Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Days of Krypton, by Kevin J Anderson

I think it's a safe bet to say that, if the United States has a mythic hero, it's Superman. He's got all the trappings of the mythic hero - the amazing powers, the amazing adventures, the amazing wardrobe - and, when you think about it, his origin story is the quintessential American story. Superman is the ultimate immigrant, coming to America from a stagnating home, availing himself of all the opportunities available to him, and in so doing, bettering both himself and his adopted country. Like any true Epic Hero, Superman is the living incarnation of everything that is right and good about the culture that created him: he is humble, he is generous, and he is righteous in ways we all wish we could be.

That being said, it at first seems counter-intuitive to write anything about Krypton. Superman's long-gone homeworld, Krypton doesn't really have a major role to play in his mythos, other than simply to be reason he is different than us. He is an alien, so he has to be from somewhere else, but it hardly matters where; what he does here on Earth is all that really matters. Nevertheless, visions of Krypton have persisted, in the comic books, the movies, and the TV shows. As both readers and writers, we are genuinely curious about the world that spawned the greatest hero Earth has ever known. Who were the Kryptonians? What was their culture like? And why could they not prevent their own destruction? There is territory there to explore, stories to tell (stories that HAVE been told, throughout the years in the various incarnations). And there is potential there for a great work of fiction. I believe that the story of the final days of this culture is a story that is worth telling, and should be told.

I just wish it wasn't being told by Kevin J Anderson.

"The Last Days of Krypton" starts off conventionally enough. We're introduced to Jor-El, brilliant but reclusive scientist, as he's puttering around in his laboratory. A descendant of Kryptonian nobility, Jor-El has himself a nice little quiet estate just outside of Kandor, Krypton's capital city, where he's free to explore the limits of theoretical science unhindered by the stuffy and complacent scientific community. And today, Jor-El bites off just a bit more than he can chew: while puttering around with an inter-dimensional viewing device, he discovers a strange limbo-like dimension, a "phantom zone." And he accidentally gets himself sucked in. Oops. Fortunately for Jor-El, he is not alone: a group of artists are renovating his estate, and one of them, Lara-Van, discovers his predicament and helps him escape. Out of gratitude, Jor-El invites Lara to dinner, where they grow better acquainted. It turns out that there are definite sparks between them: they're both geniuses, he in science, she in art, and so they complement one another quite well. And we learn from their dinner conversation something of Kryptonian history: of the tyrant Jax-Ur and his brutal war of conquest that devastated Krypton a thousand years previous. The devastation Jax-Ur wreaked with advanced weaponry apparently horrified Kryptonian society enough to cause them to turn away from technological progress, and led to the current complacency that forces Jor-El to keep his experiments to himself.

As a counterpoint to this theme, we're next introduced to Dru-Zod, a member of the aforementioned stuffy and complacent Kryptonian scientific community. Zod is the head of the Technology Acceptance Commission, meaning he's in charge of determining whether or not new inventions or new discoveries are too "dangerous" to be put into common use. And we learn, almost from the very first time we meet him, that Zod is the last person you would want in charge of this. Like Jor-El, Zod is a quiet rebel against Kryptonian society, but where Jor-El is motivated by a genuine love of science and discovery, Zod is motivated by personal ambition and contempt for the complacent society that does not reward ambition like his (or so he says). And that contempt manifests itself in some cold-blooded ways: one of the very first things we see Zod do is order the death of a low-level functionary who tries to blackmail him (Zod's supposed to be destroying the pieces of technology he deems dangerous, you see, but...well, he's Zod). Sure enough, when Jor-El comes to Kandor to present his Phantom Zone Project to Zod - he markets it as a humane and cost-effective alternative to imprisonment or execution for extremely dangerous criminals - Zod deems his discovery "too dangerous" and has it "destroyed" (ahem). We're also introduced to two other people in Zod's circle: his giant mute bodyguard Nam-Ek, and the bored noblewoman Aethyr-Ka. Aethyr shares Zod's contempt for Kryptonian high society, and she is also a private rebel: she's an adventurer and explorer, more at home poking around in forgotten ruins than boring old dinner parties. Naturally she becomes the object of Zod's desire, though she plays hard to get quite well.

Meanwhile, in the southern metropolis of Argo City, Jor-El's brother Zor-El, scientist and statesman, is up to more practical research: he's tracking volcanic activity on Krypton's uninhabited southern continent...volcanic activity that is alarmingly frequent and powerful. In fact Zor-El barely escapes with his life from a massive earthquake and lava flow. Something disturbing is happening within the planet's core, and he needs to confer with his smarter brother to determine what can be done.

As the El brothers try to get it through the thick heads of the Kryptonian ruling council that there is a genuine danger brewing, the love between Jor-El and Lara blossoms. As does Zod's desire for Aethyr, intensified by her most recent discovery: in the fobidden wastelands of Krypton, she has discovered Xan, the capital city of Jax-Ur...and the weaponry that Jax-Ur left behind.

Understand this, gentle reader: I have not read a lot of Kevin J Anderson's work. My sole exposure to him has been the Star Wars novels he's written, and that was MORE than enough for me (this is the guy who inflicted Admiral Daala on us, after all). Anderson has done some original fiction, but he does seem to like playing in other people's sandboxes. And when you play in Superman's sandbox....well, you need to measure up. And Anderson doesn't. Oh, he TRIES. But he tries a little too hard. Anderson pulls themes, characters, and plot devices from every corner of Superman lore, from the comics to the movies - even the "Smallville" TV show - in what appears to be an attempt to create some kind of Unified Superman Theory, some definitive origin story that combines all sources into one. It's ambitious. TOO ambitious for someone of Anderson's talent.

To be charitable, Anderson does hit some of the right notes in creating a living breathing Krypton. Technology and architecture are given a suitably alien and quasi-futuristic feel, with a few nods at sustainable energy. Solar power is a major energy source on Krypton, as appropriate for a planet orbiting a red giant with abundant natural crystal formations. One city, Borga, is built on a swamp, and methane gas is used as a power source. There are some subtle nods at the side-effects of a stagnating society: Zod and Aethyr's sociopathy are seen as a counterpoint to Jor-El and Zor-El's brilliance; responses to an urge to break free from imposed mediocrity, albeit coming from opposite ends. As well there are some disturbing instances of spree killing; people just suddenly snapping and committing acts of violence. In an effort to expand the universe in which the story takes place, Anderson has a few cameos pop in from elsewhere in the DC Universe: Braniac makes a brief appearance, as does what appears to be a Guardian of Oa. He also makes some interesting character choices, particularly with Zod. Zod genuinely does care about his henchman Nam-Ek; perhaps more than he cares about any other being. His infatuation with Aethyr is well done, and quite believable: he falls for her BECAUSE she doesn't fall for him. Courting her is a challenge, one that he welcomes. It makes him all the more human. He's a far cry from Terence Stamp's spoiled god, but he's certainly memorable.

Unfortunately that's about as creative as Anderson gets. Unless you count his tendency to go overboard with the Kryptonian names. Yikes. I know, a lot of these names were culled from the 70-odd years of comic book history, but come on. Tyr-Us? Shor-Em? Hopk-Ins? Seriously, Kevin...

Since "The Last Days of Krypton" seems to be Anderson's effort to create an Ur-Superman origin story, sometimes a reader gets the sense that things are happening in the plot because they NEED to happen. There is a scene where Zod declares himself a General and commands people to kneel before him, but it doesn't really fit in with the story. It's there because that's what Zod DOES. Anderson's depiction of Jor-El makes him a brilliant but naive recluse (in sharp contrast to the traditional depiction of Jor-El as a dynamic and respected leader), because he needs to be; otherwise Jor-El might see through Zod's treachery and be able to stop him before he goes too far (seriously, Jor-El, Zod has you build a giant solar-powered laser drill and you DON'T think he might have other plans for it?). And of course, the Ruling Council of Krypton has to be a bunch of idiots with their heads in the sand who refuse to listen to Jor-El; if they weren't, Krypton might not have exploded.

...oops, did I just give away the ending?

Yeah. There is a bit of a "Titanic" factor to "The Last Days of Krypton." A reader finds it hard to get attached to any of these characters, because we already know what's going to happen to them. And here, Anderson tries to spice things up a little, by toying with our expectations. We know Krypton is doomed, but we just don't know HOW it will meet its end. Anderson gives us one potential scenario after another - instability in Krypton's core, unusual solar flare activity in the sun, a rogue comet, a rediscovered cache of ancient doomsday weapons - and keeps us guessing as to which one will spell Krypton's doom (and frankly, he cheats when he reveals what finally happens). But it's all a bit overwhelming, and more than a little contrived.

I guess it could be worse, though. The original vision of Krypton has its origins in the futurist thinking of the 1930s: a idealized society of scientists and engineers, who gave us one of their own as a parting gift. A lot has happened in human society since then; our views on science and progress have changed, and so perhaps Anderson's view of the downfall of Krypton has some relevance: here we have a society afraid of its own potential, so much so that it basically forbade technological advancement. Complacency killed Krypton, not overreaching ambition (which adds a certain poignancy to Jor-El's decision to send his son to Earth; it was the most ALIVE planet he'd ever seen). Once again, it comes back to the story of Superman as the quintessential immigrant: back home, Kal-El would have lived an unremarkable, stagnant life. But here, he could aspire to greater heights than any Kryptonian ever could. Here he could be the hero Krypton would not let him be, and the hero Earth needed. It's a story that continues to ring as true today as it did 70 years ago. And it will take more than Kevin J Anderson to kill it.


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