Thursday, October 30, 2008


“The Last Days of Krypton” by Kevin J. Anderson, Harper Books, 304 pages

Krypton, of course, was the doomed homeworld from which Kal-El – better known to Earth as Superman – was sent, its last surviving son. That great planet first appeared in the first issue of Superman in 1939 but has undergone numerous revisions, “re-imaginings,” and “retcons” since then. The “Golden and Silver Ages” presented us with Buck Rogers-like imagery, with sky-cars and the Fire Falls, the Scarlet Jungle, and the Jeweled Mountains. Richard Donner’s 1978 movie “Superman” and its sequels gave us a cold, sterile, and crystalline world orbiting a baleful giant red star. After the “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” the high civilization of a new Krypton was convulsed by the Clone Wars, the Black Zero movement, and given a death sentence by the “Eradicator.”

Which incarnation were you raised on, which left its images in your memory? They blur in my mind, and I have long since abandoned any real interest in continuity and accept their dissonance. I enjoy the various elements for what they are, and have my own favourites. Thus, when “The Last Days of Krypton” was published in 2007, I put it on my Christmas list, interested in reading what sort of amalgamated history might be presented therein. Santa delivered.

I have been an avid reader since my youngest years, thanks to the regularity with which my parents read to, and enriched me. The number of books that I have begun, but were unable to finish, count in the single digits.

“The Last Days of Krypton” is the most recent addition to that small list.

I did not immediately recognize the author’s name, but eventually realized that he was the co-writer of the expansion and completion of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” cycle, co-author with Herbert’s son Brian. Anderson has also written a space opera series known as “The Saga of Seven Suns,” including a graphic novel, “Veiled Alliances,” the one story in that series which I read. While struggling with “The Last Days” I recognize storytelling elements from “Dune” and “Alliances” that had… bothered me. Some writers tend to repeat words and phrases in many of their tales. They may reuse stereotypical situations, presenting contrived images for cheap emotional reactions. Their characters, bearing different names, may be simple reworkings of each other. This may be deliberate, if the author is interested in examining a particular theme, but I suspect that more often it is a matter of limited imagination.

One of these elements is cheap brutality. Another is the repeated stupidity of characters who are supposed to be intelligent. Then there is an almost morbid fascination with tawdry decadence. I suspect that the repeated references to “torture racks” upon which writhe countless hapless (and faceless) people in the “Dune” books is one of Anderson’s devices, as are the pages describing the attempts to drown a public relations agent in a sewerage tank. Perhaps I’m wrong. In “Veiled Alliances” characters perform vile acts that they anticipate will result in unwanted side effects; but they do them obediently anyway, complaining when the blowback ultimately occurs.

In the “Last Days,” most of the Kryptonian setting is culled from the Gold and Silver ages including that civilization’s exotic architecture, references to the destruction of one of Krypton’s moons, and various notable geographic highlights. Some of the elements incorporated from later tellings include the xenophobia-inducing contact with an alien, Donodon, and the miniaturization and abduction of the city of Kandor by the cybernetic Brainiac, as well as the trio of cruel, megalomaniac villains who were the main protagonists from the movie “Superman II.” I found the characters generally stilted, and some of their backgrounds seemed facile, including Superman’s father Jor-El, who has always baffled me; lauded as one of the superior Kryptonian intellects and statesmen, he has been notoriously ineffective in convincing his people to open their eyes and seek a higher path in nearly every incarnation. This may speak to the degree of decadence that had overtaken the Kryptonian civilization, but I find myself unable to suspend my disbelief. Only Jor-El’s wife-to-be, Lara, has any vibrancy, as an artist who seeks to awaken her patron-to-become husband from his declining lineage to the dangers that power-mongers and mob fear poses.

I found the description of the aristocratic decadence annoyingly pedestrian, almost latter-day Roman in its paralysis and willful ignorance. These people fly sky-cars and study advanced physics? but their Council cannot make any decisions other than “requiring further study” or concluding that any innovation or investigations must be halted. They entertain themselves with giant-lizard drawn chariot races! And yet, the disgruntled Zod, and his two embittered allies set up a military dictatorship because of unexamined, xenophobic fears. Perhaps this is meant as some sort of analogy to America on September 12th, 2001; if so, it is obscure, and fails as a cautionary caricature.

I managed to read one hundred and twenty pages, and then began to skip forward, reading a page here, a paragraph there, hoping to find a gem, some inspiration to resume reading until this superior segment. Alas! It was wooden and two-dimensional as some of the earliest comics. I read those in my childhood, and despite the nostalgia, my impressions are better left unsullied by the banal reality.

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