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Be My Enemy: triumphant sequel to Planesrunner


Today marks the publication of Be My Enemy, the absolutely triumphant sequel to Ian McDonald's pulse-pounding young-adult science fiction novel Planesrunner.

Planesrunner -- a rollicking, multidimensional tale of a young boy who holds the key to infinite universes, seeking to rescue his physicist father from sinister powers -- finished on a brutal cliffhanger, leaving its readers gasping and cursing for more. Now we have it.

In Enemy, there's a lot more of what made Planesrunner great -- tremendous action scenes, cunning escapes, genius attacks on the ways that multidimensional travel might be weaponized, horrific glimpses of shadowy powers and sinister technologies.

But Enemy also has more of what makes McDonald's adult fiction some of the best work I've ever read: a gifted ear for poesie that makes the English language sing, the unapologetic presumption of the reader's ability to understand what's going on without a lot of hand-holding, and a technological mysticism that never explicitly says when the literal stops and the fantasy starts.

In Enemy, Everett, the young hero of Planesrunner, is confronted with multiple versions of himself from different worlds, all facing different versions of his crisis, and some not on his side. McDonald's handling of this is deft, going beyond the good Spock/evil Spock cliches and showing us how two "good" kids could start as multidimensional twins and end as mortal enemies.

If you held off on reading Planesrunner because you didn't want to commit to a series without knowing if the author could keep up the quality, have no fear. McDonald has proven himself handily. And if you read Planesrunner like me and have been slavering for the sequel ever since, rejoice -- the time is at hand!

Here are the first five chapters, courtesy of the kind folks at Pyr!

Be My Enemy

Strange superhero Flaming Carrot goes digital

The 1980s had many surreal and outré comic-book stars. I recall particularly following The Tick, Concrete, and Nexus. They were respectively a nigh-invulnerable, possibly mentally ill superhero with a chubby accountant sidekick in a moth-themed flying suit; a writer whose brain was transplanted by aliens (themselves possibly escaped slaves) into a nearly invulnerable rock-like body often performing missions of mercy; and a man (later others, including men, women, and children) picked by a nearly omnipotent being residing in the center of a planet to atone the genocide of his father by being forced to be an almost indestructible and thoroughly powerful superhero, lest he face disabling pain.

You catch the theme here, right? Omnipotence, invulnerability, superhero—all but the Tick reluctant. Into that mix, Flaming Carrot was something altogether different.

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Legends of Zita the Space Girl: a worthy followup to the most excellent kids' science fiction graphic novel

Back in June, I reviewed the delightful science fiction kids' comic Zita the Spacegirl and mentioned that the sequel would be out in September. That sequel, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, comes out today, and is a most worthy follow-on to a most excellent kids' comic.

The first volume of Zita introduced us to Zita, a regular girl from Earth, throws herself through a transdimensional portal to rescue a friend, and comes to ally herself with a motley band of robots, aliens, a giant mouse, and a rogueish showman named Piper, fighting off a death-cult that is determined to perform a human sacrifice to avert a deadly asteroid impact.

In Legend, Zita is now a celebrity, travelling from world to world with Piper and her friends, being exhibited to gawkers who want a glimpse of the hero who saved Scriptorium. On one nameless space-station -- a worldlet every bit as weird and hilarious as the setting in book one -- Zita meets a very special admirer amidst the throng. Her new friend is a discontinued doppelganger robot with the power to assume the likeness of anyone it meets. The poor robot has been literally doomed to the scrapheap, the last of its kind, and when it meets Zita, they swap identities, and Zita gets a moment of much-needed respite from the crowds.

This seems like a great deal to Zita (and her giant mouse friend, Pizzicato) until the robot decides to make the switch permanent, and takes off with Piper and Zita's friends to attempt the rescue of yet another world from an invasion of bloodthirsty Star Hearts. Zita is taken in by another band of travelling performers, who, like Piper, are more than they seem.

What follows is another action-packed, high tension adventure story that is marvellously inventive, beautifully drawn, and filled with both comedy and real pathos that had both me and my four year old very worried for both the heroes and the villains in this story.

As I said, this is a most worthy follow-on to a fabulous first volume, and it ends in a way that makes it clear that creator Ben Hatke has more volumes to come.

Legends of Zita the Spacegirl

Economix: terrific cartoon history of economics

One of my favorite books is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. With simple comic art, McCloud presents the history of sequential comics, and how they work. It's as much about psychology as it is about the way comics use standard structural elements that work on a subconscious level to tell a story. McCloud appears in the book as a cartoon narrator, speaking directly to the reader, which is a very effective way to share information.

I'm also a big fan of Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, a series of comic books that, as the title suggests, presents the history of the universe from the big bang up to the present era. It combines factual history with a bit of humor.

Both McCloud and Gonick came to mind when I read Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn't Work), by Michael Goodwin and illustrated by Dan E. Burr. Told as a history, it ties important world events (wars, revolutions, technological progress, resource depletion, pollution, etc.) to their economic consequences, and explains the far-reaching (and often unintended effects) of economic policy decisions on people and the planet. Dan E. Burr's appealing illustrations add punch, humor, and clarity to Goodwin's already-excellent storytelling skills.

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The Trestle, Kirtland Air Force Base

Unknown Fields (UF) is a design studio, originating in London’s Architectural Association, that "ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the earth exploring unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies." Right now, Mark Pilkington, author of Mirage Men and publisher of Strange Attractor, is leading this busload of architects, writers, filmmakers and artists in an exploration of the mythic landscape of the American Southwest, and the stories that it has inspired. Their trajectory takes them from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque New Mexico to Black Rock City, Nevada, via sites of military, architectural and folkloric significance. Mark is sending us occasional postcards from the edge. - David Pescovitz

The Trestle, Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Constructed over four years in the late 1950s at a then-astronomical cost of $58 million, the Trestle is still the largest all-wooden structure in the world, comprising over 6 million feet of timber. Part of the Air Force’s research into the after effects of a nuclear blast, a range of aircraft, including huge B-52 bombers and Air Force One were hauled up onto the Trestle, where they would be bombarded with electromagnetic pulse waves (EMP) fired from an emitter on either side.

EMP waves travel long distances in a very short amount of time and can seriously disrupt electronic systems, as we also know from powerful solar emissions. Understanding how EMP might affect the functioning of retaliatory nukes, bombers or command and control aircraft was therefore an essential part of post-apocalyptic preparations.

Every element of the Trestle, right down to its oversized nuts and bolts, had to be wooden so that none of its own components would interfere with the effects of the EMP wave on the aircraft being tested (though apparently there are some small metal o-ring components deep in the mix). Inspecting all the joints took a dedicated team a whole year; as soon as they had finished it was time to start again.

A unique monument to Cold War rigor and ingenuity, reminiscent of a huge fairground ride, perhaps the Cyclone, Coney Island’s wooden roller coaster, or a wooden labyrinth, the Trestle is now a condemned structure, too unstable to use, too expensive to dismantle. Today it provides a home to local wildlife, including a colony of great horned owls who can be heard screeching from within its depths. Our guide tells us that she likes to collect the skulls of their prey, which they leave scattered around the base of the structure.

Devil Said Bang: Sandman Slim finds it's lonely at the top

Devil Said Bang is the latest Sandman Slim novel, and Richard Kadrey continues to knock them way the hell out of the park. As with previous volume (the first three were Sandman Slim, Kill the Dead, and Aloha From Hell), Devil is the harder-than-hard-boiled story of James Stark, a distant descendant of Wild Bill Hickok and a wild magic talent whose LA coven conspired against him, sending him to Hell. There he was turned into a gladiator and assassin, killing hellions in the pit and murdering Lucifer's generals in their beds until he escaped to earth, bent on revenge.

Devil is the latest installment in what is, at core, a superhero story (albeit one with a lot of gore and Satanism) and after three books, Kadrey has arrived at that point where the superhero's successful adventures have left him with so many powerful artefacts and so much authority and so many dead enemies that he's essentially become a God. Devil is a story about the ways in which it can be pretty terrible at the top, as Stark tries to come to grips with his own power -- power he's always reviled in others -- while continuing to slaughter, bad-mouth, and humiliate his enemies, be they demons, angels, monsters, ghosts or humans.

Filled with perverted sex, awesome one-liners, gore, murder, and a necronomiconical sense of the daemonic, Devil shows that these are the books that Kadrey was born to write. One of the original cyberpunks, Kadrey has always been the grittiest of the gritty lot, the chipped switchblade in a box full of fractal-edged nanofabricated scalpels. Compared to Kadrey, other supernatural horror writers feel like they've been drinking the thrice-brewed tea of HP Lovecraft, while Kadrey has been performing blood sacrifices in abandoned LA parking garages. Read these books, and be delighted.

Devil Said Bang

The Mark Inside: the best book I've read on the long con


Amy Reading's The Mark Inside is perhaps the best book I've ever read on con artists and con artistry, a retelling of one of the classic stories of the bunco boom that marked the start of the 20th century in America. Reading builds her book around the life story of J Frank Norfleet, a soft-spoken, thrifty Texas rancher who built his fortune up from nothing, only to lose it all to a gang of swindlers. Norfleet became obsessed with the men who'd victimized him, and became a nationally famous vigilante, crisscrossing America bent on capturing and jailing the whole gang -- and any other con-men he met along the way.

Norfleet himself was transformed by his quest, which awoke in him a kind of inner showman and bunco artist. He delighted in showing off for the press and for audiences, spinning yarns as adeptly as the con artists he hunted. In order to get cooperation from government prosecutors and lawmen, he had to flimflam them, too, convincing them with carefully scripted cons of his own. Reading places Norfleet's con within the wider context of the con-artists who ruled America and the shifting American attitude towards wagering and speculating, showing how the whole nation was moving itself from a republican thriftiness to a nation that mythologized plungers and get-rich-quickmen who made a fortune by dicing with dollars in markets and at the faro tables.

I've read dozens of books about and by con artists (the bunco boom had its own publishing wing, and every fast talker who lived long enough seems to have penned a memoir after the fashion of The Yellow Kid Weil). Not a one of them captures the pathos and bathos, the absurdity and temerity, the virtuosity and the venality of the con man quite like Reading. She writes with the lyricism of a magic realist, but with the rigor of a historian, and so much of her best analysis springs from her explorations of the differences between different accounts of the same events.

Books like Where Wizards Stay Up Late and The Right Stuff and The Information perfectly captured their own individual moments in time -- turning points in the modern history of the Earth. The Mark Inside stands with these as an engrossing and illuminating account of the moment at which speculation -- not thrift -- became the order of the day in America, and it's thrilling and hilarious by turns and when you're done, you understand the past and the present better.

The Mark Inside

Switching to a straight razor

I stared, face lathered up, sweat dripping, hand shaking, into the fogging mirror in my bathroom almost every day for over 2 weeks before I built up the courage to actually put the 4" razor to my face and take a swipe.

The fact that I hadn't shaved on any regular basis for any period in my life because of the bloody mess that inevitably ensued didn't help matters, but mostly I was just afraid of slicing my jugular wide open and being mocked after my death for as the idiot who even attempted this in the first place. I took a deep breath and went for it.

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The coming civil war over general purpose computing

Even if we win the right to own and control our computers, a dilemma remains: what rights do owners owe users?Read the rest

Enthralling Books: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Here's my essay in a series of essays about enthralling books. See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark


NewImageGone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

This twisted psychological suspense novel had me from the first page and I read it every spare moment I had until I finished it. It begins with a man named Nick's description of his morning on the day of his fifth wedding anniversary. Nick and Amy were once bon vivant magazine writers in New York, but the print media implosion put an end to their fun life, and for a variety of reasons ("Blame the economy, blame bad luck, blame my parents, blame your parents, blame the Internet, blame people who use the Internet") they end up in Carthage, Missouri with Nick running a dive bar (using the remainder of Amy's recently obliterated trustfund) with his sister Margo. Later that day, Amy disappears from their house, leaving behind signs of a struggle. The police, and TV viewers around the country, suspect Nick did it.

The second chapter is from Amy's diary, seven years before her disappearance, in which she giddily describes meeting the handsome and funny Nick at a party in Brooklyn.

The chapters alternate between Nick's account of his life after Amy's disappearance, and Amy's diaries entries leading up to the event. We see a happy relationship deteriorate over time. We also see signs of psychopathy and deceit start creeping in as the story unfolds. Since this is a suspense novel, things aren't necessarily what they seem (or are they?) and there are major twists and surprises along the way.

Even as a straight-ahead thriller, Gillian Flynn's novel succeeds with a tight plot that's rich but easy to follow. What made it extra enjoyable for me is Flynn's dark sense of humor, insight into relationships, cultural observations, and developed characters. As messed up as Flynn's characters are, they are believable, unpredictable (even to themselves) and complex, and that's what keeps things interesting. I've read other reviews of Gone Girl in which readers have complained that Amy and Nick are too unlikable to care about. I disagree. I care about them the same way I care about Breaking Bad's Walter White, Mad Men's Don Draper, and Tony Soprano: pathologically manipulative jerks who reveal a shred of humanity often enough that you can relate to them, especially since we all have some element of a dark side in us.

I also liked Amy’s rant about “cool girls.” Here's an excerpt:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl. Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men -- friends, coworkers, strangers -- giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them.”

Flynn's previous novels, Dark Places, and Sharp Objects, are queued up on my reading list.

Buy Gone Girl on Amazon

In The Boy Kings, Zuck's personal ghostwriter reveals little

Katherine Losse was present at the creation. Employee 51 at Facebook, the English major became first a major player in the company's customer service team and then rose to prominence in i18n, Facebook's internationalization initiative. She ended her seven year career there as Mark Zuckerberg's blogger. She mimicked his voice in posts and emails, starting with "Hey Everybody" and ending in world domination.

Now, Losse offers a book about her experience there. Covering the period between 2005 and 2012, she sunk into the soft comfort of corporate life just as early Facebook's miasmic jelly hardened into serious business. Losse, because she's not a wonk, is the kind of person that you want writing about this kind of rise: she writes like she's working out a Lorrie Moore story set at Xerox/PARC and, as a result, she leaves out the nerdiness and attempts to replace it with humanity.

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How to turn a PR nightmare into a dream

Ever since the Keystone XL Pipeline (originally slated to transport Tar Sand bitumen from Alberta to Nebraska) was stalled, the attention on finding a new delivery route for this tar sand oil has focused around my own neck of the woods, British Columbia. And it seems like every time I open the paper, there's some new story about big oil PR shenanigans [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. All of this, of course, makes you wonder what a big oil PR session actually entails, and whether a memo like the fictitious one below (a.k.a. me having a little fun), is not so far from the truth...

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Batman Earth One: rebooting the bat

Batman: Earth One is a reboot of the Batman story written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Gary Frank. It's a timely book, coinciding with the conclusion of the trilogy of Christopher Nolan Batman films, and it offers a very good entry to the series for people who haven't followed it closely until now.

We've seen a lot of remixes and retellings of the Batman origin story, and I think this is my favorite to date. Johns dispenses with some of the less plausible aspects of the Batman myth, and presents us with a Gotham that is out of control, corrupt, dark and glorious. There's a haunted house, there are serial killers, Hollywood phonies, and a mayor named Oswald Cobblepot.

The book moves swiftly, hits all the right emotional notes, and is beautifully made and illustrated. I picked my copy up at Secret Headquarters on a recent trip to LA, on staff recommendation (I've never gotten a bum steer from SHQ). It's got me excited about Batman comics for the first time in 20 years.

Batman: Earth One

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Cow week: Welsh cattle hate dog walkers

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public's fascination with and fear of sharks.

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On quack cancer cures, and "alternative medicine" as religion

I loved Science Blogs contributor Orac before I was diagnosed with cancer. I love him a whole lot more now. I'll get to why in a moment, but I want to share something personal first (cracks knuckles).

Well-meaning friends have suggested I try coffee enemas and Burzynskian "antineoplastons" and oxygen therapy to cure my breast cancer; others have told me the reason some of my cells went mutinous is because I offended the Great Invisible Beardy Man in the Sky.

Dude, I've heard it all.

I am active on Twitter in talking about cancer, sharing the experience of my treatment (which fucking sucks), and connecting with fellow persons with cancer.

One of those fellow travelers yesterday tweeted this link, which praises the work of "ND" Judy Seeger. In alternative healing parlance, ND stands for naturopathic doctor. I like Orac's definition better: "not a doctor."

Let me be blunt: I think people who sell fake cancer cures are murderers.

I spoke about the content of that blog post with my radiation oncologist yesterday, after I lay down under the linear accelerator for another daily (yep, daily) blast of rays to kill any remaining lurking cells that might want to off me a few years down the road.

I hate radiation treatment, by the way. HATE IT. But I hate cancer more.

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A Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books


Mary Blair is best know as a Disney illustrator, whose modernist, stylized illustrations formed the basis for the It's a Small World ride and facade, as well as several of the best-loved murals in the parks. But she also worked as a general commercial illustrator, producing a good sheaf of advertising work as well as five illustrated Golden Books.


A Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books, a new volume, collects these books in one absolutely essential volume. Blair's work is always fantastic, but you couldn't ask for a better showcase than her book-illustration portfolio. One of the anthologized titles is I Can Fly, written by Ruth Krauss, which won the Picture Book Honor at the 1951 New York Tribune Children's Spring Book Festival, but each one of these is worthy of an illustration award, and collectively they showcase both her breadth and the unity of her vision.

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Michael J Nelson on MST3K and the heavily anticipated return of Manos: The Hands of Fate, and RiffTrax

In a sure sign that our dreams are really coming true, Manos: The Hands of Fate is returning to movie theaters for all of us to experience on the big screen. No, this won't be the restoration you've been hearing about -- it's the next RiffTrax Live event, and for the first time, the riffers and stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett will be revisiting a classic movie from the show in front of a live audience this Thursday night at 8:00 PM (EST). I spoke with Nelson about Manos and the mission to restore it, as well as MST3K, RiffTrax, and potential future riffs and live events.

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