tingle makes his points with a sledgehammer. This doesn’t have a lot of depth, characterization or world-building, but its strong points are timing and social commentary. Gorblin and Amber are both nice people, as are the other writers in the small group. They write about love and relationships. They’re very welcoming, and some are even fans of Gorblin’s work. However, on a greater scale, the Wranglers are tarred black and oozing cancerous sludge. They’re administered by a demon, and it smells like the place is burning down.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Shadow Heart by Rawle Nyanzi

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This novella is young adult superhero and mecha-based military alternate history scifi/fantasy, and it’s more specifically billed as Shining Tomorrow Volume 1: Shadow Heart, meaning it’s a series the author expects to continue. It a quick read, is self-published, and runs about 200 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Irma is a heavily-indoctrinated high school girl who lives in the North American Federation, a territory under the control of the Japanese government since the Central Powers win World War I. Irma is very aware of modesty, responsibility and community obligations. She is respected as non-violent because she is involved in a YELOW (Young Elegant Ladies of the West) organization that carries out civic projects to benefit the disadvantaged. When her superhero friend Virginia is captured by the evil combat mech manufacturer Shadow Heart, Irma wants to do something about it, but she is limited by her own sexist cultural expectations about her role as a woman and how this relates to violence and initiative. But, Irma is also heir to a powerful Valkyrie superhero tradition. As a final battle looms, how can Irma reconcile being a superhero with what she’s always believed about herself?

This is a fairly free-wheeling and creative story, featuring a mash-up of cultural and fictional tropes, including superheroes and villain white supremacists, all thrown together in an action story with a slight tongue-in-cheek tone that suggests satire. You can tell the author really enjoys popular culture, especially Japanese-based Manga. But Nyanzi also has a feel for underlying philosophical questions. Where stories from Asian women often seem to be about rebelling against family and societal controls in Asian tradition, the author here looks at the internal inhibitions implanted by culture and how hard it can be to overcome these restrictions and change behavior. Even as Irma makes a decision to claim her birthright and act against Shadow Heart, she knows she has to walk a thin line in order to remain acceptable to both herself and her community.

On the not so positive side, a lot of this will be lost on readers who aren’t familiar with Manga, mecha or Japanese culture. The tone and free-wheeling action approach mean the story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the characters tend to be fairly stereotypical. The philosophical questions in the subtext are subtle, and may not be picked up or appreciated by action readers. However, all this doesn’t mean that it’s not fun and different to read.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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This is a sort-of science fiction novel and a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga in April 2018 and runs about 304 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Has-been glam rocker Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet, the only musician left of the Absolute Zeros, are approached to perform in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a song contest that’s open to any alien race—with a little catch. Species that come in last at their first contest are pronounced non-sentient “meat” and eradicated from existence. Can Dess and Oort overcome self-doubt and competitor sabotage to rescue humankind from extermination?

This seems to be satirical absurdist humor. It rocks along at a reasonably fast pace with a lead in that gives us the history of the Sentience Wars, with the competition, like the Eurovision Contest, launched as a way to move forward in a more civilized fashion. The satirical part seems to be about racism. Or maybe the music business. Or maybe both? High points: Aliens decide against evaluating Earth’s house cats as a sentient species. Dess’ lost love Mira Wonderful Star asks him to marry her. The immigrant Oort works hard at being normal to escape police interest and eventually rescues humanity with a Christmas carol. Also on the positive side, Valente gets a lot of credit for keeping a narrative like this going for 300 plus pages.

On the not so positive side, this won’t be everyone’s piece of cake. It has minimal plot and most of it is complete nonsense about non-existent, not-especially-believable alien species doing weird things and making weird music. Because of the absurdist quality, I didn’t connect with the characters well. The ending was clearly foreshadowed, so didn’t surprise me.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

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This is the second movie of this series, a sequel to Wreck-it Ralph (2012). It was directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, and opened on November 21, 2018. It stars the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Ed O’Neill, Gal Godot, Taraji P. Henson and Alfred Molina. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature for both the Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe Awards. For anyone who is confused by the scenario, Ralph and Vanellope are characters from obsolete arcade video games. This review contains spoilers.

Wreck-it Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz live in neighboring games at Litwak’s Family Fun Center and Arcade. After the previous film where Ralph tries too hard to become a hero, Ralph and Vanellope become best friends. However, Vanellope is bored with her racing game. Ralph tries to help out with a bonus track and Vanellope is thrilled, but the diversion results in a broken steering wheel on her game’s cabinet. The part only seems to be available on Ebay, so the two of them take advantage of new wi-fi in the arcade to infiltrate the Internet in search of the part. As ingénues, they accidentally bid up the price, but win the auction, then have to raise the money to pay for it. After a couple of false starts, they find Yesss, an algorithm for BuzzTube, who helps Ralph make a lot of money from silly videos. Meanwhile, Vanellope finds friends among the princesses at the Disney site and is attracted by hazards in the game Slaughter Race, where she meets champion driver Shank. Horrified that Vanellope might leave him, Ralph looks for help in damaging Slaughter Race. Spamley introduces Ralph to Double Dan, who gives him an insecurity virus that will replicate flaws. The virus replicates Vanellope’s glitch and forces Slaughter Race to reboot, which will delete Vanellope. Can Ralph save the day? Can he keep Vanellope as his friend? What will happen if he can’t?

This is one of those wonderful kids animations that works on multiple levels. There are the bright, colorful characters for the little kids and important, serious themes for older ones. In addition, this seems to be light satire. The serious themes here are about the importance of friendship, about letting your friends grow and follow their own paths, and how your insecurities and need can sabotage relationships when you double down and don’t let them grow. The animators’ vision of the Internet as a huge, busy city with blue twittery songbirds is clever and entertaining—Disney must have recouped their costs just from the product placements alone. The sequence where Vanellope realizes she’s a real Disney princess that needs her own song is both ironic and priceless. Then Ralph makes the right decision at the end and everybody grows up a little bit.

I really couldn’t find any negatives in this. It was cute and heartwarming, and carries a great message. Awww.

Don’t miss the post-credits scene with the rabbit. Five stars.

Review of Deadpool 2

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This Marvel superhero film is the second in the series, following Deadpool (2016). It’s directed by David Leitch and stars Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison and Morena Baccarin. It was released into theaters 18 May 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Since the events of the last film, Deadpool (a.k.a. Wade Wilson) has been touring the world, fighting ninjas, yakuza, and whoever else, looking for what meaning might be left in his life. He loses his girlfriend. He tries a stint as an X-man trainee, but it doesn’t work out. However, as a result of this, he ends up becoming the hero of a young boy with dangerous supernatural abilities. He tries to reject this role, but eventually brings together an X-Force team to rescue the boy from the evil, time-traveling cyborg Cable. Can he pull this off? Can he get his girlfriend back? Can he fix Ryan Reynolds’career mistakes?

We have to wait a while to get to the heart of this film, while Wade searches around for the theme. However, once he’s focused on doing the right thing, then we can get on with the plot. The remaining space is taken up with social commentary and jokes that make this pretty much a satire of superhero franchises. The gags go by fast, so pay attention.

The movie did get criticism for the “fridging” of Wade’s girlfriend Vanessa. For anyone who’s not familiar with the term, it refers to threatening, injuring or killing a superhero’s girlfriend to provide motive for the plot. That leaves the woman with a very limited role. Writers and producers agreed they had engaged in this gimmick, and suggested fridging Deadpool in a different movie. Turn about.

This film is all highly creative, of course, and the writing/directing crew doesn’t really care that they pierce the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. They’re also testing a few boundaries as far as offensiveness goes. I see that Ryan Reynolds is listed on the writing team this time, so I’m wondering how much he has to do with the comedy and commentary. He’s certainly found his niche as the bad guy anti-superhero. Although this film isn’t as impressive as the first one, it carries on the tradition well enough. His X-Force team turns out to be surprisingly attractive, too, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them.

One other thing that merits mention is the choreography and gymnastics stunts in these films. There was only one instance of the gymnastics here, but same as the last film, it was breathtaking air ballet from a real person. Well, okay—I just like gorgeous stunts.

Four stars.

Review of Autonomous by Analee Newitz

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction, published by Tor and runs 301 pages. This review includes spoilers.

Jack is a subversive. She started her career as a student opposing a pharmaceutical system that produces cures and lifestyle drugs for the wealthy at the expense of the poor. She ended up serving a term in prison when a protest went wrong, worked for a while in a lab that produced open source drugs and then drifted into piracy to fund her own research. Jack reverse engineers a recently released drug and finds that people are dying from her sales. Worse, IPC agents are now hot on her trail, specifically the violent and ruthless Eliasz and his robot partner Paladin. The two of them seem perfectly willing to cripple or kill all Jack’s friends and colleagues to get to her. Can Jack produce an anecdote to the dangerous drug she counterfitted? Can she escape with her life? Can Eliasz and Paladin find happiness with each other?

So, this is a pretty complex novel. First, although I’m not that great at identifying the fine points of political ideologies, I expect the subversives are anarchists. The pharmaceutical system sounds oddly familiar, something we might find in the US capitalist system, for example, and the notion that there should be no intellectual property rights isn’t exactly libertarian. In opposition, presumably the IPC agents are fascist.

Second, I also suspect there’s some meaning in the particular drug that Jack pirates. It’s a productivity enhancer that gives people pleasure in their work. Uncontrolled, as Jack has issued it, this produces a deadly addiction that causes people to work themselves to death. This also sounds familiar in the current landscape, where some states and countries are now passing laws that provide workers a right to work-life balance and freedom from the expectation they will always remain on call. Once Jack breaks the addiction, the people in the novel find they don’t really like to work at all.

Third, there is a subplot related to slavery. Jack picks up an indentured kid called Threezed (from the number branded on his neck) after she kills his master. The laws allowing humans to become indentured in this world parallel laws allowing the indenture of robots. As we follow Theezed’s experiences, it becomes clear this is a system for human trafficking, especially of disadvantaged children, with shades of student debt. Again, it’s impossible not to draw parallels with our own society. And, of course, the intelligent and self-aware Paladin is also enslaved and trafficked, a more obvious parallel.

Last, the relationship between Eliasz and Paladin comes across like some kind of weird Stockholm syndrome. Paladin is a hulking military model, with a human brain in its belly and gun ports in its chest. I wasn’t surprised that the violent Eliasz got off on this, but he mutters about not being a “faggot.” When he finds out Paladin’s brain is donated by a human woman, the relationship blooms, and he suggests that the genderless Paladin should choose to be female. In the end, the two of them run away together to find a new life on Mars.

The subversive counter culture that Newitz presents as challenging the pharmaceutical industry with open source drugs is initially attractive, except that the kids and researchers involved seem to be addicted to drugs the same as everyone else. I can’t trust any of them because I suspect they’re doped up and driven by the system. All efforts will come to naught, of course, because Big Pharma has such a stranglehold on the political system. Next, there’s the issue of intellectual property. For example, Newitz’s copyright on the novel is intellectual property, right? And then, there’s that thing with Paladin and Eliasz. So, this is satire.

Newitz is actually making fun of all these things? That’s refreshing. But it’s fairly complex fiction, of course, so probably there’s not that much risk that people will take offense at her treatment of trans robots.

Not so good points: The novel is intellectually very interesting and the characters are reasonably well-developed, but the larger world setting, including the political and economic sphere, is not well defined. There are a few points, suspiciously symbolic, which are not well supported. Also, the prose here is on the dry and matter-of-fact side. If there was supposed to be a hook, I couldn’t find it. Because of these issues, I had a really hard time getting started. I suspect the book would be a lot more readable with a different rendition.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Ghost (Paladin of Shadows 1) by John Ringo

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Recently author John Ringo was bullied out of a special guest spot at ConCarolinas 2018, apparently on the basis of his Ghost series. This is a troubling development, as many of his attackers cited the sexual fantasies in his work as a reason they didn’t feel “safe” with him at the con. This year an explicit sexual fantasy is a legitimate finalist on the Nebula ballot, and 50 Shades of Grey is on the average gal’s reading list, so complaints about sexual fantasies are a little hard to fathom. However, this turns out to be a more complex issue than I first thought. It sort of deserves a conversation.

There are three novellas in the book Ghost, all with the theme of white slavery. The first one looks like satire, the second is pretty straight-forward S&M erotica and the last looks to be another possible satire on prostitutes and human trafficking. I can see why this has tightened a lot of people up. It’s definitely transgressive fiction. It’s disturbing, and the social commentary is wrapped up with erotica so it’s hard to separate the two. Regardless, I think they need to be separated. Just because someone writes about “rape fantasies” doesn’t mean they’re dangerous. If they are, then we need to be questioning whether E. L. James should appear at cons, too.

Novella 1: Winter Born
Retired Navy SEAL Mike Harmon is going to college on the GI Bill. As he’s headed home from class, he sees a girl get kidnapped. Without thinking, he grabs onto the van and hitches a ride. He rescues two girls and finds enough information to catch a plane leaving the airport with a “shipment” of more girls. He stows away and ends up at a base in the Middle East where terrorists are planning to torture the girls to death and stream the video on the internet. Mike has managed to contact Special Ops, but it will be hours before a rescue mission can get there. The terrorists have already started their torture. Mike quotes “rough men stand ready” (incorrectly attributed) and goes to work. Can he get to the (naked) girls and organize them to hold off the terrorists until rescue arrives? Can he get a good lay out of it?

Novella 2: Thunder Island
Mike gets a monetary reward for his work on the rescue, and decides to contract out his services a la Travis McGee. He buys a nice boat to live on and takes up fishing. When spring break rolls around, he picks up two girls and takes them out on the boat. They later take him up on an offer to cruise to the Bahamas, and turn out to be interested in S&M sex. Because they’re going out of US waters, Mike has them call their parents for copies of their birth certificates and to get permission for the S&M part. They have a great time on the boat, but then Mike gets a call about a nuclear weapon in Bahamian waters. Can he deal with it?

Novella 3: On the Darkside
Mike is in Eastern Europe where he’s apparently on a tour of brothels. An older hooker offers to sell him a nuclear weapon. He expresses his interest, but finds the old warhead has already been sold. Mike reaches his contact in the US and sets out to find the weapon. Chartering a jet, he heads to Bosnia, where he hangs around the slave market (which the US government pretends not to see) until he finds the van the weapon was transported in. The weapon is gone, so Mike books a whore for that night and treats her poorly, but she’s okay with it after he gives her a big tip. Mike looks at opportunities and decides the weapon is most likely going to be deployed in Paris during the Pope’s scheduled visit. He decides to buy the girl and takes her with him to Paris. Can he stop the nuke from going off? Will the girl be able to find a sugar daddy?

First, I’m impressed with the quality of Ringo’s writing. The basic Ghost stories are entertaining and character-driven, and you can tell the author likes strong women characters. He’s created a very appealing main character. Plus, he’s created some pretty decent satire, even if he has made his points with a sledge hammer.

My main concern with these novellas is that Ringo has had his appealing main character think a lot of politically incorrect stuff and act illegally in at least three instances (aside from killing a bunch of terrorists), which isn’t something I think you want to put out there without discussing consequences. This is something that kids have trouble with already, and I can see this kind of issue could create the reaction Ringo got recently about guesting at ConCarolinas. The first illegal act was battery on an unconscious woman; the second was serving alcohol to minors, and the third was buying a slave. A couple of these were part of the set up for his social messages, but the alcohol is really questionable. Aside from that, these are highly sexualized stories.

The book was published in 2005, and I’m a little surprised that Baen let this go through, but you can never tell when a #MeToo movement is going to come along and create a backlash. Unfortunately, you can’t unpublish something so Ringo is stuck with it. I looked up an interview he did about the book, which called this a “controversial stance” and he said he thinks it represents the viewpoint of his core audience.

Hm. As a counter to political correctness, I can buy that, but is he encouraging his fans to do illegal stuff? Is he complaining about the basis for the laws? Will fans read this and think it’s a fun fantasy, or will some of them take it as a serious primer on how to behave towards other people? Most readers are going to miss the satire. Will what he’s written encourage sexual violence? Mass murder?

Comments about it?

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