Words Come From the Stars
I LOST MY DADDY IN THE REVOLUTION. My name is Julia. I am twelve years old. I got my first period last week, the same week of the bombing. There was a lot of blood.
So begins ”Julia, Skydaughter,” a novella by Robin Wyatt Dunn. Do not mistake this for a Young Adult story. Julia is forced to grow up fast in a hybrid world in which cyberspace is as real as outer space but a primitive theocracy represses her people. Her voice ranges from simple and direct to mysterious, much too old for her years (as a consequence of war), and erudite.
Her name isn’t really Julia, but her Arabic name is a secret. She has lots of secrets. Like, what is she hiding under that black burqa with Batman wings? You won’t guess by looking at the cover, but do look at it. Artist Barbara Sobczyńska’s rendering of the skydaughter is riveting. What a burqa, what a girl, and what a creature she is riding!
Underneath that burqa, futuristic satellite communications link her to an orbiting AI named Robin, a tribute to Julia’s god. Never mind what the state religion teaches. “I pray to my god,” she says, “Bob Kane, inventor of Batman, some crazy white guy in the the 20th century who gave me my awesome wings glued onto the back of my burqa.” This Arabic girl is as irreverent as she is brave: “My code name is River Delta. Which is appropriate, since I’m a woman now. And all women are deltas between their thighs.”
She has transmitters in her skull, a radio in her hand, and AI software strapped over her breasts. How will she evade the checkpoint scanner?
Julia is on a mission to liberate her people from a misogynistic priesthood run by a Secret Emperor who defeated invading space aliens. The world building here is not very explicit, and the story is hard to follow, but the girl’s point of view is compelling: “I remember when my Daddy first told me the story, when he showed me the pictures: real aliens, underground. Frozen in time. Their eyes were huge, like dinner plates. Like cybernetic armor in the comic books, shiny and silver and curved.” Digging a tunnel for supplies, “our fighters found the Foo fighter.”
But don’t hold your breath waiting to hear more about the aliens or if any of them survived their visit to Earth. Julia has other things on her mind right now, like her mother crying because they’ve lost Daddy, and now Julia is involved in the revolution—“But how are men supposed to succeed by themselves?” Julie thinks. “We are one flesh.”
At this point I backed up to page one, which began in the very simple cadence of a pre-teen, and found the answer to how she sounds so worldly and wise: “This story is being posted on the Net, from our ship,” she tells us. “I’m writing it so you know what happened. So you know what we found.”
An older Julia, not the twelve-year-old, is narrating, and she doesn’t sound happy about it. “I never knew that war could be so beautiful, or that it could hurt this much. A lot of times I want to kill people like you, people who just read about it on the Net. But other times I remember why I’m writing this story.”
How to get through the checkpoint is her first challenge, and focus becomes her religion: Focus. Focus. Focus. “I don’t know if you know this,” she tells us in the next breath, “but poets have long been killed by kings and emperors here in the Middle East.”
To me, that’s hilarious. If I need to explain why it cracks me up (hint: it’s not because killing poets is funny), you probably enjoy crude humor and slapstick while I generally do not. “Guardians of the Galaxy” failed to amuse me, though millions called it the best (and funniest) film of the year.
Dunn’s novella is a cerebral adventure, like nothing else I’ve read, except perhaps his short story “Dreamboat” (“Perihelion,” July, 2015), in which a hero named Robin directly addresses the reader: “I’m sorry. I realize that you on Earth have probably been reading a lot of propaganda, and that if you read this at all (and it’s actually uncensored) that you probably just figure I’m nuts. I know you’re probably still used to stories of brave astronauts nuking cockroach-shaped aliens into the Stone Age and stuff.”
Rarely is the “and stuff” as unorthodox, quirky, and thought-provoking as Dunn’s fiction. On the one hand, I get frustrated with experimental prose that makes me work extra hard at reading comprehension, but on the other hand, I’m one of the loudest complainers about formula fiction that is predictable, flat and pedestrian. Familiar is good for those who want easy reading. This is, in fact, a fast and entertaining read, unless you’re like me and stop to re-read passages, not just for clarity and comprehension, but because poetic prose often causes me revisit the same words for the sheer pleasure of it. This is a quick novella, if you want it to be, but it can also be a heady stroll through a garden filled with too many wonders to take in at once.
I love Julia’s asides: “Geometry is a beautiful logic in part because it is the language of Nature: angle resting on angle, planet to star. It is also the structure of radio transmissions: the invisible world is structured by lines of force that obey geometric laws.” If this doesn’t sound like something a burqa girl would be thinking, who are we to judge what should or shouldn’t be on her mind?
This twelve-year-old has a remarkable intellect, and she uses it to get deep into the temple. The only part I’ll share is that she offers a stranger, a boy named Hamid, a few coins get her through the gates. He risks his life and poses as a eunuch for a dangerous girl? #Gotta love Hamid!
An artist with nanobots in the bristles of his brush paints an extraordinary portrait of Julia. A man with an electric beard that shoots blue fire captures her and straps her to a table, demanding to know what she knows that he doesn’t, starting with how she made it through the gate. I will not tell how she gets out of this situation, but she has time to remember her father, who made armor in the village Factory for a woman leader known as Pharaoh. “The sounds of angry metal curving and twisting in the heat, and the buzz of quantum fields being embedded in Kevlar are my first memories of that place,” she says. How cool is that?
You know she’s going to escape Electric Beard, but you don’t know how. A flock of flying camels who need to oil their wings is just one of many mind-blowing aspects of this adventure.
The asides keep coming even while Julia realizes her village is likely being burned. “The priests say women are meant to serve because God said so. They say women are a man’s property because God said so. They say women are evil, the servant of Satan. They say our menstrual blood is a pollution. They say our breasts nourish serpents. (But they can ... that’s what the Sphinx is ... )” The camels are tired, the priests are saying that Pharaoh is actually “a simulation, just a computer program,” but Julia once met Pharoah in the flesh, so she doesn’t believe it.
Who does she believe? Who can she trust?
The state religion of this unnamed Arab emirate is one of many reasons Islamic computer hackers are fighting this repression, and Julia will play whatever role she must, even riding a giant dung-beetle robot. These beetles are armed with the latest anti-personnel weaponry, yet are also part of “an ancient religious symbology” and folk ritual. “She shall lead them on the back of a beetle, goes the ancient folktale, and who am I to argue?” she says.
I’m not going to try to summarize what happens next. I won’t even pretend to understand the quantum vastness and delicate maneuvers of Julia and the “dirty terrorists” who know that “the boundary markers of quantum events, like the ancient stone boundary markers of the Canaanites ... are subject to interpretation, meditation, keys in locks,” and Aamina’s job is to watch a glowing screen, just watch, “without her observation affecting the system” and so keep the lid on Schrodinger’s cat. “That’s a good kitty.” And before we know it, “The Scorpion Man” introduces Julia to the Little Grey Aliens, and Julia exhorts the reader, believe “everything happened exactly the way I am telling it.” Even the part where a starship mutates over a burning city, and Julia is “transmuted quark over quark into the interior of this starship.”
The Romans were familiar with dark matter, she says, and “Aeschylus was almost murdered for revealing what I am telling you: that words come from stars. They are a carrier wave of information and reality. They are not idle farts in the air.” Sorry, Julia, I can’t say that I ever thought they were, “nor even merely storeholds of myth and wonder, though they are all of those things.”
Words, whatever in fact they are, are like myriad Legos in the hands of this imaginative and playful author who has great fun putting them together.
“This is only a beginning, though the end of this part of this narrative,” Julia tells us. “Likely I will not be allowed to tell the next part of my journey, out from Earth, to Foo’s country.”
If that sounds like a door leading to a Book Two, stick around for the epilogue. Ten years have passed. Julia brings her story to a surprising, poignant, yet hope-filled conclusion.
It actually gave me goose bumps.
And so, regardless of whatever “flaws” this novella may have, I will proclaim “Five Stars!” just for the gentle beauty of Julia’s parting words. A must-read for every science-fiction fan who’s tired of familiar formulas and prefers the “speculative” to the “shoot ’em up with lasers” aspect of this genre. (“Julia, Skydaughter,” Robin Wyatt Dunn, John Ott) —Carol Kean
Framing Other Worlds
HOW MANY METROPOLITAN ART MUSEUMS have exhibited a collection of original works by science fiction and fantasy artists?
“Star Wars” may be the brain child of George Lucas, but can you name the artist who created the iconic look of Darth Vader, C-3PO, the Stormtroopers, the Death Star, the desert landscape of Tatooine, and more?
Beautiful, color-plated hardcover books do celebrate the artistry of “illustrators,” who are so much more than some hireling who knows graphic arts. Posters and prints sometimes bring their names to light. All too often, though, these visionaries are anonymous, compared to the author whose words they illustrate, especially in science fiction and comic books. (Who draws Wonder Woman?) We should know the artists who visualize the extraordinary characters, alien landscapes, futuristic weaponry, and starry heavens of science fiction and fantasy.
Apparently The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (CRMA) in Iowa may be the first gallery anywhere to exhibit the work of these undervalued artists and illustrators.
“We looked,” says Executive Director Sean Ulmer, ”but we couldn’t find where anyone else had done this.”
“Science fiction is really something that doesn’t appear in art museums,” Associate Curator Kate Kunau adds. “The closest thing was in London in 2011.”
The London show was at The British Library, not at an art museum. While CRMA is displaying original artwork by science fiction and fantasy artists, the London show was like “a particularly well-curated bookshop, in which none of the books were for sale,” said reviewer Peter Watts of the U.K. The show did include a full-size Tardis, some globes of the moon made in 1797, a model of an alien machine from “The War of the Worlds,” cartoons by William Heath, the sheet music for “Doctor Who,” and some manuscripts and first drafts.
CRMA ‘s “Out of This World” exhibit celebrates the 40th anniversary of ICON, Iowa’s longest-running science fiction convention, held every year since 1975 in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area. Dennis Lynch, a committee member who has attended all forty ICONs, proposed a collaboration with CRMA to showcase the guest-of-honor artists who have presented at ICON since 1986. Ulmer and Kunau embraced the idea of exposing the Museum’s regular audience to an under-represented art form.
Ten of the twenty-eight artists responded. “Out of This World” includes Lucy A. Synk, Denise Garner, John Garner, Jael, Ralph J. Ryan, Steve Thomas, Mike Cole, Joe Haldeman, Sarah Clemens, and Phil Hester (penciler) along with Eric Gapstur, Kim DeMulder, and Ande Parks (inker).
The ICON40 anniversary coincides with the imminent publication of 26-year-old Iowa City artist Ryan Bentzinger’s magnum opus, “nAMUH,” making a dual exhibit serendipitous. For three years, Bentzinger has been working on his graphic science fiction book, illustrating it with vibrant watercolors. He has taken an almost-cinematic approach to “nAMUH” (human spelled backwards).
Coincidentally, Cedar Rapids shares a stretch of culture and industry known as “The Corridor” with Iowa City, which is one of only three cities on Earth designated as a City of Literature by UNESCO—Edinburgh and Melbourne being the other two. The University of Iowa is where Bentzinger began working on “nAMUH.”
“Ryan Bentzinger: nAMUH” is a solo exhibition, open until January 3, 2016. With seventy-four original watercolors framed and spread across the walls of two large galleries, viewers can walk from page to page to read the prologue and first chapter. Each painting tells a page of the story, sometimes with the addition of a few words of dialogue. The gruesome-yet-endearing characters live in a post-apocalyptic world with killer robots, a mind-reading hero named Stray, and a cast of colorful characters that live, as real as a human family, in the mind of the artist.
The upstairs gallery of CRMA showcases other ICON guest-of-honor artists. The works are impressive, varied, and fun to behold. Shipping and handling costs were donated by the Mindbridge Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation responsible for ICON, AnimeIowa, and Gamicon. From dragons to “Star Wars,” futuristic travel posters to other planets, and mystical lions to superheroes, the exhibition celebrates both a unique art form along with the annual convention for its fans and practitioners.
My personal favorite is Steve Thomas’ “Venus by Air,” in part because I collect vintage ad art. Inspired by 1950s era travel posters, Thomas has created a line of posters advertising for flights to Mars, Venus, and faraway places with strange-sounding names (as the old song goes). Thomas had eleven original posters about space travel in the “The Future of Travel,” a show at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport earlier this year.
[Right, Steve Thomas, Venus, 2005, digital print, 22 x 14 inches, on loan to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, courtesy of the artist. L2015.355.]
“The Future of Travel” also happens to be the first physical exhibit for the world’s first comprehensive science fiction museum, The Museum of Science Fiction, hopefully to open in Washington, D.C., in early 2017.
Kalli McCandless was an ICON40 Artist Guest of Honor, too, but her canvas is herself, so CRMA couldn’t display her. Cosplay is her specialty. A graduate of Santa Barbara City College Cosmetology Academy, now working at Bumzigana, she does incredible things with make-up, hair, and costumes. Seeing her at the convention was like seeing an impossibly gorgeous character from a space opera come to life and walk among us ordinary Earthlings. Her Facebook page shows some of her work, including the character named Castithan from the “Defiance” TV series.
ICON40’s “we can frame this” Artist Guest of Honor was Sarah Clemens, who works in a photorealistic style, mostly in oils. She has exhibited and won national awards at the Seattle Erotic Art Festival, and her erotic paintings are published in Volumes 2 and 3 of “The World’s Greatest Erotic Art of Today.” Her award-winning paintings of Magnus & Loki, cat and dragon companions, sell fast at ICON’s annual vendor room. In fact, I bought a Magnus & Loki print in 2013, the year Joe Haldeman, aka “Papa ICON,” was the Artist Guest of Honor.
Papa ICON? Indeed. The Iowa Convention was a branching off of the Science Fiction League of Iowa Students, founded by Joe Haldeman, winner of the Hugo, the Nebula, and other awards.
“In bigger cities you would stand in line for hours to meet these authors,” says Dana Beatty, ICON committee member. “Here in Cedar Rapids, you can sit down and talk with them face-to-face.”
Frank Herbert was ICON’s first author guest of honor in 1975. Since then the roster has included: Joe Haldeman, Poul Anderson, Frederik Pohl (1989); Cory Doctorow, Charles de Lint (1998); Nancy Kress, Jack Skillingstead, Harry Turtledove, Phyllis Eisenstein, Gregory Frost, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch (2014); David Gerrold and Ann Leckie (2015).
The convention also features a cosplay parade, a masquerade party and dance with live music by the Celtic group Wylde Nept (you can count on them year after year), science and technology demonstrations, gaming events, student writing workshops, and panels led by any of a dozen or more best-selling authors.
This year, an antique mimeograph machine along with volunteers and librarians from the University of Iowa Special Collections department was one of the most popular features ever. Conventioneers could type stories on old manual typewriters or bring in original line drawings, and by the end of the weekend, stacks of mimeographed pages (ah, the scent of wet, blue ink!) were ready to be assembled, collated and distributed.
In case you didn’t already know or Googled it:
Ralph McQuarrie (1929-2012), a onetime technical artist for Boeing, was the conceptual designer and illustrator Lucas hired in 1974 to create the look so familiar to us as “Star Wars.” McQuarrie liked the concept for the unsold script, but didn’t believe Lucas’s space fantasy would ever become a movie. However, his artwork helped persuade 20th Century Fox to green light the film. (Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times, March 06, 2012.)
McQuarrie never dreamed his “Star Wars” paintings would take on a life of their own as T-shirts, toys, and other merchandise well into the next millennium, but the characters and their universe are as real to their fans as if the desert that Luke Skywalker grew up in was here on Earth, not a galaxy long, long ago and far, far away.
And that’s what science fiction and fantasy does for us, whether the artistry is accomplished with words or hand-drawn images. Iowa’s CRMA exhibition is devoted not just to the ways writers have imagined the future, but illustrators and artists as well. ( “Out of This World: Science Fiction and Fantasy Art,” Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Oct. 3, 2015—Jan. 17, 2016) —Carol Kean
Bring Him Home Alive
BOOKS AND MOVIES TEND to spawn all sorts of other media, be it tee-shirts and toys to more books, movies, or even TV shows or video games. Basing video games off of books or movies typically doesn’t go well. We are engaged in the original media to see how the characters react; with video games we control these characters and decide for them. Taking a franchise like “Star Wars” and developing one of the thousands of possible side stories into a video game is one thing. There is enough action and mystery to make any number of different types of games. But what if the source material is Andy Weir’s “The Martian?” Making a game out of a story like this could prove interesting ... or disastrous.
Most people are familiar with the story of “The Martian,” either from the book or the movie. But I’ll offer a quick recap for those of you new to the plot. In the near future, humans have finally made it to Mars and have set up a temporary base; they've dubbed it the Hab. A raging storm hits the Hab and, in the chaos, one of the crew, Mark Watney, the botanist, is injured and believed dead. The rest of the crew has no choice but to leave Mars and Watney behind.
Time passes as the crew makes the slow journey home to Earth. Watney survived the storm, but his biometer was destroyed, giving the impression that he perished. Fortunately, Watney is able to make contact with NASA; by then the crew is too far out to turn back and get him.
In the video game version of “The Martian,” players take on the role of the contact at NASA. It is the player's job to give Watney advice on what choices he should make and answer the questions he has about keeping the Hab running. But if you give him bad advice he could end up dead.
“The Martian” video game is a text-based game that is extremely similar to the “Lifeline” game we reviewed a few months ago. So much so it felt almost as if that plotline had been pasted over this one. “Lifeline” had more mystery, and possible alien encounters. This game provides texts to the player in real-time; the answers given to Watney help him decide on the next step he takes. The real-time element adds a level of realism but it can be annoying when Watney is on a different sleep cycle, for example, and sleeps during the day when you have some extra time and want to play.
One way the game differs from “Lifeline” is that you are not only in contact with the protagonist. You also get emails from NASA that contain visuals, advice, and information to helps you make wiser decisions. This makes the game a bit easier, as there is no need to look up everything to insure sure you don't give advice that might kill Watney. On the other hand, there is less chance to learn anything when the answers are just given to you.
The game is oddly sarcastic, with plenty of bad jokes. With all the money the book and the movie pulled in, one would think that the game developers might have spent a bit more on hiring better dialogue writers. I don't think I laughed at one of the jokes Watney told; they were very similar in tone and content to the jokes from “Lifeline.”
Overall, “The Martian” is not the worst way to spend $2.99. If you are a fan of the book and/or movie, and want to take a stab at helping out Mark Watney, here is your chance. You can play on most mobile devices. You may want to turn notifications off, as you can be overwhelmed with them in just a short period of time. The major drawback is that this is a text-based game, and relies heavily on imagination. But once you watch the film or read the book, you'll have a mental image of the cast and the game won't have the same effect as if it was all new. Although the emails from NASA give you visuals that interrupt the monotony, the same rule applies. You don't need your imagination drawing you a map when you are handed one.
Whether it was an honest attempt to continue the story, or a cheap money grab based off the popularity of the source material, the game falls a little flat. If you are a super fan of the book and/or movie, or never played a text-based game before, give it a whirl. Everyone else should pass. (“The Martian: Bring Him Home,” Little Labs, Inc., Apple, Android) —Adam Armstrong