The Trouble with Tribbles

David Gerrold carefully documented the story, from first draft through airing, of his fan-favorite Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles. I've carefully guarded my copy of this paperback since my teens.

Gerrold's memories of working on the set are fantastic:

One day, I showed up at the set and William Shatner said, "Hi, kid. What're you writing now?"

Kid--? (All right, so I still looked like an eighteen-year-old; did he have to rub it in?).

I said, "I'm doing a story where you lose your voice in the teaser and don't get it back till the tag."

His reply wasn't unprintable-- just deadly. I won't repeat it here.

Suffice it to say, plowboys should never pull on number-one guns.

The book also includes gems about other episodes Gerrold worked on, including the oft discussed by Pesco and I City on the Edge of Forever.

If you love Star Trek, check out this book!

David Gerrold's The Trouble with Tribbles

Beast Academy: grade three math textbooks in monster comics form


Beast Academy is a set of grade three math textbooks and practice books structured as comic books about monsters. The books are "aligned to the common core state standards for grade three," if that matters to you. What's more significant is that they're actually really good math textbooks that introduce their subjects in a clear and easy-to-follow fashion, carefully linking each concept to the last; and the exercises are lively, fun, and built around stories that dovetail smoothly into puzzles, games, and other ways of putting the knowledge into practice. The monsters are great, too -- wonderful illustrations from Erich Owen, whose work you may recognize from the graphic novel adaptation of my story I, Robot.

Beast Academy 8-book set

Read the rest

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: HP Lovecraft, much improved in graphic form.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a recent graphic novel adaptation of the classic 1928 HP Lovecraft story of the same name, masterfully executed by INJ Culbard.

The dirty secret of the Cthulhu mythos is that their originator, HP Lovecraft, wasn't a very good writer. In addition to his unfortunate tendency to embrace his era's backwards ideas about race and gender, Lovecraft was also fond of elaborate, tedious description that obscured the action and dialog. Which is a pity, because Lovecraft did have one of the great dark imaginations of literature, a positive gift for conjuring up the most unspeakable, unnameable (and often unpronounceable) horrors of the genre, so much so that they persist to this day.

Enter INJ Culbard, whose work adapting various Sherlock Holmes stories into graphic novels for Self-Made Hero press I've reviewed here in the past. Culbard is a fine storyteller and artist, and makes truly excellent use of the medium to deliver a streamlined Lovecraft, one where the protracted, over-elaborated descriptions are converted to dark, angular drawings that manage to capture all the spookiness, without the dreariness.

This is really the best way to enjoy Lovecraft.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Read the rest

Scowler: nightmare-fuel horror novel about a monstrous father


Daniel Kraus's previous book, Rotters, was an outstandingly gross and delightful young adult novel about a kid who discovers that his dad is a grave-robber, and part of an ancient, mystic fraternity of corpse-stealers. It was full of squishy, spectacularly described scenes of decomposition and decay, taut suspense, and perfect gross-out moments. When I picked up his new book Scowler, I expected the same.

Very quickly, though, I realized that I was reading a book squarely aimed at adults, a book that did all the stuff that Rotters had done, but turned the dial up to 11. Where the horror in Rotters was the delicious, peek-between-your-fingers variety, Scowler is built around scenes of such terrifying grisliness and cruelty that it'll keep you up at night for weeks afterwards -- the kind of nightmare fuel you get in novels like The Wasp Factory, say. But this isn't gross-out horror: the terror comes as much from piano-wire taut tension and spectacular characters as from viscera.

Indeed, it's the two characters at the center of Scowler that give it its punch. The first is Ry, a gangly, awkward farm-boy who lives with his mother and little sister on a dying farm that is on the brink of bankruptcy. The second is Ry's father, Marvin, who has been in prison ever since he nearly murdered Ry, eight years before, when the boy was only 11, in a horrific encounter that has left Ry emotionally and physically scarred. The novel opens with many ticking bombs: an impending meteor shower, the imminent abandonment of the farm, the stretched-to-breaking relationship between Ry and his mother.

Quickly, the novel goes into overdrive. As we learn more about Ry's past, we discover the sort of monster his father was, and before long, there's the threat that the monster might return -- or that Ry might become the monster. Marvin is one of the great monsters of literature, a figure of immense, credible terror and savagery. Ry's own fear that he might become his father is just as credible, and Kraus's masterful raising-of-stakes makes this into the sort of diaster you can't possibly look away from.

Scowler


Update: Random House Audio has produced an audiobook version read by Kirby Heyborne (who also reads the audio edition of Little Brother), and they sell it as a DRM-free CDs direct from their site (a welcome alternative to Audible/iTunes, which requires DRM for audiobooks even when the publisher and writer object).


Warren Ellis reviews Bruce Sterling's "Love is Strange," a paranormal romance

Last month, I blogged the new Bruce Sterling book, Love is Strange, an ebook-only paranormal romance. I haven't had a chance to read it yet (it's in my queue), but Warren Ellis has, and he's written up a review that makes me want to read it RIGHT NOW:

Bruce likes breaking things in his fiction. I often see things his characters love getting ruined somehow. It’s hard to think of anyone else who enjoys the casual harrowing of his characters so much.

It is a romance. Bruce does in fact have fun playing with old romance-fiction tropes. There are points where you can almost hear him cackling as he rattles around a LOVE BOAT port of call and scatters poison romances across the sun-kissed trattorias and streets. There is the paranormal: or, at least, people who think they’re paranormal, and people who call each other paranormal. It’s also, to some extent, about the delusions around these things. The female romantic lead is a loon, the male romantic lead is a Silicon Canal alpha-drone, the supporting cast are grotesques and I’ll be surprised if Mr Sterling is ever again invited to a European futurism conference.

booklist 2013: LOVE IS STRANGE, Bruce Sterling [Warren Ellis]

Love is Strange [Kindle edition]

Law of Superheroes: law-school seen through comic-book heroes' lens


In the The Law of Superheroes two lawyers called James Daily and Ryan Davidson do a magnificent job overview of the US legal system that manages to be extremely informative and incredibly entertaining, because, as the title implies, they tour the legal system as it would apply to comic-book superheroes.

This is much better than most of those "Physics of Science Fiction"-type books, since the legal hypotheticals that superheroes give rise to, while speculative, are actually just extreme macrocosms for the normal business of the real-world legal system. What better way to illustrate the rules of evidence than to explore whether (and why) things that Professor Xavier read in your mind would be admissible in court and whether Spider Man could testify in his mask? What better way to explore the "functional/informative" split in trademark law than to ask whether Captain America's round shield might be the subject of a trademark, or just the design on its face? What better way to explore corporate law than to explore the sort of legal entity the Fantastic Four and the Justice League of America should look to form in order to minimize liability and streamline their decision-making process?

I've read lots of popular law books, and spent a lot of time hanging around lawyers, and these kinds of hypotheticals are the best way I know of to turn a dry, detail-oriented subject into something fun and engrossing. It helps that the authors are very imaginative and have a seemingly encylopedic knowledge of comics, which leads ask whether Superman's torture at Lex Luthor's hands are assault or cruelty to animals, to investigate the tax implications of immortality, and to find a loophole by which Batman can operate Wayne Enterprise's vehicles in public without compromising his company's ability to file for patents on them (spoiler: he needs to sell them to the military).

This book covers an astonishing amount of ground, but given how long superhero comics have been around, and how many different plotlines they've explored, it's only fitting. From state's rights to torts, from contracts (deals with the devil, anyone?) to what the FAA would have to say about Wonder Woman's Invisible Jet, the authors show real aptitude for legal education and first-rate comics nerdery. It's a delicious combination!

The Law of Superheroes began with the brilliant Law and the Multiverse blog, which I wrote about back in 2010. If you're a fan of the blog, you'll love the book -- and if you love the book, you should really read the blog!

The Law of Superheroes

Nexus: fast technothriller about transhuman drug crackdown

Ramez Naam‘s debut novel Nexus is a superbly plotted high-tension technothriller about a War-on-Drugs-style crackdown on brain/computer interfaces.

Read the rest

Dark Lord: an evil overlord trapped in a kid's body

Dark Lord: The Early Years gets right down to business: an unnamed narrator suffers a million agonies, while calling out for his hellion lieutenants to aid him, and we quickly learn that this is the Dark Lord, feared and tyrannical ruler of a distant kingdom, and that he has been transported to a suburban parking lot in our world.

Read the rest

Fairest: the women of Willingham's Fables stories get their own comic

Fairest centers around the lives of many of the great women of fabledom: Briar Rose, Sleeping Beauty’s fairy godmothers and the frost queen, merging their stories with the tale of Ali Baba (albeit a different Ali Baba than the one you may have encountered in legends).

Read the rest

Coding Freedom: an anthropologist understands hacker culture

Biella Coleman is a geek anthropologist, in both senses of the epithet: an anthropologist who studies geeks, and a geek who is an anthropologist. Though she's best known today for her excellent and insightful work on the mechanism and structure underpinning Anonymous and /b/, Coleman is also an expert on the organization, structure, philosophy and struggles of the free software/open source movements. I met Biella while she was doing fieldwork as an intern at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She's also had deep experience with the Debian project and many other hacker/FLOSS subcultures.

Coleman's has published her dissertation, edited and streamlined, under the title of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, which comes out today from Princeton University Press (Quinn Norton, also well known for her Wired reporting on Anonymous and Occupy, had a hand in the editing). Coding Freedom walks the fine line between popular accessibility and scholarly rigor, and does a very good job of expressing complex ideas without (too much) academic jargon.

Coding Freedom is insightful and fascinating, a superbly observed picture of the motives, divisions and history of the free software and software freedom world. As someone embedded in both those worlds, I found myself surprised by connections I'd never made on my own, but which seemed perfectly right and obvious in hindsight. Coleman's work pulls together a million IRC conversations and mailing list threads and wikiwars and gets to their foundations, the deep discussion evolving through the world of free/open source software.

Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

Future Perfect: an optimistic look at the future of networked politics

I've read and enjoyed innumerable Steven Johnson books; he's one of those great science writers who can gather together disparate phenomena from the technological world and tease out of them a coherent story about what's happening to the world right under our noses.

His latest, Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age, is no exception. Johnson proposes that people who believe in the Internet are not techno-utopians, but rather "peer progressives" -- people who believe that progress is possible when peers work together through non-hierarchical, networked systems.

Johnson lays out the case for peer progressivism as being neither of the right nor the left. It shares some of the right's beliefs in markets -- the idea that the distributed intelligence of lots of people produces better outcomes than centralized decision-making. But it shares some of the left's belief in collective, state-driven spending -- the idea that systems like the Internet don't get produced by advantage-seeking commercial firms (which want to make walled gardens), but rather by governments trying to attain some public-interest goals.

Using this lens of public-spirited, state-sponsored development to create market-driven, individual-centered systems, Johnson lays out his case, showing how the Internet has enabled radical shifts in city management, political campaigning, newsgathering, arts funding, and entrepreneurship. Each of these chapters is well-drawn, and Johnson's careful to label his uncertainties when he has them, rather than trying to shoehorn the facts to fit his thesis.

I was particularly struck by the chapter on news-publishing, in which Johnson suggests that the Internet has demonstrated a capacity to produce fine-grained, intelligent, well-thought-through coverage of various subjects. He suggests that tech news -- the most mature news-subject on the net -- is a template for future subjects. The early days of the Web were particularly hard on tech publications, which struggled to remain relevant with monthly publications in the age of up-to-the-minute Internet coverage, and to continue to pay the bills as online new sources expanded the advertising inventory by orders of magnitude. But over time, a kind of stability emerged, an ecosystem of news coverage that beggars anything of the pre-Internet age. Johnson suggests that the net isn't inherently great at covering tech, but that it was just the first of many news niches the net will cover, and that in time, it will be a model for overall networked newsgathering (he also mentions studies showing that newspaper readers are more likely to inhabit an echo chamber of bias-confirming news than online news junkies).

This is a refreshing, optimistic, level-headed read, and the idea of "peer progressive" is a good one, with the potential to get people thinking outside the Dem/GOP, left/right boxes.

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age

Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland


Fables creator Bill Willingham continues his impossible run of prolific, high-quality, highly varied stories based on the idea that all the fables, myths and stories of the world are secretly true, and that they all live together, hidden among the real, "mundy" world. The hardcover Werewolves tells the back-story of Bibgy Wolf -- his time as a crack Nazi-hunting guerrilla in the dark forests of Germany. This past comes back to haunt him when he discovers a midwestern town populated entirely by werewolves that have been created by a beautiful, ruthless Nazi scientist who isolated a serum from blood that Bigby left behind when he helped foil a Nazi attempt to revive Frankenstein's monster to fight on their side.

Werewolves draws on the likes of EC Comics' Two-Fisted Tales and other hyper-violent war comics, with plenty of gory decapitations, ruthless executions, suicides, immolations, and tough talk. It's just the right kind of story for Bigby, who's one of the best characters from Fables, which has lots of terrific characters to choose from. The book could conceivably stand alone -- it has its own complete storyline -- but it's much richer in the context of the wider Fables universe.

Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland

Tune: Derek Kirk Kim's alien abduction romcom

Today, Derek Kirk Kim’s online science fictional rom-com comic Tune has been collected in the first of (I hope) many volumes, with Tune: Vanishing Point.

Read the rest

Super Scratch Programming Adventure! an excellent way to get started in Scratch


Super Scratch Programming Adventure! is No Starch Press's excellent adventure to Scratch, the extremely popular (and absolutely wonderful) kids' programming environment from the MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten Group.

Produced with the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, Super Scratch Programming Adventure! is a graphic novel that walks readers through a series of extremely well-designed game-design projects, each of which introduces a new concept or two to young programmers, providing a gentle learning curve for mastering Scratch's many powerful features.

To get a sense of these projects, have a look at No Starch's project site for the book, which provides downloads of all the sprites, artwork and sound for each one (the book encourages you to use these as starting points, and to modify them or create your own from scratch).

I've been interested in the book since Mark reviewed it in September, and was delighted to get a chance to read it myself. My daughter is too young for this one as yet -- Scratch requires basic literacy in order to really work with it. But reading it, I got very excited about the possibility of working with her on it in a year or two (for example, once she's mastered numbers and letter recognition, I'm sure we could have a lot of fun just taking the existing projects and modifying them with her art and voice).

I fell in love with Logo and BASIC games programming when I was 9, and reading through these projects really brought back the excitement. What's more, it feels like Scratch has all the stuff I wished Logo had built in when started out -- for example, you can create if-then loops for sprites that evaluate whether a sprite is touching a certain color ("If I am touching orange, then..."), something that's used in a maze-navigation game where all the maze-walls are orange.

Scratch feels like the second coming of Hypercard, mixing graphics and drag-and-drop code-blobs, but Scratch is all free/open source software, so there's much less danger of a single vendor killing it off. There's even a nascent project to port Scratch to Android, which would be especially fun.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure!

Sweet Tooth 5: Unnatural Habitats, in which the chimeric apocalypse gets even more engrossing

I've just finished Unnatural Habitats, the fifth collection of Jeff Lemire's apocalyptic Sweet Tooth comics, and I continue to be absolutely taken by it, on the grimmest of tenterhooks for the next volume.

Sweet Tooth's is set against a mysterious end-of-the-world, a horrific plague that kills most of humanity, and causes pregnant women to give birth to human/animal chimeras. The protagonist, Sweet Tooth, is a deer/boy, raised by his weirdly religious father in the woods, and then thrown into the brutal outside world when his father dies. He is captured by medical experimenters, escapes, and journeys across America with a shifting band of allies who may or may not have Sweet Tooth's best interests at heart.

Volume 5 proves that Lemire knows what he's doing with his storytelling. He whipsaws the pacing with a multi-part flashback to an early twentieth century Arctic expedition that hints at the plague's origin, then jumps back to the present day and a series of interlocking perils that raise the stakes for Sweet Tooth and his companions.

Lemire is a Dickensian master of the cliff hanger. Each monthly episode collected in the Sweet Tooth books leaves you eager for the next one, and each volume leaves you gutted at the thought of having to wait months for a new collection (I could read the singles, but I prefer to get my comics in concentrated, six-at-once doses). The story of Sweet Tooth is a great adventure, great science fiction, and great comics.

Once again, here's the first volume, in case you'd like to grab all five parts at once and consume a deep, deep draught of the story.

Sweet Tooth 5: Unnatural Habitats