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Review Round-Up: Ants, Comics and the Universe

Seduction of the innocentThree reviews spanning 1890 to 2013: Max Allan Collins' Seduction of the Innocent, Liu Cixin's Of Ants and Dinosaurs and Camille Flammarion's Urania. 

Seduction of the Innocent (2013), by Max Allan Collins, is Hard Case Crime #110. I figured I could say a few words now and then revisit it in two years when the re-read gets there. Seduction is a great little parody - there's a guess there about authorial intent, but I don't think Mr. Collins intends for this to be read 'straight'. Jack Starr is the "fixer" (and co-owner) of a newspaper comic strip empire. The majority owner is his foxy widowed stepmother, Maggie Starr. Jack is the Archie to her Nero Wolfe, roving around 1954 New York City in search of clues while she pieces together the big picture.

Seduction is a murder mystery based that's inspired heavily by Dr. Frederick Wertham and his crusade against comic books. Most of the characters, including the victim ("Dr. Werner Frederick") are drawn (no pun intended) from life. The story is over the top, but fun, Mr. Collins loves his comics (as noted previously) and the whole book is permeated with a sense of, well, joy. Murderous, sexpot, hard-drinking, gun-totin' scandalous joy.

A marginally big deal has been made about EC artist Terry Beatty's illustrations, but Glen Orbik's cover really steals the show.

Of Ants and Dinosaurs (2012) by Liu Cixin is a bonkers parable about, well, ants and dinosaurs. It begins with a single moment of cooperation when ants help clean the teeth of a tyrannosaurus. Cut to: 50,000 years later - ants and dinosaurs have evolved into globe-spanning empires. Dinosaurs are imaginative, emotional and very, very large. Ants are efficient, intelligent, hard-working and very, very small. Under the dinosaurs' direction and the ants' creation, huge technological advances have been made.

However, the relationship between the two species (families? kingdoms?) has begun to sour. The ants worry about the ecological reprecussions of the dinosaurs' nuclear arms race, and the dinosaurs worry that their reliance on the ants has made them vulnerable. As a fable of thinkers, doers and selfish idiocy, this is right up there with the best of Aesop. The story also has a wicked sense of humor, and there are a lot of goofy descriptions of dinosaurs fumbling wires with their giant claws and the like.

Plus, you know, dinosaurs.

Urania_FlammarionUrania (1890) by Camille Flammarion is a three-part 'planetary romance', but this mini-review only covers the first third, "The Heavenly Muse". "The Heavenly Muse" features an impressionable young astronomer who wishes for more poetry and less math. He, perhaps from a lack of female companionship, falls in love with a statue - a carving of the muse Urania that graces a clock. Our unnamed astronomer stares at the muse all day and then, upon falling asleep, finds himself guided by her throughout the universe(s).

This floating tour is utterly nuts. Urania herself likes to explain things like the concept of infinity and the speed of light, but her lectures aren't too dry because there are a billionty aliens swarming about. "The Heavenly Muse" is half Astro 101 and half Monster Manual, with the protagonist flung from one crazy world to the next. Bug creatures, telepaths, soul-swappers, etc. Edgar Rice Burroughs named Flammarion as an inspiration for his Mars books, but I wonder how many other science fiction authors have 'borrowed' a critter or two from Flammarion's bestiary. The story also states matter of factly that Earth's astronomers will soon discover that:

"Mars and Venus are actually peopled by thinking beings, Jupiter is still in its primary period of organic preparation; Saturn looks down upon us under quite different conditions from those that which were instrumental in the establishment of terrestrial life and without passing through a state analogous to that of Earth, will be inhabited by beings incompatible with earthly organisms" (51)


The language is flowery, the content is a mixture of philosophy and science, the actual plot is nonexistent and the character is a cipher. In that sense, "The Heavenly Muse" is everything I dislike about hard SF. But it is hard to begrudge a story that's wall-to-wall aliens and features a young man that's unironically in love with a clock. Worth noting: the version on contains a zillion wonderful, wonderful illustrations