Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Review - Captured by Julia Rachel Barrett


Short review: Mari is captured by aliens who think humans are animals, but her captor thinks she's interesting. She falls in love with him and then there's lots of sex. Lots and lots of sex.

Haiku
Abducted from Earth
A captor she entices
And then there is love

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: I am pretty sure that I am not the target audience for this book. This fact, however, did not prevent me from enjoying it quite a bit. An erotic science fiction romance in which a human woman is abducted by an alien slave trader and then seduces him into removing her from the auction block and is in turn seduced by him into falling in love.

The book opens up in media res, with Mari, the female protagonist of the story, waking up to find herself in a cage on board a ship full of other abducted human women on her way to parts unknown. After some confusion, she sees her captors: cruel yellow eyed aliens who regard her and all other humans as nothing more than beasts, not even fit for clothing. It is in these early sequences establishing the initial relationship between the feisty redheaded Mari and her captor Ekkatt that are probably the most critical and the most dangerous for the story. Unless Barrett is able to define the extreme distance between the two characters, then their later journey towards a loving relationship would be less effective. On the other hand, the danger is if Ekkatt's point of view is not explained well, then he can become a character too abhorrent for the love story to be accepted by the reader. After all, Ekkatt's job is to travel to alien planets, abduct their women, and then profit from selling them to be used as sex slaves or to be killed for meat. Fortunately, Barrett is able to walk this fine line, and although Ekkatt at times seems just a little too able to empathize with his quarry to be in his profession, the initial animosity Mari displays towards him makes up for it.

Mari strikes up her relationship with Ekkatt purely out of a sense of self-preservation. Having woken up unexpectedly while all of the other abducted women are still unconscious, Meri finagles her way into being allowed to stay awake for the duration of the trip, insinuating herself into Ekkatt's frame of reference out of a sense of self preservation. In short, Mari has to try to cajole Ekkatt into seeing her as more than simply a beast in order to survive. An interesting point about the story is that even though Mari is the protagonist and viewpoint character, the character with the most interesting personal arc is Ekkatt as he struggles with a lifetime of prejudices and is forced to confront the horror of what he has done. While Mari does everything she does driven initially by a desire to not be made into a dinner entree - making her character motivation crystal clear, Ekkatt's motivations are a little more opaque, attracted seemingly to her feisty nature and the dragon tattoo on her back, but he does eventually see her as a thinking being, and then eventually as someone to be respected, and finally a companion.

Given that I described the book as an erotic science fiction romance, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Mari and Ekkatt eventually become lovers. The book contains plenty of intense interspecies sex as Mari and Ekkatt consummate their relationship in a variety of steamy scenes. Leaving aside the moderate absurdity that an alien would be sexually compatible with a human at all, the one element that really demonstrates (to me at least) that I am not really the target audience for this book is the somewhat idealized nature of Ekkatt as a sexual partner. He is tall, lean, well-muscled, and well-endowed. He is also, gentle, caring, and, in the heat of passion, animalistic, but only in a way that is erotically arousing for Mari. Although Mari is described as an attractive fit and sexy woman with an independent streak, she is ordinary enough in some ways that a female reader could put herself in Mari's place and enjoy the fantasy almost from a first-person perspective. Although this comparison may seem juvenile to some, Mari's attraction to Ekkatt seems to me to be drawn from the same sort of impulse that makes Jean Grey lust after Wolverine in the X-Man series, although in this story there is no counterbalancing "good guy" Scott Summers for her to be committed to. Instead, the choice given to Mari is essentially between the Wolverine stand-in Ekkatt and Pana, who seems much more like Sabretooth. In short, her choice is between the "bad boy" and the even worse boy, and isn't really a choice at all.

As Mari is essentially an escaped slave, there is conflict in the book, and this is the element of the book that I wish had been developed more. Through the book there are essentially only five characters, one of which is the villain in the piece, who is dealt with in an almost perfunctory manner. And this brings me to my only real criticisms of the book: I wanted there to be more of it.  As an erotic science fiction romance, the book focuses primarily on the relationship between Mari and Ekkatt, and of course the sexual encounters between the two, but I wanted to see more of Ekkatt's world, and more time devoted to the hunt for and pursuit of Mari by the slave traders. As it is, the book feels too short, and the life changing decision that Ekkatt makes to avoid the religiously driven prejudices of his home world seems to come too quickly and easily. In the end, although the development of Ekkatt and Mari's relationship was more or less complete, I wanted to story to go on to explore the new life they had made for themselves. As a general rule of thumb, wishing that a book was two to three times as long as it actually is is actually a good sign, and this book is no exception. When an author leaves you wanting more story, as Barrett does with this book, that is a testament to the quality of the writing.

Captured is an excellent science fiction romance that is only marred by the fact that it should have had a more extensive story. With a pair of interesting and ultimately sympathetic characters, a well-written romance, lots of intense sexual encounters, and a fairly interesting (although too cursorily fleshed out for my testes) fictional world, this book is a very enjoyable read. As with most truly good books, this one left me wanting more, and my only complaints are that there wasn't enough time spent exploring the world, and that the story ended too soon. But if you want some science fiction mixed with eroticism, this is definitely a book to read.

Julia Rachel Barrett     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, February 27, 2012

Musical Monday - Sisters of the Moon by Fleetwood Mac


In the days before the internet, the range of music available as nerdy inspiration was more limited. Today, one can simply go out and find Jonathan Coulton, Five Year Mission, The Doubleclicks, Tripod, or dozens of other performers with catalogs of geek related songs. I'm certain that there were geek related groups performing back then - filk is a well-established part of science fiction fandom. But to have access to filk and other geek music, one had to be able to travel to science fiction or gaming conventions. And as I was living in Africa for a substantial chunk of my youth, and boarding school for my teen years, attending conventions was never an option. So, when I was younger, I took inspiration where I found it, even when it hung on fairly slender threads.

One of those slender threads was the Fleetwood Mac song Sisters of the Moon. Yes, it almost certainly isn't about anything even remotely science fiction or fantasy related, but the Celtic inspired imagery (and my adolescent crush on Stevie Nicks) was more than enough to set my brain wandering. It is probably because of Stevie Nicks and her ethereal lyrics that I began reading Welsh and Irish mythology and incorporating their influence into my gaming campaigns. More directly, every role-playing game campaign setting that I have ever designed, no matter the genre, has had an organization in it called the "Sisters of the Moon". So, for inspiring me to read the Mabinogion, the Táin bó Cúailnge, and a myriad of other tales of mythology, and for showing up in all of my game settings, I'm including Sisters of the Moon in Musical Monday.

This performance is from the 1982 Tusk tour. In the middle of the song, Nicks leaves the stage and fellow band mate Lindsay Buckingham sings one verse. This was somewhat unusual, and has been attributed to the heavy emotional burden that Nicks was under at the time due to the recent death of her best friend Robin Anderson. It is likely because of this, however, that the rest of Stevie's performance here is so visceral and powerful.

Previous Musical Monday: The Presidents by Jonathan Coulton
Subsequent Musical Monday: Wheel in the Sky by Journey

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review - Tintin and the Picaros by Hergé


Short review: Tintin and Captain Haddock return to San Teodoro to rescue Bianca Castafiore, Thompson, and Thomson from the regime of General Tapioca. Along the way they help restore General Alcazar to power. Tintin does no reporting.

Haiku
Petty dictator
False charges lead to a coup
But no real changes

Full review: The Tintin series returns to the Banana Republic politics of San Theodoros and meanders to a somewhat pointless end in Tintin and the Picaros. Having made a practice of recycling material from earlier books, Hergé continues this by recycling the location of the adventure, as well as numerous allies, villains, and supporting characters in a story that more or less goes nowhere. As a Tintin story goes, this volume is not particularly bad, but as a finale for a long running hero, it is simply anticlimactic.

From The Red Sea Sharks (read review) on, the Tintin series had been living on reused characters. After bringing back the bulk of the characters developed in the early books in the series in The Red Sea Sharks, Hergé then brought back Chang Chong-Chen in Tintin in Tibet (read review), Bianca Castafiore and her entourage in The Castafiore Emerald (read review), and Allan and Rastapopoulos in Flight 714 (read review). Hergé even began recycling characters of more recent vintage, with Jolyon Wagg making several appearances over the last handful of books in the series, and Skut, first introduced in The Red Sea Sharks, making another appearance in Flight 714. Although the early part of the series had some missteps, it had been on a steady upward trend in quality through the two-part series of Destination Moon (read review) and Explorers on the Moon (read review) and the tense espionage drama of The Calculus Affair (read review), but after that it seems that the series simply ran out of steam as Hergé ran out of ideas and had to resort to pulling old plots, characters, and gags out of mothballs and reusing them. Sadly, Tintin and the Picaros continues this trend, and is a fairly bland story with a cast of characters pulled from earlier, better books going through the motions in an uninspiring plot.

The book opens up with a pile of exposition as the characters bring the reader up to speed on recent developments: Bianca Castafiore, accompanied by her maid Irma, accompanist Wagner, and the detectives Thompson and Thomson, is touring South America and is due to perform in San Theodoros, currently ruled by the authoritarian General Tapioca who overthrew Tintin's old friend General Alcazar with the help of the Bordourian dictator Kûrvi-Tasch. At the same time, we learn that Captain Haddock seems to have acquired a distaste for whiskey. After setting up the background, the story proceeds quickly as when they get up the next morning Captain Haddock, Tintin, and Professor Calculus learn that Bianca and everyone traveling with her had been arrested by General Tapioca for plotting against his government. Soon, the plot thickens as Tapioca accuses Captain Haddock and Tintin of masterminding the alleged conspiracy from Marlinspike Hall, an accusation that is hotly denied by Haddock when reporters show up on his doorstep. Of course, Professor Calculus amusingly seems to confirm that he is part of a plot to overthrow General Tapioca, but this is the result of his mishearing everything that is said to him. The back and forth between Haddock and Tapioca is fought out in the newspapers in a series of sensational headlines until finally an incensed Captain takes up the General's offer to come to Tapiocopolis for discussions. This whole sequence is kind of silly, as it seems a little ridiculous that a sitting head of state would pick a public fight with a minor celebrity in a distant country for no apparent reason out of the blue. However, without this public fracas, none of the rest of the book would have a story, and this is less artificial a setup for the plot than the wild coincidences of some of the other stories. Another fairly glaring oddity in this portion of the book is the fact that despite the dust-up between Tapioca and the trio of heroes being front page news, Tintin never seems to even consider doing any actual reporting on the matter. This shouldn't really be a surprise because the series hasn't even made a nod in the direction of Tintin's supposed job for several books, but when reporters play such a prominent role in a story the boy hero's lack of attention to his ostensible occupation is all the more apparent.

Haddock and Calculus head off to San Theodoros, with Tintin steadfastly maintaining that Tapioca's invitation is an obvious trap and refusing to do (which seems decidedly out of character for the usually rash Tintin, who in previous books would frequently rush headlong into obvious danger). When their plane is flying into Tapiocopolis, we get some quick scenes of the city, first the prosperous downtown, and then the wretched slums patrolled by soldiers. After Haddock is met at the airport by General Tapioca's aide-de-camp Colonel Alvarez we learn some interesting details: first that Calculus is a man of strong principles, second that Alvarez is unable to recognize Tintin by sight, and finally, San Theodoros is imminently hosting the celebration of Carnaval. Soon, Haddock and Calculus are whisked away to their quarters and soon learn that although it is quite comfortable and everyone they encounter pretends they are guests, it is a prison cell nonetheless. We also encounter Colonel Sponsz, Tintin's old nemesis from The Calculus Affair, who is quite frustrated by Tintin's refusal to take the bait and travel to San Theodoros. It seems that the entirety of the conflict between Tapioca and Haddock was engineered by Sponsz in order to exact petty revenge upon the trio. As usual for Tintin villains, Sponsz is willing to go to great lengths in order to accomplish trivial goals. Fortunately for Sponsz, Tintin inexplicably changes his mind and shows up a day after Haddock and Calculus, putting his head into the lion's mouth.

All seems well when Pablo, the man whose life Tintin saved in The Broken Ear (read review), shows up with news that General Alcazar has a secret plan to break Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus out of their gilded cage. After a brief action sequence in which our heroes wind up in a truck driven by the General-in-exile, and are off to meet up with the "Picaros", the name given to the rebels who support Alcazar's return to power. Of course, since this is a Tintin book, there is no avoiding recycling characters, so in addition to the return of Pablo and General Alcazar from The Broken Ear, we also have to run across the English explorer Ridgewell and the Arumbaya tribe from that same book. Ridgewell soon reveals that the Arumbayas have taken up heavy drinking as a result of airdrops of whiskey that the government has been raining down upon the jungle in an attempt to incapacitate Alcazar's Picaros. And we soon learn that Calculus is up to something, as he drops some pills into the Arumbaya cooking pots. Before too long, Tintin, Haddock, Calculus, and Alcazar are guests at dinner with the Arumbayas, and after eating some exceedingly spicy food, the affliction that has rendered alcohol undrinkable for Captain Haddock seems to have spread to everyone else as well. This surprises everyone except Calculus, giving the reader some inkling of what the Professor is up to. Interestingly, for this sequence, Haddock has been knocked on the head and has temporarily lost his mind.

And Calculus' current project becomes critically important to the plot as it turns out that the members of the tiny band of Picaros have become similarly addicted to alcohol, and as a result, their campaign against General Tapioca's regime has ground to a halt. Despite the fact that his followers number only about thirty men, Alcazar asserts that he could overthrow Tapioca during the upcoming festivities of Carnaval After learning that Calculus has come up with a formula that, once ingested, makes alcohol extremely unpleasant tasting, Tintin goes to Alcazar and offers to help cure his men of their love of liquor, but only if Alcazar agrees to make his coup d'etat entirely bloodless. After some protests, Alcazar agrees, and Tintin goes to put his plan into action. In an interesting twist, he is obstructed by Captain Haddock, who makes a fairly strong case for the primacy of personal autonomy, although Tintin sweeps those concerns aside, which is unsurprising given Tintin's previous actions to manipulate his friends in earlier books whenever he thought it was useful to do so. And this makes clear that although Tintin is supposed to be a hero, and is for the most part a hero, he is a fairly duplicitous and underhanded one.

The scenes in the Picaros camp that develop Alcazar's character into more than a caricature of a deposed tinpot dictator, although only barely. it turns out that Alcazar is a henpecked husband, with a domineering wife named Peggy who complains about living in the jungle with Alcazar's guerrilla army, which leads to a scene of Alcazar in a pink apron washing dishes. It is also at this point that Alcazar begins promising to reward people by making them members of "the order of San Fernando", with various varieties of honorary titles being bandied about - a subtle commentary by Hergé on the value of honors received from petty regimes, and in a larger sense on the value of these sorts of petty regimes at all. The sort of free hand with which Alcazar hands out memberships in the order of San Fernando is a marked contrast to the honor bestowed upon Tintin at the end of King Ottokar's Sceptre (read review) when he becomes the first non-Syldavian ever to be made a Knight of the Order of the Golden Pelican. In a not particularly subtle manner, Hergé seems to be commenting on the worth of Latin American countries in a way that contrasts them quite unfavorably with more traditional Balkan monarchies.

After a show trial in which Castafiore, Thompson, and Thomson are all convicted of conspiring against Tapioca, the two detectives are condemned to death while the Milanese Nightingale is sentenced to life imprisonment. At this point, because once isn't enough, Jolyon Wagg makes his second appearance in the book, arriving with a group set to perform at the Carnaval celebration, which causes Tintin to hatch a plan for Alcazar to seize power. Before too long, Alcazar is handing out dubiously valuable honors and the Picaros along with Tintin and Haddock are off to Tapiocopolis in a borrowed bus disguised in silly jester costumes as Jolyon's troupe the "Jolly Follies". Once again, Hergé throws in some commentary on the politics of San Theodoros by including a letter from Alcazar to Peggy that reveals that the General is at best semi-literate. Because Tintin is on his side, Alcazar's plan goes off like clockwork, although he and his men do look ridiculous storming the palace in multicolored tights, green hoods, red hats with puffy yellow, blue, and pink feathers, and goofy-looking masks. Once again, it seems that Hergé is making a statement about the politics of the region by making the ostensible "good guys" look ridiculous. It is also somewhat ironic, although predictable for a Tintin adventure, that had Sponsz and Tapioca not attempted to execute a scheme of petty revenge against Tintin and Haddock, Alcazar would have never been able to depose the Tapioca regime and seize power. As usual, the villains' clumsy plotting proves to be their own undoing, and if they had just left Tintin alone, their plans would have gone off with a hitch.

Once Alcazar takes control, he informs Tapioca that he will not be executed, which incenses the now deposed dictator. It seems that the brutality of politics is not only expected, but if it is not implemented those who are to be subjected to it feel slighted, as if they weren't worthy of reprisal. However, Tintin has to halt an execution, and Thompson and Thomson are to face the firing squad. Worked in among the action and comedy involved in getting Tintin and a squad of soldiers across the city in the middle of Carnaval is what seems to be a very interesting revelation about the two detectives. Throughout the series Thompson and Thomson have been inseparable, dressing alike, completing each other's sentences, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to one another. They quite clearly establish that they are not related, partially due to the different spelling of their names, but also because the two detectives say so on more than one occasion. But it is in their final scene in the final book of the series that we get a little light shed on their actual relationship when asked to come up with some last words, Thomson says "Kiss me, Thompson, will that do?". Did Hergé intend to imply with this that Thompson and Thomson were lovers? It is a very thin thread, but given the fairly rampant speculation that has surrounded the relationships between Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus based upon nothing but their close friendship and shared living quarters, it seems possible that he was responding to this by giving a very small hint that maybe, just maybe, the speculation should have centered on the detectives.

In the end, all of the action of the book adds up to nothing at all. In the final scene in the book, we get a shot of the plane that Tintin and his friends are on to leave San Theodoros flying over a slum that looks remarkably like the slum that Haddock and Calculus flew over when arriving in Tapiocopolis near the beginning of the book: the only difference is that the billboard now says "Viva Alcazar" rather than "Viva Tapioca" and the uniforms of the patrolling soldiers are different. In short, despite Tintin's influence in forcing a bloodless coup, nothing of importance has changed. In some ways, this seems to be a metaphor for the entire Tintin series: Tintin is, for the most part, an agent of the status quo. While he does solve some crimes, as in The Black Island (read review) or The Crab with the Golden Claws (read review), for the most part he acts merely to restore the world to the state in which it was when the story began, as in The Broken Ear or King Ottokar's Sceptre. I think it is no accident that the best stories in the series are ones in which Tintin does actually accomplish something, such as the two part stories of The Secret of the Unicorn (read review) and Red Rackham's Treasure (read review) in which Captain Haddock acquires Marlinspike Hall, or Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon in which the characters all go to the moon and back, but all too often the results of the stories are forgotten as soon as the characters move on to the next book - except for the villains who are always remembering that Tintin foiled their schemes and plotting revenge.

But as the series draws to a close, it becomes apparent that for all of Tintin's efforts the world is essentially returned to the status quo ante, a point made crystal clear by this book in which despite all his actions, nothing really changes. Sure, Tintin saves Bianca, Irma, Wagner, Thompson, and Thomson from execution or imprisonment, but they were only threatened as a means of extracting petty revenge upon Tintin to begin with. And San Theodoros is essentially the same as when he arrived, just with a change of names at the top. And as a result, the reader is left feeling entirely unsatisfied with the end result of the story in this book, unsatisfied with this story as an ending to the series, and in some ways, unsatisfied with the series as a whole.

Previous book in the series: Flight 714

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Follow Friday - Forty-Nine Is Seven Squared


It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Oh! For the Love of Books! and Ezine of a Random Girl.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Activity!!! Take a picture or describe where you love to read the most.

I don't know if I have a single favorite spot to read, because I read pretty much everywhere I go. But if I had to pick the spot where I do most of my reading, it would be on the subway and the bus during my daily commute. I travel about an hour and a half each way every day, and although I frequently sleep some of the way, I usually get an hour or more of reading done during each trip. It may not be the most ideal reading situation, but it does mean that I do read on a more or less regular schedule. However, as I do not own an e-reader, and don't really have any plans to get one any time soon, this does mean that I don't really have the means to read e-books. This might change someday, but for now I'm a paper and ink reader for the most part.


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Review - Flight 714 by Hergé


Short review: While traveling to Australia, Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus run into Skut, hitch a ride on a billionaire's plane, get hijacked, and are saved by aliens.

Haiku
Chance meeting with Skut
A billionaire kidnapped
Alien rescue

Full review: After experimenting with a plotless story in The Castafiore Emerald (read review), Hergé seems to have decided that was a bad idea. Well, half a bad idea anyway, as Flight 714 more or less has half a story and then takes a massive left turn when it meets a deus ex machina that appears out of left field. This is easily the most outlandish of Tintin's adventures, and the one that fits most firmly into the science fiction genre. As typical for Tintin stories late in the series, it is also full of inside references and recycled characters, although it does bring the character arc of a handful of long-running characters to a fairly definitive ending.

The book opens with Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus changing planes in Djakarta on their way to Sydney, Australia for the International Astronautical Congress where they are to be honored for being the first men on the moon. Oddly omitted are Thompson and Thomson, who also made the journey to the moon despite the fact that their trip was accidental. Due to the structure of the story, their absence at the opening means that they play no role in this book. Although the bumbling detectives are missing from Flight 714, the Estonian pilot Skut, last seen in The Red Sea Sharks (read review), shows up now employed by the eccentric millionaire Lazlo Carreidas, who also happens to be on his way to the International Astronautical Congress. Carreidas is "the millionaire who never laughs", and is so gloomy and unassuming that Haddock initially mistakes him for a vagrant down on his luck, which sets up a sequence in which Calculus accomplishes the impossible by making Carreidas laugh. Carreidas finds Calculus' hearing impaired cluelessness hilarious, and immediately offers to take our heroes to Sydney in his private plane. In a strange twist, this means that no one actually flies on Flight 714, as this is the plane that Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus were going to catch in Djakarta, but forewent in order to hitch a ride with Carreidas.

This turns out to be a fortuitous turn of evens for the millionaire, because Carreidas' private secretary Spalding, along with most of the plane crew, has become embroiled in a plot to try to steal the millionaire's fortune. The plot doesn't materialize until after Carreidas proves himself to be a petty crook by cheating at a game of Battleships against Captain Haddock. However, he also proves himself to be an aviation pioneer as his aircraft is a shifting wing design that allows the plane to function better at supersonic speeds. This technological tidbit is a reminder of how long-running the Tintin series was: the series started with pre-World War II propeller driven fighter planes and now features supersonic passenger planes. After some in-air action, including an attempted rescue by Tintin that Carreidas manages to mess up, everyone reaches the secret island the hijackers have prepared for them and we learn the identity of the mastermind behind the plot: the recurring villain Rastapopoulos and his sidekick Captain Allan both last seen in The Red Sea Sharks, adding to the list of characters recycled from that book alongside Skut. Clad in a bright pink shirt, cowboy hat and cowboy boots, Rastapopoulos strikes a fairly silly looking figure now, a development that starts to make sense once one realizes that without characters like Thompson and Thomson or Bianca Castafiore, the evil mastermind and his sidekick Allan serve double duty in the book as both the villains and the comic relief, which Rastapopoulos starts off by messing up an attempt to stamp on a spider. This character element gives the adventure portion of the book something of a slapstick feel, and reduces Rastapopoulos and Allen from being serious threats to being nothing more than cheap cartoon villains.

The book then lurches back and forth between action sequences as Tintin, Haddock and Skut try to figure out a way to escape from the clutches of Rastapopoulos and rescue Carreidas and silly comic interludes as Rastapopoulos and Allen prove to be remarkably incompetent at being criminals: Rastapopoulos gets stuck with Doctor Krollspell's truth serum he is attempting to use to get Carreidas to reveal his Swiss bank account number and reveals that he is planning on double crossing almost all of those who are in his own employ. But this is not before Carreidas, under the influence of the truth serum, reveals every moral failing on his part, large and small, to comic effect. In a classic Bond-villain form, Rastapopoulos is planning on killing off Doctor Krollspell and the Sondonesian rebels he had recruited to aid him by destroying their ships with mines so he doesn't have to pay them off. One has to wonder who Rastapopoulos is planning on having mine the Sondonesian ships, since the Sondonesians appear to be the bulk of the manpower he would have available to mine the ships, and it seems implausible that they would mine their own ships for him. The only other alternative would be for Allan or the conspirators from Carreidas' flight crew to do the job, and a shady merchant captain, a pilot, a navigator, and a private secretary don't seem very likely to have the appropriate skill set in their repertoire.

These details aside, the book meanders back and forth with Tintin and Haddock evading Allen and the Sondonesians while rescuing Calculus, Skut, and Carredias. As has become de rigeur for the series, there is a joke involving sticking plaster and Captain Haddock, but the sticking plaster humor expands to also include Carreidas, Rastapopoulos, and Krollspell. Interspersed with the dramatic gun play and fisticuffs is a running gag involving heaping inadvertent abuse upon Rastapopoulos as he is hit on the head by a broken rifle butt, runs headlong into a tree, has most of his facial hair pulled off with sticking plaster, gets blasted by a stray grenade, hit in the face with an elbow, and knocked on the head by a falling chunk of stalactite. Through his travails, Rastapopolous' appearance becomes more and more haggard as the abuse takes its toll. But this highlights one of the problems with making your primary villain into your comic relief: it transforms them from a menacing figure into a subject of mockery and pity. This point becomes very clear late in the book when Allen, having been dispatched to obtain dynamite to blow up an obstacles, returns to Rastapopoulos having had all his teeth knocked out and his skipper cap knocked off (revealing a bald spot on his head), morphs from a cruel villain into a pathetic toothless old man. One might suggest that this sort of treatment is poetic justice for characters that have been a thorn in Tintin's side for several books, but at a certain point poetic justice becomes overkill, and the reader begins to have sympathy for the villains. And although Rastapopoulos and Allen are greedy unrepentant criminals, Hergé  manages to cross that line, making the two of them, and especially Allen, seem sympathetic rather than loathsome.

After seeming to have written himself into a corner with his plot, Hergé has the book take a giant and unexpected left turn into science fiction when Tintin begins hearing a voice in his head that guides him and the rest of our heroes to safety. After winding through several underground caverns worked filled with strange looking stone statues, the characters meet up with Mik Kanrokitoff, who we are told is from Space Week magazine, and who informs the travelers that he has been guiding them with telepathy. And, it turns out, that he is on the island for his twice yearly meeting with extra-terrestrials. This rescue comes entirely out of the blue, with no groundwork laid in this book or any earlier Tintin books for the character of Kanrokitoff or alien activity on Earth. The Tintin series is full of plots driven by coincidence and serendipity, but the development that leads to the last portion of Flight 714 is nothing more than a deus ex machina in which the aliens literally come down from the sky, rescue the heroes from impending doom, sweep up the villains, and transport the protagonists to safety, and carry the evildoers away to parts unknown. This set of plot twists turns Tintin, Captain Haddock and the rest of the central characters into passive bystanders. Instead of acting to save themselves and foil the villains, the heroes and their foes are literally reduced to hypnotized zombies carried along by events to the resolution of the story. As a result, while this installment of the series does give closure to the story of Rastapopoulos and Allan, it is an unsatisfying end, because Tintin really didn't have anything to do with bringing it about.

Overall, Flight 714 is a strange and ultimately frustrating book. It starts off with a complex villainous plot involving two recurring villains, escape attempts, and action, and then it devolves into everyone standing around while godlike aliens fix all the resulting problems. With villains reduced to buffoons as a result of doing double duty as comic relief and a plot that resolves without any real effort on the part of the heroes, the book seems like Hergé was more or less out of story ideas and was more or less just mailing in his efforts. Although the book does have some interesting visuals, and half of a good story, this is simply not enough to raise it to the standards one would expect out of the Tintin series. In many ways, the book is so disappointing that even a late appearance by the annoying insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg passes by almost unnoticed. Possibly the most disappointing element of the book is that at the end, Hergé effectively pushes the reset button by having everyone forget most of the events that transpire in the book, leaving only a strange piece of metal in Calculus' possession and Snowy's intact memory as evidence of the kidnapping or the subsequent strange happenings on the island. With no real foundation for the plot twist, and a complete lack of follow up in subsequent adventures, Flight 714 is a moderately fun story with an ending that is likely to leave most readers feeling unsatisfied.

Previous book in the series: The Castafiore Emerald
Subsequent book in the series: Tintin and the Picaros

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Musical Monday - The Presidents by Jonathan Coulton


I don't want the Musical Monday meme to turn into the Jonathan Coulton show. I really don't. But it seems that every time I turn around looking for the right piece of music to post, Coulton has a song that is perfectly on point. And so it is for today, President's Day because Coulton happens to have written a song about all of the Presidents of the United States.

But just because you write a song doesn't mean that you remember it when the time comes to perform it live. The Presidents is a song with some fairly intricate lyrics. And on JoCoCruiseCrazy 2011 when he was asked to play it, he made several missteps on his way to getting those lyrics out. To get through the song, he turned to his audience, many of whom knew the lyrics better than he did, and were all too happy to shout out help as he struggled to sing it for them. And that, to me, makes the song even better.

Previous Musical Monday: I'm Your Moon by Jonathan Coulton
Subsequent Musical Monday: Sisters of the Moon by Fleetwood Mac

Other Holiday Songs     Musical Monday Playlists

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Review - The Castafiore Emerald by Hergé


Short review: Bianca Castafiore invites herself to Marlinspike to begin a series of comic sequences without any story to speak of. Tintin does no reporting.

Haiku
An unwanted guest
Plus lots of useless action
A pointless story

Full review: Late in the Tintin series, Hergé seems to have run out of story ideas, including more and more filler material to compensate for the increasingly paltry plots. The story in The Red Sea Sharks (read review) was recycled. The story in Tintin in Tibet (read review) was flimsy. The plot in The Castafiore Emerald is nonexistent, resulting in a book that is full of nothing but slapstick gags and red herrings. The lack of any real story is compounded by the fact that the focal character of the book is my least favorite supporting character in the series: The obnoxiously self-absorbed Bianca Castafiore. Although the series did recover somewhat in the final two books of the series, each of them including something akin to an actual plot, this book is the nadir of storytelling in the series, and as a result is among the weakest of the Adventures of Tintin.

This weakness is the result, in large part, of the fact that there is essentially no "adventure" in The Castafiore Emerald. The activity in the story is almost exclusively confined to the grounds of Marlinspike Hall, making this one of the few Tintin books in which all of the action is confined to a single country, or in this case, a single country estate. While having a story set exclusively in a setting like Marlinspike Hall is not necessarily bad, after adventures in which the characters journeyed to exotic places, tangled with spies, and even flew to the moon, a manor mystery is something of a disappointment. Not only that while the story seems to be something of a heist mystery, with Castafiore bringing her precious jewels with her for an unexpected visit with Tintin and the Captain, lead after lead turns into a dead end, until the entire "plot" evaporates into nothingness.

The book does open up somewhat promisingly, as Tintin and Captain Haddock come across a gypsy caravan while out on a walk. Upon learning that the only place the local police would let the Romany set up their camp was a dump, Haddock is incensed and insists that they move to a meadow on his property at Marlinspike. Given the widespread prejudice against the Romany that continues to this day, having his central character take such a strong position in support of extending basic human decency towards them is a fairly powerful statement for Hergé to make. This statement is made all the stronger when, despite the dire warnings issued by the police and even Nestor concerning the trouble that having the Romany as guests is sure to bring, they end up causing no trouble at all. The one redeeming aspect of this book is the very sympathetic treatment given to this persecuted minority.

Unfortunately, that is more or less the sum total of the good parts of the book. The rest consists of tired slapstick gags, mistaken identity, and misdirection. The book sets up the running gag of a broken step on Marlinspike's main staircase, which Calculus, Nestor, and eventually Captain Haddock all fall prey to while Mr. Bolt the repairman avoids coming to fix the problem. This results in Captain Haddock being laid up and unable to avoid the Milanese Nightingale's visit, or her attentions when she does arrive. And of course when Captain Haddock is trying to call Mr. Bolt, the book revives the long-running gag involving misdialing the number for Mr. Cutts the butcher. The primary occurrence of the book is the unexpected and uninvited visit to Marlinspike by Bianca Castafiore and her small entourage of Irma, her maid, and Igor Wagner, her accompanist. In the swirl of self-absorbed activity surrounding Ms. Castafiore (including the delivery of a gift of a parrot for Captain Haddock and one of her own albums for Tintin), we learn that she has brought her jewels and is somewhat paranoid about them being stolen. And this paranoia drives the rest of the book as nosy reporters, employees going about their business, and coincidental events take on unwarranted importance.

One of the central problems of the book is that it features Bianca Castafiore as a primary character. In previous books the opera singer would appear for a page or two of humor as she mangled Captain Haddock's name, sang The Jewel Song from Faust and generally behaved like a self-absorbed diva. And in small doses her self-centered obnoxiousness is annoying but kind of funny. But Bianca quickly becomes tiresome, and in an entire book devoted to her, she becomes insufferable. In terms of character, Bianca Castafiore is sort of like a nightmare version of Professor Calculus. While Calculus is oblivious to those around him, this is because he is virtually deaf, but even when he misunderstands what is said to him, he is well-meaning and kind in his responses - with the one exception being when he displays a monumental temper in Destination Moon (read review). He is helpful and puts his intellect to great use building magnificent inventions that he intends to be used to benefit all people. One the other hand, Bianca Castafiore is oblivious to those around her because she is a selfish and simply doesn't care about them except to the extent that they serve as an audience to shower adulation upon her. Her one talent - singing opera - is one that Hergé thought useless, and she apparently has a repertoire of exactly one song. In short, where Calculus is an unassuming asset to society, Castafiore is a vain and useless bauble.

Centered as it is on Bianca Castafiore, the book isn't helped by the appearance of the equally annoying Jolyon Wagg who does his usual pushy salesman routine and tries to get Bianca to buy insurance for her jewels. As usual, Haddock seems to completely lack the ability to tell annoying guests that he'd rather they not stay, a situation exacerbated by his being wheelchair bound as a result of a foot injury caused by stumbling on the broken step in Marlinspike Hall. As a result, we are treated to a series of fairly excruciating scenes in which Haddock is forced to endure the company of Castafiore and Wagg without the ability to make himself scarce. The book winds its way through a series of red herrings, driven by Bianca Castafiore's combination of vanity and paranoia; she announces that she does not want publicity, but then clarifies that she doesn't want publicity from particular news outlets, it becoming clear quite quickly that she craves publicity from other newspapers and even arranges a television interview. She even revels in a false story that she and Captain Haddock will be getting married, a development that once again clumsily attempts to provide humor at Haddock's expense. Against a backdrop of a media circus surrounding Bianca's visit to Marlinspike, Tintin's lack of attention to doing anything related to his purported job as a journalist is particularly noticeable. People come and go from the estate, each being suspected of being after the prize emerald in Bianca Castafiore's jewel collection, or later, being suspected of stealing the item.

The true failure of the books is that all this activity simply goes nowhere. In the end, Tintin solves the "mystery" as a result of sudden inspiration that strikes him while listening to Bianca sing The Jewel Song from Faust, a development that comes out of left field. None of the  strange happenings around the estate amount to anything of substance, none of the clues are actually clues, and none of the suspects are actually up to anything particularly nefarious. The book is, in total, a collection of red herrings that add up to nothing more than a giant red herring. In all the previous books, even ones like Tintin in America which had thin stories, there was at least a story. In The Castafiore Emerald, it seems that Hergé simply ran out of ideas for a story and resorted to rehashed gags, coincidences, and misdirection in the place of any semblance of a plot. With no plot and featuring the most annoying recurring character in the Tintin cast, this is simply the weakest book of the series.

Previous book in the series: Tintin in Tibet
Subsequent book in the series: Flight 714

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Follow Friday - Julius Caesar Defeated Pompey in Forty-Eight B.C.


It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Beefcake and Babes and Le' Grande Codex.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: BeefcakeandBabes Asks: I like unique names for characters and am looking forward to coming up with some when I start writing. What’s the most unique character name you’ve come across?

Because I read so much science fiction and fantasy, I am inundated with strange names. Some authors are able to come up with interesting and imaginative names. Some authors are less than skilled at inventing names. I suppose I could select an awful name from the truly abysmal Eye of Argon, such as Gringr, the central barbaric character, but that book has been reduced to a long running gag in the speculative fiction community and not regarded as any kind of serious work (plus, it is the product of an unskilled teenage writer). If I'm going to choose a name from a work by a teenager, I suppose I could pick one of Christopher Paolini's characters from the Inheritance Cycle - the evil Galbatorix for example.

Part of the difficulty in answering this question results from the intimate relationship between a character's name and the character himself. I suppose that Hari Seldon's name might be considered unusual, but I am never sure if he is memorable because his name is exceptional or if his name is just ordinary but the role he played in the Foundation series (read reviews) makes it seem exceptional. Perhaps I could go with Poul Anderson's interstellar secret agent Dominic Flandry, or one of Andre Norton's free traders like Murdoc Jern. In the end, I go back to Samuel R. Delany and his book Nova (read review) with its protagonist Lorq von Ray and the villainous siblings Prince Red and Ruby Red.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Forty-Nine Is Seven Squared

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review - Tintin in Tibet by Hergé


Short review: A premonition sends Tintin and Captain Haddock to Tibet in search of Tintin's old friend Chang. Tintin does no reporting.

Haiku
Vision of a friend
A crashed plane in the mountains
A friendly yeti

Full review: Tintin in Tibet is one of the most popular books in the Tintin series, and was reportedly Hergé's personal favorite. From my perspective, however, this is not a particularly good installment of the series because the storytelling is so atrophied. While the Tintin books have always relied upon a healthy dose of coincidence to move their stories along, in Tintin in Tibet Hergé mostly dispenses with even this modicum of realism and simply has visions pop into Tintin's head telling him what to do. Or visions pop into the head of mystically inclined Tibetan monks who then tell Tintin what he should do. This means that the story itself is more or less nothing but a man against nature plot in which the man (or, since Captain Haddock and Snowy come along with Tintin for this adventure, the men) is given supernatural aid, making the development and resolution of the tale less than suspenseful. That said, the story is somewhat thoughtful at times, reflecting on the nature of friendship and the nature of humanity in a way far removed from the naked racism of Tintin in the Congo. Because of this, despite its other flaws, including the limited appearance by Professor Calculus and the complete absence of Thompson and Thomson, Tintin in Tibet is still a decent book, although it is definitely not one of the best installments of the Tintin series.

The story opens, as do many Tintin stories, with a healthy dose of coincidence: while vacationing in the Alps with Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus, Tintin has a vision of Chang Chong-Chen, the young Chinese boy he had befriended in The Blue Lotus (read review), lying in a snowdrift reaching out for him. The next day, Tintin gets a letter from Chang telling him that he is going to be visiting London and will be able to see Tintin while he is there. Tintin is so overjoyed at the prospect that he grabs Professor Calculus and does a little dance with him, which constitutes the entirety of Calculus' appearance in this volume. Haddock throws some water onto the celebration when he discovers in the newspaper that Chang was aboard a plane that crashed in the Himalayas and is presumed dead. Based on his vision, and repeatedly hearing the name "Chang" being said by those around him, Tintin refuses to believe Chang is dead and sets out for Tibet to rescue his friend, and after some bluster, Captain Haddock comes too.

Because every Tintin book has to wander aimlessly for a bit to provide opportunities for slapstick humor, the pair stop over to change planes in India, leading to a sequence with Captain Haddock and a cow and then a return to the running gag involving Captain Haddock and sticking plaster. The silliness doesn't end when our heroes get to Katmandu, with routines featuring an official and a rubber band, accidental ingestion of spicy peppers, and a Tibetan who is a able to match Captain Haddock's mouth. Haddock and Tintin find Cheng Li-Kim, a relative of Chang's and set about recruiting the Sherpa Tharkey to guide them to the aircraft. Unfortunately, Tharkey balks at returning to the crash site, leading Tintin to manfully insist on going alone so as not to risk the lives of anyone else. Of course, doing this is the best way to get Captain Haddock to join you, because as he asks Tintin, "I suppose you think Captain Haddock has got tomato juice in his veins eh?" Although there have been hints of this sort of thing in previous books, this is the first one in which Tintin has actively goaded or tricked Captain Haddock into action, not once, but several times in the course of the story.

Everyone heads out - Haddock apparently convinced Tharkey to join the expedition and hire a bunch of porters off-camera - and we learn that whiskey makes you a better hiker. At least until it causes you to have hallucinations and run into a tree. After the group settles down for the night, we get the now obligatory Bianca Castafiore reference, much to Captain Haddock's annoyance, and then the story continues on with more hiking. It seems like Hergé didn't really know where the story was going, because the book wanders about more or less without a plot for so long, with Haddock crossing and recrossing a mountain stream, an interlude in which the comic and tragic potential of a drunk dog comes into play, Tibetan superstitions about walking past a chorten, and fruit dropping from trees. Eventually the plot more or less shows up in the form of strange noises at night which the Tibetan porters attribute to the yeti. From the Tibetans we also learn that the abominable snowman has a strong thirst for alcohol when they admonish Captain Haddock against opening another of the numerous bottles of whiskey he packed for the trip. This belief is apparently confirmed when a bottle that Captain Haddock left out overnight turns up missing the next morning.

The travelers finally reach the wrecked aircraft, but not before Haddock causes a miniature avalanche and scares off all the porters. Oddly, despite the fact that the book is set in the Himalayas with high mountains and aerie-like Buddhist monasteries, the only really oversize vista in the entire book is a half page depiction of the downed airplane. While exploring the area, Tintin locates a cave in which he finds an inscription of Chang's name. However, he gets lost in a sudden blizzard when he follows a dark shadow moving in the night and falls into a crevasse, leaving Snowy to sit in the snow and howl for help. When Tharkey and Captain Haddock hear the pup and come to the rescue, Snowy is almost dead from cold. This sequence makes one wonder just how irresponsible it was for Tintin to bring Snowy into the frozen mountains. Snowy is a small animal, and thus would be especially vulnerable to the cold climate. In any realistic portrayal of this expedition, Snowy would return from the trip either dead from exposure or with his limbs all needing to be amputated due to frostbite. After being rescued, or rather not needing to be rescued, Tintin decides to give up hope and head home, but notices yet another clue high in the mountains. Oddly, even with the evidence that Chang is alive, Tharkey decides to leave Tintin and Captain Haddock to go on alone. Once again, Haddock is reluctant at first, but Tintin tricks him into getting drunk so he decides to continue on.

The pair of men and Snowy set out to climb a mountainous cliff face to retrieve a yellow scarf, and then continue up the mountain after the path that Tintin presumes Chang to have taken. On this climb, Captain Haddock winds up in trouble, and displays remarkable bravery by attempting to sacrifice himself to save his friend Tintin. And it is in this act of friendship that the theme Hergé's theme for the book comes clear: friends are people you can rely upon to try to help even when everyone else has given up. Friends are people who will sacrifice themselves for you. And Tintin's response to Haddock's efforts is just as telling: he refuses to let Haddock sacrifice himself even though Tintin knows that doing so would likely cause his own death. The entire book boils down to the handful of panels of Captain Haddock off a cliff from a single nylon rope. Of course, because this is Tintin, serendipity saves the day in the form of Tharkey returning because of a case of racial solidity as he feels ashamed that Tintin, a European, would put himself in danger to save an Asian, while Tharkey, a fellow Asian, would not. This is a reminder that although Hergé had come a long way in his thinking about race, there was still some fairly obnoxious racism in his writing even at this late stage in the series.

The rigors of wandering through snow-capped mountains (and a quick encounter between one of their tents and the yeti) eventually overcome the heroes, and Snowy is sent off to get help at a monastery the protagonists spotted in the distance, with his usual dilemma of whether to keep to the mission Tintin assigned him or stop to chew on a bone he happens across. The monastery is full of Buddhist monks, including Blessed Lightning, who levitates and has visions. This, along with Tintin's original premonition of Chang reaching out for him, firmly cements this story in the "fantasy" category. At this point the story devolves into extended exposition as the Grand Abbot of the monastery, although impressed that Tintin would brave the mountains of Tibet for a friend, winds his way to convincing Tintin that Chang must be dead, causing Tintin to give up his quest yet again. This surrender is short-lived, as Blessed Lightning levitates into the air again and has a vision of Chang in the hands of the "migou", of yeti. And once again the Grand Abbot tells Tintin to give up his quest because the migou never gives up his prey. Oddly, despite being perfectly willing to give up on Chang when he thought he had succumbed to the natural hazards of the Himalayas, he insists on continuing to look for him now that he has supposedly been taken and eaten by a yeti.

Tintin, Snowy, and Captain Haddock once again set out on their own, Tharkey having been injured too seriously to continue. Having Snowy is a lucky break, because he is able to track Chang's scent to the yeti's cave - apparently the only thing that keeps people from finding the abominable snowman is that they don't take small white dogs with them when they go mountaineering. Once there, Tintin quickly locates his friend and is able to evade the yeti due to a lucky break involving a camera. While they are carrying Chang to safety, Chang relates his story of being rescued and cared for by the yeti, portraying the feared beast in a very human light.  And this, along with a message about the power of friendship, is one of the core messages of Tintin in Tibet. Despite his clumsy racism in some scenes, Hergé makes a strong statement about the universality of humanity even when the character displaying such an attribute is one that many would not consider human at all. Tintin's last commentary coupled with the final panel of the story changes the yeti from a menacing fear-inducing figure to a pitiable one laced with pathos.

Tintin in Tibet is characteristic of the later books in the Tintin series, with weak storytelling and a thin plot. Consisting mostly of slapstick gags and brief interludes of mountaineering action tied together by a string of coincidences and visions, the book has decent character development, but precious little else. Despite a feeble story filled with coincidence, psychic visions, and aimless wandering, the messages about the nature of friendship and humanity redeem the book, making it slightly better than average. Even so, the flaws result in a book that is mediocre at best.

Previous book in the series: The Red Sea Sharks
Subsequent book in the series: The Castafiore Emerald

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review - The Red Sea Sharks by Hergé


Short review: It is a reunion of bit characters who appeared in previous volumes as Tintin and Captain Haddock try to restore Emir Ben Kalish Ezab to power, foil an arms smuggling operation, and rescue some slaves.

Haiku
Recycled plot points
And returning characters
Makes a tired story

Full review: After the otherworldly adventures of Destination Moon (read review) and Explorers on the Moon (read review) and the tense espionage of The Calculus Affair (read review), Hergé takes Tintin back to his roots as an amateur sleuth, sending him to the Middle-East to track down smugglers dealing in arms and human lives. Although the story is a fairly standard tale of Tintin unraveling the poorly laid plans of mustache twirling villains to save the day, this story is the first to engage in the wholesale recycling of characters and locations from previous books. The Red Sea Sharks features characters originally seen in Cigars of the Pharoah (read review), The Blue Lotus (read review), The Broken Ear (read review), King Ottokar's Sceptre (read review), The Crab with the Golden Claws (read review), and The Land of Black Gold (read review). in roles of varying importance. Although the story is serviceable, after the exotic turn the series had taken starting in The Secret of the Unicorn (read review), a return to chasing smugglers while running through a cast of characters pulled out of mothballs has a "been there, done that" feel that makes this book seem like something of a disappointment.

The story opens up by recycling General Alcazar from The Broken Ear as Tintin and Captain Haddock run into him on the street. Despite having been quite friendly with the two as recently as The Seven Crystal Balls, the General is evasive and distracted, forgetting his wallet after misleading Tintin about the hotel where he could be found. Trying to track him down, Tintin and Haddock uncover nothing but mysteries. But because a mystery involving a deceptive former South American banana republic dictator requires some broad humor, Hergé recycles Abdullah, the bratty son of Emir Ben Kalish Ezab last seen in Land of Black Gold. The Emir has sent his son to Marlinspike ostensibly to improve the child's English, but really due to unrest in Khemed. This leads to a series of sequences involving Abdullah pulling pranks upon Haddock, and Haddock trying to retaliate, and Haddock being stymied by the cadre of Ben Kalish's servants camping out in Haddock's house. After Jolyon Wagg taking up residence in Marlinspike uninvited in The Calculus Affair, Abdullah and his entourage taking over Haddock's residence in this volume lets the reader know that Hergé is adding yet another recurring gag to the series: From this point forward, Haddock will be repeatedly afflicted with uninvited guests. The odd thing is that Haddock never seems to think he can just eject unwanted visitors from his home, apparently feeling obligated to either grumpily put up with their presence, trick them into leaving, or vacate the premises himself.

But since the story is sidetracked into playing out some comedy routines, we get an interlude with Calculus flailing about on roller skates, people mistakenly dialing Marlinspike while trying to get in touch with Mr. Cutts the butcher, and Thompson and Thomson clumsily investigating their latest case, which they let slip involves smuggling aircraft and turns out to involve General Alcazar. The the comedy portion now over for now, Tintin gets back to investigating triggered by the serendipitous appearance of an advertisement offering military equipment on a scrap of newspaper used by Abdullah as part of a prank. This does raise the question of how Thompson and Thomson have not been able to track down the arms dealers they are looking for if they are advertising in the newspaper. Tracking down Dawson, the arms dealer mentioned by Thompson and Thomson, Tintin discovers that he is none other than the corrupt former police chief of the Shanghai International Settlement recycled from The Blue Lotus. While it is mildly interesting to have characters from previous books make an appearance in later books, having so many intersect so frequently with so little reason in this book makes the fictional reality of the Tintin universe seem small and claustrophobic. Tintin pursues the trail of the arms smugglers just long enough to alert Dawson to his presence, but then events in Khemed pull him to the Middle-East with Captain Haddock joining him to avoid having to deal with Abdullah any more.

Once in Khemed, Tintin's meddling with the arms trade results in an attempt to kill him off that seems to involved massive amounts of overkill, but serendipity once again saves the day. The odd part about this sequence is that the story positions both Captain Haddock and Snowy to save the day, but instead Hergé has our heroes avoid death due to nothing more than a lucky break. Over and over again, Tintin (and the other central characters of the series) find themselves in trouble and are saved, not by their own actions, but by blind chance alone. This has the effect of frequently making the characters in the series seem passive. Rather than presenting the reader with capable protagonists with a hand in their own destiny, Hergé frequently seems to choose to give the reader more or less helpless bystanders carried along by the winds of fate to the resolution of the story. After avoiding death, Tintin and Haddock do take a bit of initiative and walk back to Khemed, finding Senhor Oliveira de Figuiera, originally from Cigars of the Pharaoh and last seen in Land of Black Gold. Unlike many of the other appearances of recycled characters, this one doesn't seem quite so arbitrary, as it had been previously established that de Figuiera was in Khemed, so it would seem natural that they would find him there. One little oddity is that while they are roaming about Khemed at night we see a wanted poster in the background of a scene offering a reward for the capture of Tintin and Haddock. But the two of them had been ejected from Khemed at the airport just the day before. Presumably the authorities would have known that they were being refused entry, and would either be dead or far away making the wanted poster seem kind of oddly out of place.

From de Figuiera the pair learn that Emir Ben Kalish was deposed by Bab El Ehr with the support of a powerful air force made up of Mosquitos that were supplied by the same dealer that sold the airline Arabair their DC-3's. After escaping the city, Tintin and Haddock manage to find the deposed Emir, but not before they are the beneficiaries of yet more blind luck in the form of garbled orders passing through Bab El Ehr's chain of command. As one would expect, the pair meet up with Ben Kalish, and learn that the leader of the arms smugglers is the Marquis di Gorgonzola and that in addition to dealing in airplanes and other military hardware, he also deals in slaves, tricking African converts to Islam into booking passage to Mecca and then selling them in Arab slave markets instead. This leads to Tintin and Haddock taking passage aboard a sailing dhow, but not before they are spotted by a mounted patrol. This leads to an attack by a pair of Mosquitos that sinks their transport, although Tintin yet again demonstrates the incredible fragility of aircraft in the Tintin world by shooting one down with a rifle. This leads to the introduction of Skut, the first new character of substance in the book, and the cover picture showing Tintin, Haddock, Snowy, and Skut adrift on a raft in the Red Sea. Oddly,  in this scene, no one actually thinks about sharks, which are a factor that is only mentioned much later in the book. Skut is an Estonian, an interesting element given that Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II, making Skut an exile who likely fled to Britain during the war and learned to fly Mosquitos from the R.A.F. This point is never expanded upon, but it seems likely that having Skut be an Estonian was Hergé's oblique commentary on the dangers of communism.

After the three spend a little bit of time drifting about the sea on their raft, eventually resorting to trying to drink seawater to survive, they spot a ship, and coincidence raises its head again: the ship is a yacht owned by none other than di Gorgonzola, who is none other than Rastapopoulos last seen being led away to prison for opium smuggling in The Blue Lotus. Not knowing this, the three try to flag down the yacht, and di Gorgonzola's efforts to avoid picking them up are foiled by his party guests who also spot the raft on the horizon and pressure him into picking them up - a request di Gorgonzola cannot refuse while simultaneously maintaining his cover as a harmless eccentric millionaire. But the Marquis gives instructions not to mention his name in front of the castaways and to keep them out of his sight. This effort is spoiled as Tintin, Haddock, and Skut are greeted as they come on board by none other than Bianca Castafiore who informs them of the name of their host, and proceeds to comically mangle Captain Haddock's name. Her butchery of Haddock's name is a well-established joke by now, but what is unusual is that Haddock retaliates, mangling her name as well. Comedy aside, now that they are tipped off, Tintin and Haddock become a problem for di Gorgonzola, and he arranges for them to be transferred to another ship he owns - the freighter Ramona, which turns out to be captained by yet another recycled character: Haddock's old First Mate Allan from The Crab with the Golden Claws.

Once he has them aboard his ship and completely at his mercy, Allan taunts Haddock a little bit, and then sets about blowing up his own ship to try to kill them. This seems kind of odd, since Allan's ship has a full hold of cargo which will be lost (along with the value of the ship) and it seems like it would have been so much easier to simply carry on with his original plan to put Tintin and Haddock ashore in Wadesdaw where they have a price on their head, or just dump them in the sea and let the sharks take care of them. Given that it is never explained how the fire started, it is possible that it started accidentally and the crew simply abandoned ship rather than fight the fire, but given that they knocked out Skut when he refused to abandon Tintin and Captain Haddock, and our heroes were able to put out the fire all by themselves, this seems unlikely. However, with Allan and his crew gone, Tintin and Haddock are able to uncover what the ship's cargo is: African Muslims who think they are going to Mecca. However, an encounter with the owner of a sailing ship that comes alongside soon reveals that the "passengers" were actually "coke", or, more plainly, fodder for the slave markets. Although some of Hergé's early works featuring black characters presented some fairly offensive racist caricatures, by the time The Red Sea Sharks rolled around, it is clear that Hergé is trying to give a fairer portrayal, even though he doesn't always succeed. Though they are presented as a more or less undifferentiated mass sort of like an all-black Greek chorus, they do seem to be reasonably competent. When Haddock says they need stokers to keep the ship going, several volunteer. When Haddock is attacked by an enraged Arab merchant, the quick action of one of the Africans on board saves his life. And when Tintin and Haddock explain that if they take them where they were originally supposed to be going, they would end up as slaves, they figure out pretty quickly that they'd rather not do that. Though they don't really seem to have individual personalities, at least they are not friendly morons or malevolent savages. And that, given where Hergé started, is substantial progress.

So, the story rambles on to its conclusion, with di Gorgonzola calling out his big guns to try to get rid of Tintin and Haddock, and the U.S. Navy arriving to save the day, but only after Haddock gets to display his seamanship for a bit. After Rastapopuolos escapes in his Bond-villain mini-submarine with the Navy hot on his heels, his arms and slave smuggling operation falls apart, a tale that is told in a montage of newspaper articles, none of which appear to be written by Tintin. In a final bit of character recycling, Jolyon Wagg turns up when Tintin and Haddock return to Marlinspike Hall, and in a final bit of gag recycling, he has invited his Car Club to use the grounds of the estate for their annual rally. And this final sequence just highlights why The Red Sea Sharks is just such an uninteresting book. This is the first volume in which it really felt like Hergé was becoming tired as a storyteller, and the series began to become very inwardly focused and heavily reliant upon recurring plots, characters, and gags. Though the series would show interesting flashes of originality here and there in the remaining four books in the series, this volume and the ones that follow it simply aren't up to the quality of the books that came earlier

Previous book in the series: The Calculus Affair
Subsequent book in the series: Tintin in Tibet

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Musical Monday - I'm Your Moon by Jonathan Coulton


Pluto used to be a planet. However, in 2006, after the discovery of the trans-Neptunian object Eris, which apparently has a greater mass than Pluto, the International Astronomical Union created the intermediate designation of "dwarf planet" for objects orbiting the sun that are sufficiently massive that gravity forces them into a rounded shape but have not "cleared the neighborhood of its orbit". This definition was more or less tailored specifically to prevent Ceres from being promoted to "planet" status, and in the process it demoted Pluto (and Eris) to "dwarf planet" status. The distinction between planets and dwarf planets is fairly artificial, among other things, the "cleared the neighborhood of its orbit" portion of the is fairly arbitrarily defined (and the mere existence of trans-Neptunian objects pretty much means that if fairly applied, this provision would eliminate Neptune from the roster of planets). However, as the only object previously described as a "planet" to be demoted to "dwarf planet", Pluto lost some status in the process.

Pluto itself doesn't care, and is unchanged by all this redefining of words. As is Pluto's satellite Charon. However, to be perfectly accurate, Pluto is Charon's satellite as well. This is because their relative masses are so similar that they orbit one another around a common center of gravity. So there they are, orbiting around one another in the outskirts of the Solar system, not caring about what anyone on distant Earth calls them. And Jon Coulton wrote a song about them.

Previous Musical Monday: Best Super Bowl Song Ever! by Greg Benson, Jonathan Coulton, and Paul & Storm
Subsequent Musical Monday: The Presidents by Jonathan Coulton

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Pending Reviews - February 10, 2012

At times it seems that I read much faster than I can write reviews. Actually, it seems that I almost always read much faster than I can write reviews. As a result, I usually have a review backlog of books that I have read, but for which I have not been able to write and post a review. This is especially true when I am working my way through a series, as I currently am with The Adventures of Tintin. So, just in case anyone cares, here are the books I have read but not yet reviewed as of today:
  • Captured by Julia Rachel Barrett
  • CassaFire by Alex J. Cavanaugh
  • The Castafiore Emerald by Hergé
  • City by Clifford D. Simak
  • Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan by Conn Iggulden
  • The Demon of Renaissance Drive by Elizabeth Reuter
  • Flight 714 by Hergé
  • Fundamentals of Computing, Third Edition by Kamaljeet Sangara
  • Legend of a Ninja: Beneath the Shadows by Jarius Raphel
  • Legend of a Ninja 2: Rise of the Shadowsalve by Jarius Raphel
  • The Red Sea Sharks by Hergé
  • The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables & Reflections by Neil Gaiman
  • Tintin and the Picaros by Hergé
  • Tintin in Tibet by Hergé
I also have Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 120, Nos. 1 & 2 (January/February 2011) on the back burner to review as well. Yes, it is from 2011, which should tell you how behind I am on reading and reviewing my science fiction periodicals.

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Follow Friday - Join the Forty-Seven Society. Or Honor the Forty-Seven Ronin. Or Both.


It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - BookChowDown and Goldilox and the Three Weres.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What would your prefer: reading your favorite book over and over again until you got sick of it OR reading 100s of mediocre books? And why?

This question poses a serious problem for me. Not because I have to choose between a favorite book and hundreds of mediocre ones, but because I would have to choose a favorite book to compare the option of mediocre books with. Would it be The Lord of the Rings? Dune? Creatures of Light and Darkness? Foundation? The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Dhalgren? There's no way I could choose just one.

So I won't. In my experience, most books are mediocre, and I read them anyway, partially because there's no way to tell the mediocre ones from the good ones without reading them. Or at least trying to read them. And I have piles and piles of books to read. So given that I already read a hundred or more mostly mediocre books each year, I guess it wouldn't be too much of a burden to take that route.

Apropos of nothing concerning the Follow Friday Question, here is a link to the webpage of the Forty-Seven Society.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Julius Ceasar Defeated Pompey in Forty-Eight B.C.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review - The Calculus Affair by Hergé


Short review: Professor Calculus is abducted and Tintin and Captain Haddock must come to the rescue. Tintin does no reporting.

Haiku
Ultrasonic sound
Breaking glass at Marlinspike
Kidnapped Calculus

Full review: Coming up with an adequate story to follow a tale in which your characters all went to the moon is a difficult task. To a certain extent, almost any story Hergé could have come up with would have seemed at least a little pedestrian in comparison to a lunar adventure. However, after their foray into space exploration in Explorers on the Moon (read review), in The Calculus Affair our heroes get embroiled in a tale of Cold War espionage worthy of Ian Fleming as Syldavia and Borduria vie for control of a potentially devastating invention developed by Professor Calculus.

Oddly, for a story that follows on the heels of a story as exotic as that of Destination Moon (read review) and Explorers on the Moon, this book starts in an incredibly pedestrian manner, setting up some running gags that will recur over and over again not only in this volume, but in most of the remaining installments of the series. Although the jokes about people mistakenly dialing Marlinspike Hall thinking it is a butcher shop, mishaps with umbrellas, and the annoyingly exuberant pushiness of insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg are moderately amusing and give way to the actual plot fairly quickly, they unfortunately presage the future domination of the series by what will become an almost rote repetition of these running gags in later books. It seems that Hergé began using them as a means to fill space while he was trying to work out the stories so that he could continue to publish the Tintin script on schedule, even though he seemed to be running out of plot ideas that he had not milked dry in previous books. By relying on recurring characters, recurring locations, and now, recurring gags, the later Tintin books become increasingly recursively self-referential and in some ways, less interesting. The Calculus Affair is like the canary on the coal mine in this regard, as the first book in the series to begin to show these afflictions.

In the midst of these nascent gags, the plot begins to surface, although it seems to be little more than just another running gag when it first shows up. Glass begins inexplicably breaking on a regular basis in and around Marlinspike Hall, drawing Thompson and Thomson into the story to investigate this and a mysterious disappearing body that Tintin and Captain Haddock found on the grounds of the estate during a stormy night. Of course, Thompson and Thomson don't actually do any investigating - that is left up to Tintin and Captain Haddock, who think to see what Professor Calculus has been up to in his research lab on the grounds of Marlinspike where they find a mysterious device with an enormous bell shaped attachment on top. They also come across a villain hiding in Calculus' lab wearing a Lone Ranger style black mask, which seems like it would make a lousy disguise for someone trying to be sneaky. After he dashes out, Jolyon shows up again just in time for Tintin to deduce from a note scrawled on a pack of cigarettes the masked man left behind that Calculus is in danger, and he and Haddock have to leave for Geneva at once.

This development launches Tintin and Captain Haddock into another chase after Professor Calculus, more or less reminiscent of their chase after Calculus' kidnappers in Prisoners of the Sun (read review), but this time instead of their opposition consisting of a hidden Incan nation, their opposition is made up of the most unsubtle secret agents one could imagine. It is in this story, the fourth to deal with the fictitious Balkan countries of Syldavia and Borduria, that Borduria is finally fleshed out more fully than simply "the country that doesn't like Syldavia". That fleshing out mostly consists of expanding the definition to "the militaristic police state that doesn't like Syldavia", although the expansion does widen the array of invented expletives of the Tintin universe adding "By the whiskers of Kûrvi-Tasch" to "Sprodj" as made up pseudo-Slavic curses. After some twists and turns and obligatory heavy handed murder attempts by secret agents wearing the secret agent uniform of a grey trench coat and fedora, Tintin and Haddock manage to almost track Calculus down, but only find Professor Topolino, who had been attacked, bound, and gagged in his own basement, supposedly by Calculus. After clearing up the some misunderstandings, our heroes learn that Calculus had developed some sort of ultrasonic destructive device and consulted Professor Topolino about his concerns over its use.

Now that they know why the shadowy villains have been trying to get their hands on Calculus, Tintin and Haddock fall back on Tintin's time-honored investigative method of capitalizing on stupid mistakes by their opposition and use the extraordinarily thin clue of the brand of a discarded cigarette to track the bad guys to their secret location. This leads to a confusing brawl between rival groups of secret agents followed by the discovery that in addition to being able to pilot any kind of airplane, Tintin knows how to pilot a helicopter as well. This leads to a chase that features one of my favorite bit players of any Tintin book: Arturo Benedetto Giovanni Guiseppi Pietro Archangelo Alfredo Cartoffoli da Milano. Arrogant and obnoxious, he jumps at the chance to help Tintin and Captain Haddock chase down the car they think Calculus is in and drives like a lunatic to catch up to a car that apparently isn't the one used to abduct the professor. This causes the volatile Arturo Benedetto Giovanni Guiseppi Pietro Archangelo Alfredo Cartoffoli da Milano to angrily abandon Tintin and Haddock on the side of the road and, sadly, walk out of the series forever. Eventually Tintin and Haddock figure out they had been duped and give chase again, arriving just in time to not be able to stop Calculus from being carried away by an airplane.

All is not lost, as Tintin points out that the airplane had Syldavian markings, meaning that he and Captain Haddock had been chasing more or less friendly agents all over the Swiss and Italian countryside. I suppose it is possible that no Syldavian agent involved in spiriting Calculus away recognized Tintin, but it does seem implausible. After all, Tintin saved the Syldavian monarchy in King Ottokar's Sceptre (read review), becoming a national hero and the first non-Syldavian to be awarded the Order of the Golden Pelican in the process. More recently, Tintin and Captain Haddock accompanied Calculus on the Syldavian funded lunar expedition detailed in Destination Moon  and Explorers on the Moon, for which the Syldavian secret police provided security. Given that Syldavia is described in King Ottokar's Sceptre as a country tiny country with only six hundred thousand inhabitants, the Syldavian secret police has to be a fairly small force and it just seems odd that none of them recognize either of our heroes at any point, or if they did, they decided to evade the pair and hinder their efforts to get to Calculus. in any event, this plot point turns out to be almost completely irrelevant to the story, as Tintin deduces from a newspaper story he didn't write that the airplane was forced down in Borduria and as a result Calculus must now be in the hands of the dastardly Bordurian security forces. This little plot twist renders the misunderstanding that led to Calculus being in the hands of the Syldavian secret police moot almost immediately, and one wonders why Hergé had Calculus in the hands of the Syldavians in the first place.

After some additional gags involving phone mix-ups with Cutts the butcher and Jolyon the cheerfully overbearing insurance agent, and some slapstick with umbrellas and sticking plaster, Haddock and Tintin make their way to Borduria. And here their fame seems to catch up with them. One has to wonder what their plan for rescuing Calculus was, given that they simply blindly flew into a hostile police state in which their friend was being held by the nation's security forces. But they are immediately recognized by Bordurian security agents and effectively taken into house arrest at their hotel and the "interpreters" Krônick and Klûmsi are assigned to watch over their every move. Given that Hergé lived under Nazi occupation from 1939 until 1944, it seems safe to assume that his portrayal of the Bordurian police state was influenced by his experiences from World War II, a fact that seems to be reflected by the apparent Wehrmacht-influenced uniforms the Bordurian soldiers wear. Further reinforcing this conclusion, at one point a Bordurian officer wearing a uniform that looks remarkably like an SS officer's uniform gives a demonstration of the new weapon Calculus developed, and declares that this will be the device that will make Borduria and its leader Kûrvi-Tasch the masters of the world, reflecting Hitler's own megalomaniacal vision for Germany. And it is this depiction of a police state that is the meat of this book, and what makes it so interesting to read. While the Bordurian secret police may seem thuggish and unsubtle, it seems likely that they were developed with the Third Reich's Gestapo as their model, and the Gestapo were not required to operate in an unsubtle manner, and by many accounts, did not. Given that there were Hungarian and Romanian fascist governments in power during World War II, it seems plausible that Hergé intended Borduria to reflect these regimes.

Regardless of Hergé's intentions, the result is a sinister police state that makes this story far darker than most contemporary cartoon strips. However, this darker tone is consistently undermined by the inclusion of silly gag after silly gag, and our heroes' sojourn in Borduria is no exception as Tintin and Captain Haddock run across the Milanese Nightingale Bianca Castafiore who shows up performing at the Szohôd Opera House and just happens to be a favorite of Colonel Sponsz, the chief of the Bordurian secret police. And in an example of the odd time-warping in the series this encounter is mentioned in The Seven Crystal Balls (read review), which falls five books earlier in the series. Once again Hergé recycles a recurring character, even though that character simply doesn't fit the tone that the rest of the story is trying to establish. After she humorously mangles Captain Haddock's name a couple times, she hides Tintin and the Captain when Sponsz shows up to pay his respects, allowing Tintin to learn the location at which Calculus is being held and acquire the means to free the professor. Interestingly, she agrees to hide Tintin and Haddock from Sponsz based on nothing more than a plea from Tintin, presumably putting herself in serious danger on behalf of a pair of men she has briefly met three or four times in her life. In the story it seems natural that she would want to help the heroes, but when one steps back and considers what she is risking, it seems quite magnanimous of her.

Armed with the information gleaned from Colonel Sponsz, Tintin and Haddock are able to recover Calculus leading to a chase sequence that includes hijacking a Bordurian tank as the three desperately try to reach the Syldavian border and safety. This is a typical Tintin chase sequence with a number of twists and turns and an outcome that is more or less never in doubt. Calculus then reiterates Hergé's growing pacifism first most evident in Destination Moon as he asserts that his invention should never be used for warlike purposes and then proceeds to destroy the plans so no one could make the device. But Calculus' assertion here raises two questions. First, to what non-warlike use did he think that a device that used ultrasonic waves to destroy things might be used? I suppose it could be used for demolition, but  building a device for that purpose seems like an awful lot of effort for little gain. One also wonders how this device would, in the words of the unnamed Bordurian officer who gives a staff demonstration of the weapon, "make H-bombs and ballistic missiles as obsolete as pikes and muskets". Second, given that Calculus has been able to design such a device, one wonders why his destruction of his plans solves the problem of those of warlike bent being able to get their hands on one. If the scientists working on the Manhattan Project had destroyed the plans for a nuclear bomb, it would have eventually been developed by someone else anyway. Science and engineering are based on the physical principles of the natural world. A single scientist destroying his research is not going to stop a discovery from being made. (Although, to be perfectly accurate, Calculus seems more like an engineer than a scientist). Plots involving mad scientists making discoveries that "man was not meant to know" and either having heroes destroy their work for the good of mankind, or having second thoughts and doing it themselves are a trope of classic science fiction, but they are all kind of silly, and it is no less silly here.

Despite the handful of flaws, this book is one of the best of the Tintin stories and rivals King Ottokar's Sceptre as the best single volume story in the series. Sadly, this is the last book in the series to feature the fictitious countries of Syldavia and Borduria, and I say "sadly" because the four books that take place in those countries - King Ottokar's Sceptre, Destination Moon, Explorers on the Moon, and of course, The Calculus Affair - are among the very best in the series. Borduria does crop up in a tiny way in Tintin and the Picaros (read review), but only to provide a recurring villain, and that's at best a minor reference. This book, however, is a fantastic installment of the series: A spy story full of intrigue and adventure in which the heroes face a fairly frighteningly depicted police state, although with just a bit more slapstick humor than I think this sort of story should have. As usual, Tintin, despite still being billed as a journalist, does no reporting, instead taking a turn as an amateur spy. The story also leaves some loose ends: For example, Haddock and Tintin are able to rescue Calculus, but what about the Syldavian agents who were in the plane that was forced down in Borduria? Apparently they are left to rot in a Bordurian prison, completely forgotten by the heroes. Despite these niggling questions, The Calculus Affair remains one of the best books in the series, and is the last of the truly great Tintin stories.

Previous book in the series: Explorers on the Moon
Subsequent book in the series: The Red Sea Sharks

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