Friday, April 23, 2004

OK, first of all, if you have any memory at all of the God-Awful "Captain Planet" television show, I think you should go here and read a pitch for the Vertigo version.


OK, "Travels From Larry" is taking on a life of its own. I seem to be writing more and more about each book. This is going to have to stop at some point, hopefully soon. Starting sometime roughly in the middle of next week I'm going to be taking a long hiatus from blogging and the internet in general (due to family obligations), so I sincerely hope to be done with this by then. I still have more than a few books to get around to and I don't want to shortchange any of them. Don't worry, I won't be gone for good, but I will be gone for a while.

Travels With Larry Part VIII

Astronauts In Trouble Part II

“Astronauts in Trouble” is a deeply satisfying work. It is one of those rare books that seems to have been created with an absolutely perfect conception of exactly what it is and is not. It’s a book that knows its limitations, which is certainly an achievement worthy of our respect.

If anything, my one problem with “AiT” is the fact that Larry Young seems too preoccupied with his own humility. As a storyteller, he rarely makes a wrong move. That his instincts seem so perfectly attuned to this project is perhaps a function not so much of the gemlike-perfection of the stories themselves but of their modest scope.

Let’s face it – science-fiction is nothing if not a historically bombastic genre. It’s usually “end of the universe” this, or “secret of existence” that. Comparatively rare is the sci-fi story that desires nothing more than to open a brief window on another time or place, to elucidate the feelings and thoughts of people in situations just different enough from our own to be interesting. This was something Heinlein excelled in, at least in his early years – illustrating the future through people. When he got older and started writing about Oz and John Carter and bringing together all the disparate elements in his own fiction, he lost sight of this notion.

There’s no bombast in “AiT,” and for that, given the almost comically cosmic nature of most sci-fi, we are grateful. But at the same time, the work is almost too lean, almost too spare. I think I can see why. There’s an old truism that “it’s better to say nothing and be thought a fool, than to speak and erase all doubt.” This is a very subtle trap for growing writers. We all know any number of impossibly verbose beginning authors: the kind who never use one word when twelve will do, and who have never met an adverb they didn’t like. It’s easy to be seduced by minimalism. I’m not going to say that “AiT” is minimal – “I Never Liked You” is minimal. But for a rip-roaring space adventure, it is sparse (particularly “Live From The Moon”).

By the time we get to “Space 1959,” Young’s voice has become much more confident. If anything, I would say that Young’s writing style reminds me of early “Cerebus.” In “High Society” and the early parts of “Church & State,” Sim weaves any number of incredibly complicated plot threads together into a coherent whole somewhat perversely by allowing the reader to perceive only selected parts of the story. In “High Society,” we see only what Cerebus sees, and the young Cerebus’ knowledge of politics is famously scattershot. Similarly, in “Space 1959,” Young adopts the similar tack of allowing the story to unfold organically without any real artificial impetus or conceit. We see the action unfolding as the Channel 7 Team does, and sometimes that means that events are slightly confusing or that character arcs are abridged.

But it’s not laziness, its really quite sophisticated. “Live From The Moon” isn’t quite as successful because there’s more story in it. We don’t see things solely through the eyes of the newscrew. Lots of things happen and Young tries to show us everything, but really, that wasn’t necessary. There's too much going on and he doesn't know how to show his cards gracefully. There’s definitely a progression from the first book to the second. Young knows what he’s doing, and the fact that “Live From The Moon” works as well as it does despite the slightly inconsistent narrative is a testament to his skill. But sometimes no matter how smart you are you have to learn by doing. Sometimes people repeat their mistakes often enough that they call it a career, and sometimes people possess the capacity to learn more from their misses than their hits. This is why “Space 1959” is a better read than “Live From The Moon,” and this is why I think whatever is next might be even better.

“Astronauts in Trouble” makes me want to go watch “The Right Stuff” again, or better yet, maybe get around to reading the book. It’s obvious that Larry Young is attracted to the actual nitty-gritty of rocketry and space travel. I doubt he would be very interested in a universe of frictionless gravity boats and faster than light travel. You never forget that space is a very dangerous place.

“One Shot, One Beer” is a trifle, but a perfectly pleasant trifle. If you’re up on your Bocaccio or your Chaucer you know the drill – a group of strangers are telling stories to pass the time. The stories are fun, with some interesting diversions and a few insights into the details of the “AiT” future history, but the book is mainly a showcase for Young’s dialogue. Of the three main features in the “AiT” omnibus I think this is my least favorite, but I will admit I am usually not a fan of the “manly men drinking beer” genre. Maybe I don’t hang out in bars enough – I mean, I know people do hang out in bars, but I don’t see the attraction. Give me a quiet night at home with the wife and a glass of soda pop. But I can’t stand liquor myself so perhaps I’m just biased.

There are a few brief bits in the end that round out the volume nicely. There’s a great Steve Weissman two-pager that reads like it was ripped out of the pages of “Tykes.” I’m tempted to say that my favorite thing in the entire book is an eight-page Darick Robertson story called “More Fun Than,” but I think I just like it because Robertson draws the funniest monkeys in comics. Someone needs to hire him to do a whole book full of monkeys.

I think “Astronauts in Trouble” is the best thing I’ve so far read from AiT/Planet Lar. It’s as good an adventure comic as you can hope to find on the stands today – intelligent without being cerebral, mordant without becoming Wodehouse In Space. I hasten to say that this Larry Young fellow has a bright future in comics – with a resmue like “AiT” I expect he’ll get himself a gig writing “Thor” or “Metamorpho” in no time at all.

PS - Hey, Larry, I think I know what your next AiT is going to be about. I won’t give it all away, but I’ve got your pitch right here: robot miners in the asteroid belt. You can have it, gratis.

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