Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots/Multiverse — Seanan McGuire

Cover of Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots

Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots/Multiverse
Seanan McGuire
312 pages
published in 2012, 2013

I had been following Seanan McGuire on her Livejournal for donkey ages, but I only got around to reading her Velveteen stories when they were linked from MetaFilter. Bad Martin. No biccie. Of course I then inhaled all the linked posts in less than an afternoon (not at work of course, nooo) and found I had to buy the actual ebooks, if only to be able to burble about them here.

I haven’t read anything else of Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant yet, so it may seem strange that this got such a hold on me, but it just perfectly fit the story crack receptors in my brain. Well told, short superhero stories done with flair and invention, lots of drama and emotional rollercoasters, no fear of consequences or of looking silly. Velveteen is a young superheroine just let go of the most famous superhero team in the world, the Junior Super Patriots, looking to start a new life without superheroing as long as the sinister marketing company behind 90 percent of superheroes lets her. Greatly lacking in self confidence and trust in her powers — which consists of being able to bring to life and manipulate toys — she thinks herself barely qualified to cope with real life, let alone the challenges walking away from the Junior Super Patriots have brought her.

When we first meet her, Velma “Velveteen” Martinez is driving through California towards Portland, Oregon, for a job interview, but has gotten hopelessly lost. She’d spent seven years as a trainee for the Junior Super Patriots, gotten out when she came of age and had spent the last few years or so working temp jobs. Now she finally has a shot at a proper job and getting her life back in order if only she wasn’t stuck in the small town of Isley, her car impounded until the annual crayfish festival is over and to top it all off, an old teammate comes calling, having turn supervillain, leaving her with no choice but to take up her powers again, just this once…

This however puts her back under notice of Super Patriot, Inc., the company that employs the vast majority of superheroes in the world, who haven’t forgotten her refusal to keep working for them and want her back, one way or another. So as she slowly, limited by her lack of money and clunker of a car, makes her way up to Oregon through California, she keeps getting into traps and other hazardous situations as people recognise her or company agents catch up with her. It leads up to the inevitable confrontation between her and her former friends and teammates, on the Oregon border.

This is of course a tried and true formula in superhero comics, having the hero cut off from everybody they love and cared about, insecure in their powers while their enemies, very much aware of the potential they deny themself, are gathering around them. It’s a great hook for a series of stories and Seanan makes good use of it, with each story moving the overall plot forwards while standing on its own.

Cover of Velveteen vs the Multiverse

In Velveteen vs the Multiverse Velveteen has settled in Portland as its resident, state sanctioned superhero. Not quite the life she wanted to build for herself, but better than the alternative. This new status quo of course cannot last as she’s drawn into new plots against her, both physical and legal and learns more about the real powers behind the superhero industry. As the title may indicate, Seanan McGuire also ups the crack here, getting Velveteen into several alternate worlds and dimensions, revealing more of both Velma’s and the world’s history, all in the best tradition of superhero stories.

You could indeed call this fanfiction, not so much of a specific univers or series but rather of the idea of a superhero universe as a whole. These stories certainly read like fanfiction, slightly rougher around the edges than “normal” stories, less concerned with plausibility and characterisation and the like and more with emotional effects. And angst. So much angst. As with most fanfiction, it builds upon what the reader already knowns about heroes like Velveteen and the sort of worlds they operate in, so that when it’s revealed she’s friends both with Jackie Frost, the daughter of Winter and The Princess, the closest equivalent to a Disney Princess superheroine the law allows for, it’s only slightly strange.

What’s really great about the Princess btw is that late in the book it’s revealed she’s actually a trans woman, in a pure moment of awesome. She isn’t the only queer person in the book either; many of Velveteen’s allies and friends are gay or bisexual, as opposed to the much more straightlaced opposition on the Super Patriot Inc. side (some of whom may actually be not as straight as they’re presented at, but that’s Marketing for you).

Seanan has a great imagination for superhero characters, from Velveteen herself to her former friends Action Dude and Sparkle Bright, who look exactly like you’d imagine them to look, to Victory Anna, a Victorian supervillainesque dimensional traveller. Not to mention the alternate universe versions of Velveteen like Marionette and Roadkill, whose powers are twisted versions of her own. The secondary and tertiary characters (e.g. Jack O’Lope, Jolly Roger) too are well sketched, immediately understandable from their codenames.

on the surface this is a lighthearted universe, and the first story especially could be confused for satire or parody, but as the story progressed things get serious and dark. Super Patriot Inc. is not a nice company and things happen to reluctant superheroes that are not nice at all. Velveteen’s personal life and background isn’t a bed of rose either, having been sold to SPI by her parents as soon as her powers had been revealed. Despite this however this is not a depressing story: the good guys win in the end and Velma does get her happy ending, sort of.

LonCon3: books bought

Of course I bought books at LonCon3, almost forty of them in fact. Below I’ll discuss them briefly.

Books from the Womens Press

Ian Sales has been extolling the virtues of the Women’s Press science fiction line for a while and one dealer had a whole stack available. Apart from the Joanna Russ Adventures of Alix, there’s Doris Piserchia’s Star Rider, Carol Emshwiller’s Carmen Dog, Lorna Mitchell’s The Revolution of Saint Jone and Rosaleen Love’s Total Devotion Machine.

Doris Piserchia DAW books

This led me in turn to look for more Doris Piserchia books, she being one of those writers who had been regularly published by DAW in the seventies and early eighties and then just sort of disappeared. Another Ian Sales rediscovery, I found about half a dozen of her novels at the con. As the bloke standing next to me at the stall, who turned out to be Kev McVeight, Piserchia is a seriously weird but interesting writer.

Critical books

I also bought a couple of critical books, two of Paul Kincaid and Andrew M. Butler’s Solar Flares, the blog version of which is still listed on my blogroll.

Books from Gollancz

Browsing the Gollancz stand I found myself standing next to Paul McAuley, one of my favourite writers for several decades now and I got the chance to talk to him a bit. I told him about reading Fairyland on the same Den Haag tramline as was featured in the book. I got the Jaine Fenn novel to help me get to 25 pound and the free tote bag…

Small press books

Ticonderoga Publications is an Australian small press whose Steve Utley collections I noticed when they sparked a hazy memory of reading one of his short stories in one of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best collections. I ended up buying both of his collections as well as a Justina Robson collection. The Nina Allan novella I got from TTA.

other books bought

Actually, I could’ve bought a lot more books than just this.

Books from the LonCon3 library

But unfortunately there also was the free library so I got a half dozen more.

UPDATE: almost forgot, I also bought all of Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman novels because she’d dropped the price on the first two for LonCon3.

The Big LonCon3 roundup post

Below is my roundup of all the con reports and other blog posts about LonCon3 I could find, to be updated later. Be sure to also check out the comments for anything I missed:

On diversity and accessibility

  • What I Did On My Holidays (Nine Worlds, LonCon3) – LonCon was conscious about diversity to the point that I know a few people of colour felt they were only on panels about not being white and/or western, and there were still a number of well meaning con-goers** whose “welcome” to all these new young fans was more cringeworthy than encouraging (shoutout to Will, who not only rescued me from one of these situations but did so with wine). Occasionally Men Told Me Things.
  • Flat Out: Worldcon on Wheels – I rolled up at the Excel bright and early on Thursday 14th, and I have to say Access was excellent. I was greeted by one of the volunteers before I even reached the registration queue, which they told me was 45 minutes long at that point, and whisked away to the Access Desk, where I was given a seat while the volunteer dashed off to pick up my badge and registration packet. Even the failure of the Access ribbons to appear was being dealt with courtesy of improvisation with tape and a marker pen in the best traditions of fandom.
  • Conventions, hierarchies and forced diversity | The 13th Colony – And this was something that appears to be continually driven through over the weekend, or at the very least the panels that I’ve sat and spoken in: the ageism, sexism, racism, anti-academic-ism, hierarchism and various other -isms. I have no doubt Worldcon means a lot to the people who have been going to the convention throughout the decades it has been running and has forged a community there. I even understand the protectionism that they feel when hordes of media fans invade, because yes, sometimes we haven’t read the book or appreciate the fight to be legitimised back in the day but does that make our experience less valid, and therefore devalued?
  • On LonCon3, Diversity and Hierarchies | bethanvjones – And that wasn’t the only dismissive attitude I saw in relation to LGBTQIA people. Another panellist used the offhand ‘gender-whatever’ in discussing diversity. I tweeted about these instances, as did others, and from what I’ve heard they weren’t the only ones. But on the flip side I also saw how quickly the con organisers were to deal with racism and how supported one of my fellow panellists felt by them.
  • Diversity in Fandom: Lessons from Worldcon — Sean McLachlan

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Dhalgren — Samuel R. Delany

Cover of Dhalgren

Samuel R. Delany
879 pages
published in 1975

Question: what are the two places man will never reach? Answer: the heart of the sun and page 100 of Dhalgren.

A corny old joke, with a kernel of truth because Dhalgren is not an easy book to read. Almost 900 pages long it’s a monster of a book, even more so when you remember it was published at a time when any science fiction novels over 200 pages was a bit on the long side. And unlike certain modern novels of that length, Dhalgren demands your attention on every page; you can’t get through it on the autopilot. It’s therefore no wonder that it took me most of February to read it, with no time for other books. But it was worth it as even almost forty years later this still is one of the most ambitious and challenging science fiction novels ever written.

Some people think it’s the symbol of everything that went wrong with science fiction. That “joke” I opened is less a joke than a sneer, repeated by people still mad at what the New Wave did to science fiction though they were born long after it. According to them Dhalgren is dense, impenetrable and unreadable, elitist fodder for literary snobs. What really sticks in their craw though is that Dhalgren was one of the biggest science fiction bestsellers of the seventies, going through fifteen printings between 1975 and 1980. Somebody must’ve liked it; in fact, like Dune or Stranger in A Strange Land, much more palatable bestsellers to these embittered fans, it must’ve appealed to people outside science fiction’s core readership.

In fact, what made me read Dhalgren, after I’d tried it years ago and failed less than twenty pages in, was reading how it was actually an entry point into science fiction for at least one reader:

i don’t know why everyone considers Dhalgren a bad place to start, it is what convinced me to love SF, because it was about cities, and queerness, and how language worked, and about the potential of otherness…and so much of the SF i read, even the work about cities was so tight and ironically contained.

That convinced me I should try and give it another go. Delany was already one of my favourite writers, but for the most part I’ve stuck to his earlier, more accessible or at least more mainstream, more explicitly science fictional novels. Dhalgren scared me, if only because with its length it would take a large investment in reading time to finish it. Indeed it took me the best part of February to get through it.

It was worth it though.

At its simplest, Dhalgren is the story of a man suffering from amnesia coming to a city suffering from an undefined apocalypse, having some adventures in it, then leaving again. The city is Bellona, cut off and forgotten in the rest of America, abandoned by most of its inhabitants, all law and morality and society broken down, the city in fact seemingly rearranging itself from time to time. The man, charismatic and easy going, coming into Bellona nameless but quickly nicknamed the Kid, Kidd or kid, taken into the various people and groups making a home in the post-apocalyptical city, enjoying the freedoms of it.

Kid is no leader, not interested or even thinking about rebuilding the city or even surviving; this is no post-apocalyptical survival fantasy or cozy catastrophe. He’s almost completely passive, willing to go along with other people’s plans and ideas. In the chapter before he comes to the city he meets up and fucks a strange woman; the first thing he does when comes to the city is to sleep with a strange man, just met. Significant that in a book filled with people who’ve taken new names for themselves, he’s the only one who was named by others and as a consequence, the only one whose name is in constant flux.

The city doesn’t have water, gas or electricity but nevertheless feels like a hippie wonderland, with one group living in a sort of earnest commune in the city’s park, another, the Scorpions, being the equivalent of a bikers gang. The Scorpions use an advanced holographic device to create signature holograms which envelop them and transform them into magical creatures. The closest we come to the tired tropes of post-holocaust fiction is when Kid one day takes the bus towards downtown and ends up at a department store controlled by a gang of middle class people who take potshots at anybody coming close. There are of course also those people who are still pretending to pretend that everything is normal, isolated in apartment buildings at the edge of town, reminding me a bit of that French-Vietnamese family in Apocalypse Now and how that clung to its habits.

Dhalgren has no plot, perhaps not even a story, but rather a series of events and vignettes Kids drifts in and out of, as the narrative is changed alongside his wanderings. Things move, events shift and time is unreliable. It’s mostly the Kid who notices this, but at several points it’s clear to everybody in the city, as another Moon rises in the sky, or the Sun comes up, huge and terrifying as if in the last of days.

Kid himself is perhaps the most typical of all of Delany’s protagonists: virile, rugged, not afraid of being dirty, with dirtied hands and bitten off, chewed up fingernails, wearing only one shoe, going barefoot on the other, armed with a bladed orchid worn at the wrist, blades sweeping out over the hand. Not necessarily homosexual but not afraid of sleeping with men, artistic but without artistic pretention, working class and autodidactic. He’s white but comfortable with blacks, accepting and accepted by them. Race, as befitting a 1975 science fiction novel, being one of the undercurrents in Dhalgren and even in the apocalypse there are racial differences. Bellona wasn’t a black city before, but is now.

Gender gets less of a look in. Delany has always been a very male writer I’ve found, not bad with or hostile to female characters, but much more interested in men. Here, there is some mention of contemporary gender concerns as there is of racial concerns, but it’s far less present. Race flows as an undercurrent throughout Dhalgren; gender only pops up on a few occasions.

This is a novel that makes sense only from scene to scene, where events follow each other in an apparant orderly fashion only to fade away leaving seemingly little impression. Things repeat, Kid finds a notebook in the park that contains some of the text we’re reading, starts writing in it himself, later is unable to tell which is his and which was already there. In the hands of a lesser writer this would all be irrating, boring and confusing, but Delany keeps your attention, keeps your interest, because you have to work to understand what he is doing while keeping you entertained doing so. But it is hard work and I can understand those who’d have to give up halfway through.

Fantasms and Magics — Jack Vance

Cover of Fantasms and Magic

Fantasms and Magics
Jack Vance
192 pages
published in 1978

There was a time when I devoured each Jack Vance book I could find, back in my personal Golden Age of science fiction (which is age twelve, as you know Bob). I wasn’t the only one: Vance has always been popular in The Netherlands and most of his novels and story collections have been translated. His appeal is not hard to understand: a great sense of style, excellent writing and a flair for creating exotic yet believable worlds and the science not too rigorous. Granted, some of his novels and especially his series did not so much end as gutter out because he lost interest in them halfway through, but you don’t really read Vance for the plot anyway. With Vance, you’re there for the journey, not the destination.

Because of this I’ve therefore always found him better as a novel than a short story writer, though he has indeed written several classic science fiction and fantasy stories. None of them are in this collection though, which is a bit of a grab bag. There’s one classic Dying Earth story in here for example, also included in the actual Dying Earth collection. Worse, this is a reprint of a previous Vance collection, Eight Fantasms and Magics, with two of the stories removed, including the best one, “Telek”.

Nevertheless this is an entertaining read, perhaps not the best introduction to Vance, as there are better novels or collections for this, but not something to skip either, though the original collection may be a better one to seek out.

  • The Miracle-Workers
    This is the longest story in the collection and features an old theme of Vance: a decadent society that has forgotten about the high technology it uses, prefering magic (or “hoodoo” here) instead.
  • When the Five Moons Rise
    A horror story set on a planet where if the five moons rise together, nothing is what it seems.
  • Noise
    Stranded on a strange planet one man makes first contact with a very alien civilisation.
  • The New Prime
    The tests designed to objectively find the right ruler for a galaxy of two billion suns may not be as perfect as thought.
  • Guyal of Sfere
    One of Vance’s elegiac Dying Earth stories, set in an age where technology for all intents and purposes has become magic and surviving humans have no real purpose in life other than to entertain themselves during their long lives.
  • The Men Return
    In a world where madness reigns, being sane is not a survival trait.