So, the past week was an eventful one for me, between visiting friends at the Stonecoast Summer Residency in Maine and then traveling to Burlington, MA with Jeff VanderMeer to Readercon 23 before shooting back home Monday night. I’ll be telling the story of that trip before long, believe me.
In the meantime, I’m digging back into my reading, prompted by the mighty haul that was my book-buying spree in the ReaderCon dealers’ bookstore/room. By the end of the weekend, I came home with no less than 28 books. I’m claiming temporary insanity, if anyone asks.
I don’t think I’ll be doing anything quite that rash again. It was a bit of a pain to pack all of those books in my luggage in such a way that I didn’t harm the books or go over my weight limit for checked baggage (thankfully, I succeeded in both regards). That’s also a lot of reading to tackle, especially when I already have other books I want to mow through. Kinda hard to say no to Michael Swanwick when he tells you to pick up a copy of A Princess of Roumania, though. And I am finding more time and energy for reading, now that I’m not beholden to school obligations.
Thus, I found myself completing the first bit of reading from my ReaderCon pile: the graphic adaptation of The Moon Moth, based on the original short story by Jack Vance. Brooklyn-based artist Humayoun Ibrahim adapted the story and handled the majority of the art, while Hilary Sycamore tackled the colors.
The premise of the story is intriguing: Edwer Thissell, a member of an intergalactic police force (I kept thinking of it as a form of Interpol), is sent to the planet Sirene, where the residents indulge in several curious behaviors. Firstly, they wear masks that represent their social status and prestige, or strakh. There is no currency on the planet other than barter-and-trade dictated by the residents’ strakh, so it becomes a reputation-based economy. Secondly, their primary mode of communication is song. They sing their intended communication with musical accompaniment, with different instruments used for, say, whether they are talking to social inferiors, superiors, or intimate friends.
Moreover, their communication is not very direct, but rather circuitous. They place a higher emphasis on emotion and tone than getting straight to the point. This creates an impenetrable and, for Thissell, hard-to-understand etiquette that has dire consequences for those who misunderstand it.
Things become difficult for Thissell and his job, especially since shortly after he lands in Sirene, an infamous criminal and murderer, much more versed in the culture of Sirene than he, also touches down on this planet. Thissell’s main task: solving the mystery of who this criminal is on this planet, where everyone wears a mask and makes simple communication seemingly difficult, and bringing him to justice.
The story itself is ingenious. The mystery element of the story is strong, especially once Thissell seizes upon his means of finding his bounty among the tangled identities of those he knows. The shift from fish-out-of-water to capable detective is handled deftly. What stuck with me even more is the bizarre etiquette and social framework presented by Sirene and the complications this presents for Thissell. His attempts to penetrate past this etiquette, and his constant failure to do so, reminded me of a cross between Kafka’s The Castle and a Victorian comedy of manners.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim and Sycamore render the art of The Moon Moth wonderfully. I’ve read other reviews of this graphic novel that object to the art not being as detailed as it could be. Not to discount those critics’ views, but such things really are a matter of personal taste.
I found the art to be detailed in the right ways – and beautiful – drawing my eye to details I needed to notice for their importance to the story: the characters’ masks, their instruments, and most importantly the dialogue.
The lettering in The Moon Moth is a stroke of genius and perfectly accentuates the language of the story and the characters’ communication with one another. In regular, unsung speech, the word balloons take the typical comic book shape and style: white space, black lettering, plain and simple. When the characters use their instruments and sing their dialogue, however, the borders and tail of the given word balloon are altered to match the instrument being used, and the lettering takes on a more florid script. This adds an extra dimension to the communication between the characters and helps visualize the etiquette being followed or broken (in Thissell’s case, often unknowingly). Well done, artists.
My advice: pick up a copy of The Moon Moth, especially if you’re a student of the graphic form and want to consider how the various techniques that compose a given story can be used to accentuate the content of the story. Then, pick up a copy of Jack Vance’s short story and read it, as I plan on doing. It’s a little extra reading, especially considering what I brought home with me, but I’m quite fine with that.
I imagine I’ll be reviewing more of the books I grabbed from ReaderCon in the coming weeks – I just finished reading Ben Loory’s collection Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, which I also enjoyed – along with the books I still need to tackle from the box Jeff sent me a few months back. I can’t say I’m at a loss for reading material, but I will need to pace myself, won’t I?