Friday, January 19, 2007

Review: Pinoy Amazing Adventures

Okay, I suppose that this was probably expected.

I spent a couple of hours hanging around National Bookstore on the morning of the same day I picked up my copy of Philippine Genre Stories Issue One (PGS1). Normally when that happens, I spend my time among the humor, hobby and reference sections, looking to see if somebody somewhere finally decided to put together a good book of puzzles. It was on this occasion, however, that I noticed a dog-eared copy of Pinoy Amazing Adventures (PAA) lying tucked away in a forgotten corner.

A couple of days after I picked up a more pristine copy of the book, a bit of Internet research enlightened me on its inner nature. Banzai Cat noted that it was one of three primary outlets of Philippine speculative fiction in 2006, the other two being the second volume of Dean Alfar's anthology, and Philippine Genre Stories. PAA, moreover, was published by Psicom Publishing, a local company that repackages DC comic books, reprints How-to-Draw-Manga periodicals, and comes up with independent text-message books and romance anthologies that I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. It also doesn't seem to have its own page anywhere on the Net, which is why the only reference link I can find is this one.

It did have four short stories in it, though, which promised to have a solid speculative-fiction bent overall. And I figured that if I had enough of a constitution to review the PGS1's five stories, then I supposed that I could go through four more. (I consider Dean Alfar's collection to be off-limits for now; I'm not crazy enough to slog through almost twenty pieces at once.)

In other words, I'll be going through this review the same way I went through that of PGS1: I'll have a look at each of the stories first, and then wrap up with my views on the publication itself at the end. Seeing that I didn't like the total length of my earlier PGS1 post, though, I'll try to keep my reviews manageable this time.

As with my previous post, this is my warning that spoilers abound. If you haven't picked up a copy of the anthology, know that you read the following reviews at your own risk.

Apocalypso (written by Karl R. De Mesa)

"Apocalypso" was here-and-there for me. It had some solid aspects to its story and its style of writing, but I feel that these were hampered by a lot of technical problems.

First of all, I liked the premise of the story. There are quite a few speculative pieces on the nature and navigation of dreams, and I find the topic to be a useful literary device. "Apocalypso" uses this subject of dreams in much better detail, and imagines what happens in a setting where their influence has extended to the physical world. Second, I feel that it succeeds in placing the reader in an unfamiliar yet familiar universe -- in fact, the slight twist at the end forced me to wonder if the entire story was actually in itself a strange dream. The story's elements were fascinating enough to have it be one, I suppose.

I felt that the biggest problem with the piece, however, was the massive and sudden change in style that took place halfway through the story. Everything started out pretty well, mind you, with a third-person narration of one hunter's dealings with a mysterious client. From there, however, it shifted to the hunter's first-person description of his background and research, and -- just as I was getting used to the change -- it suddenly snapped back into third-person for the ending. I feel that this severely compromises the work: It gives the hunter's extensive speech a "preachy" quality -- as though the author took up half the story just to explain what was going on -- and wastes characters like Lieutenant Kid and Lord Pluto, both of whom were relegated to stand among the background props. The story is also dotted with a lot of minor errors in verbal ambiguity (mostly in the "it's" / "it was" distinction), but that's more a matter for the editor than anything else.

In the end, "Apocalypso" impressed me... but it was only able to do so by means of premise and general plotline. In truth, it struck me as something that needed a lot of spit-and-polish in order to shine: It was a story with great potential that just got bogged down at some point in the writing.

Now, if I can only figure out why Mr. De Mesa felt that it deserved to be titled "Apocalypso"...

Riverside (written by Anna Felicia Sanchez)

I found "Riverside" to be surprisingly good. I feel that its biggest stumbling block involves story length and pacing, but I don't think that those aspects detract much from the overall quality of the piece.

"Riverside" doesn't use the traditional narrative approach. Instead, we're told the story from two different points of view: Vlad and Leena, who are two enforcement officers partnered with each other. I feel that this narrative style ends up enriching the experience, if only because Vlad and Leena are represented as two extremely different personalities. Vlad is more a scholar and a reader, and thus provides us with clear background and history details. Leena is a far more emotional person, and therefore allows us to see events unfold from an active point of view. These instances of characterization enable the story to develop slowly; Instead of getting everything shoved down our throat all at once, the plotline eventually pieces itself together based on a progressive reading of Vlad and Leena's observations. I find this to be remarkably subtle, and carefully crafted.

I feel that "Riverside" overdoes this careful revelation of circumstances and events, though. The author simply takes her time describing the factors of societal breakdown and reprogression; Such things may be vital to the atmosphere as well as how the story turns out, but I feel that everything could have been written much shorter. As it stands, I could almost describe the piece as "dragging", if it weren't for the way the plot turns out. The presence of a lot of agency names, acronyms and future trademarks (Meka-Armors, Meka-Arm Guns, Meka-Scanners...) doesn't make things any easier for a reader. I'd even go as far as to wonder about a possible Animé influence somewhere.

I feel that the story is good, though. It feels like social realism in a highly unfamiliar setting that, interestingly enough, gets more and more familiar as the story wears on. It runs on some very skillful storytelling, and it left me with a very good impression of Ms. Sanchez's skills. It's only stumbling block, I fear, has a lot to do with its pacing: Anyone who can manage to last the length of its thirty pages, though, will probably find it okay in the end.

Lunes, Alas Diyes ng Umaga (written by Vlad Gonzales)

Unfortunately, I'll have to hold off on any praise I have for Mr. Gonzales's approach. While it does fit the nature of "Lunes" perfectly, I've used the same approach on a couple of occasions as well, and I know that it's a good one. Suffice to say that his story does it justice; It takes a certain amount of detail to get the style correct, and he gets it just right.

I think that the story's primary attribute lies in the angle it uses: So you have interdimensional contact at your fingertips, it says. So you can reshape reality to your very whims. Just what do you do with it, exactly? Despite the fact that a number of past authors and pieces already deal with this possibility of temporal manipulation, "Lunes" gives us a distinct use for the stuff. Even better, it doesn't give this away until the latter pages of the story, allowing the revelation to creep up and surprise us. It started out subtle -- complacently subtle, even -- and it forced me to raise both eyebrows at the climax. It's not easy to find stories like that nowadays.

On the other hand, no matter how much I like the story's approach to the subject matter, I have to admit that it's simply been done before. I suspect that this is more of an issue regarding my personal background, though: "Lunes" reminded me of The Twilight Zone's "Shatterday" episode, as well as a few other American science-fiction stories I had read over the years. (Heck, I once wrote a short story on the topic myself.) In addition, it seems that Mr. Gonzales didn't feel as though "Lunes" would be complete without a thorough explanation of what was taking place in his story: I feel that his final two paragraphs serve no purpose other than to dilute the impact of his ending, and I'd cut them out myself if given the chance.

Off hand, I think that this story would probably be a good read for those people who are generally unfamiliar with science fiction, simply because it illustrates a good "what-if" sort of scenario. It would be a good starting point for them, really. The trouble is that I and most readers of similar background will find that it treads ground that we've encountered before. I fear that we're more likely to overlook it in favor of other things, and I feel that that's a pretty sad occurrence for a story that's actually pretty good at heart.

Project: Overmind (written by Emil M. Flores)

I have to get one question off my chest for this one, and that's "What is this supposed to be, really?"

I honestly don't know if this is supposed to be an action-movie-type piece, or if this is supposed to be a satire on such works, or if this is supposed to be a completely serious narrative with some really terrible pacing. At the moment, it leaves me absolutely dumbfounded.

Don't get me wrong, though. There are some aspects that I admire about the piece itself. For one, the premise is certainly interesting: Nazi operations in the Philippines concerning genetic experimentation on human subjects? A photocopier boy with a photographic memory who finds himself in the center of a massive manhunt? The religious sightings of Mt. Banahaw actually being the residual products of a secret laboratory devoted to researching mental powers? The story just throws one improbable element after another into a confused mix, and Mr. Flores somehow manages to have it all make a sort of sense.

I have a huge problem with the pacing, though. The story simply tells everything too quickly, from the incident where we run into the photocopier guy to the shootout at the apartment to the expedition to Mt. Banahaw. It was simply too fast for me to feel any particular attraction to any of the characters, much less see the point of their little adventure. Heck, if Mr. Flores's chapter headings are to be believed, the whole story plays out over the course of two days!

And once I thought about that a little more, something seemed odd about the story.

And that's why I'm sitting here like this, trying to figure everything out.

I suspect that Mr. Flores is making fun of us here. He's conjured up a rip-snorter of a story, something that goes into a full-blown action mode normally reserved for Schwarzengger movies, where convoluted plots gain a life of their own, impossible coincidences happen, and medical consultants inexplicably have degrees in tae kwon do. This is the kind of story where standard literary critiques fail; In fact, they don't just fail -- they burst into tears and lock themselves in their rooms for the rest of the evening.

That's why I'll lay down my critical background at this point, and say it straight: This is an action movie. You'll either like the ride, or you won't. Some people will obviously enjoy "Project: Overmind", and some people will wonder exactly how it's supposed to be good. I'll trust that you know where you stand with regards to this distinction.

I'd recommend this story to everyone, only I don't want to give people the impression that this is the standard for a good story. It sets a standard for unique stories, yes, but it's not a good literary composition according to any of the precepts I've seen so far. To put it simply: It spits in your eye and tells you to go screw yourself. That might be a good thing or a bad thing, I suppose.

Pinoy Amazing Adventures

Now I get to tell you what I thought about the collection itself. Admittedly I have to be much more careful here -- Psicom's been around for quite a while already, and I don't want to offend their fanbase if possible.

I feel that PAA offers about the same deal as PGS1: PGS1 is a five-story anthology that costs one hundred pesos a shot; PAA is a four-story anthology that costs eighty-five per copy. While I feel that the contents of each anthology are definitely interesting enough to justify their respective prices, I think that that's more of a testament to the state of Philippine speculative fiction than anything else.

If you have the money to spare, I'd simply recommend picking up both. It'll cost you less than two hundred pesos for two more books in your arsenal and a fairly good read. (If you only have enough money to pick up one, then I'd suggest that you put it away for a while until you've saved up enough money to buy both. It's that simple.)

PAA's primary advantage is that it showcases at least one piece of artwork per story; Although these elements neither aid nor hinder the reading exercise much, I have a tendency to like Renerick Sevilla's art. It makes me wonder if he's done any comics, to be honest.

I found one major problem with the PAA publication, however, and that involved the spotty editing. A good editor would have found a way to clean up some of the problems I noticed in each of the stories, grammar and spelling issues notwithstanding. A good editor would have noticed lapses in some critical areas -- isn't this supposed to have a Table of Contents, for instance? And a good editor would have noticed that, while the book clearly reads "Pinoy Amazing Adventures" on its cover, it nevertheless reads "Pinoy Amazing Adventure" on its spine. Whoever checks and proofreads publications like these on Psicom's end needs to do a better job.

That's that, I think. PAA, I suppose, is about as good a buy as PGS right now... although a lot of the burden is on Psicom if they want to release a second volume of the anthology. The editorial staff has a lot of things to clean up on their end... although I would probably welcome more works by the independent writers any day.


Der Fuhrer said...

Arrg. I've been putting off the review for this one for many months now.

Lunes: I thought it was good since, well, I'm pretty new with the stuff. (Honestly, I haven't read a lot of SF stuff, I'm more of a fantasy/horror reader)I even put it in me Year's Best Sf list. :D I just liked the way Mr. Gonzales handled the story.

Riverside: "dragging", very. I agree.Good story but it's very long for an SF story like itself. I mean, how long can the author explain the whole scenario. Maybe it was that long due to the fact that it uses two POVs as a storytelling device.

Apocalypso: For me, this is the most SFnal of all the stories simply because of the subject. It has faint traces of hard-SF ambitions but withraws further on. Yes, the switch in narration was disturbing, the story was redeemed by the whole premise. It needs a bit of work though.

Project:Overmind- (I don't think this was included in my Hon. Mentions list but well, I forgot about it heheh) Project Overmind is delicious in simplier terms. Anyone would probably enjoy the story since it is set in a Dan Brownish conventions (is that the one Mr. Flores making fun off? The super quick, ADD infested pace?)And yes, I was really baffled by the odd bits that strayed into the story. As I've told Banzai Cat, I thought that Project was just too fast and things quickly fell into pace. Kumbaga sa reality show, scripted. Heheh. Still okay nonetheless.

I suppose I won't be needing to make a review then? Heheh

Sean said...

Fuhrer: Aw, come on. I was hoping that you'd be writing a review for this one. If anything, though, we at least know that you liked "Lunes". (I liked it as well, only I feel that I'm too biased in its favor from a technical standpoint.)

I originally hated "Project: Overmind", but after a while I realized that I was judging it with the wrong sort of background. I found it to be a bad story under the rules I usually follow with regards to literary critique, but that would be like using Oscar standards to judge action movies. I don't think it'll grow on me too much, but I also think that it can't be judged from a critical point of view... and I'll thus leave it to other people to decide. :)

Der Fuhrer said...

hehe. fine. I'll make a review. heheh :D

vlad said...

magandang araw, vlad gonzales po! salamat sa pagbabasa ng PAA. naiparating na dun sa mga big boss yung lahat ng puna at mas pagbubutihin pa yung susunod na libro.

ayun, may susunod na libro nga. at sana'y makabigay kayo ng mga kwento. mas okey sa kanila ang maiiksing piyesa na mas madaling basahin (simpleng plot pero nakaaaliw pa rin ang mga ginagawang "what if" na scenario).

e-mail lang kayo sa kung ayos sa inyong tumulong dito. salamat!

Sean said...

Vlad: Despite what I've written up there, I must say that I liked "Lunes" for its style and approach. I feel that the story was excellent enough for me to look forward to anything else you write. :)

I'd gladly submit something to further publications, but it might be better to produce an open call for submissions if Psicom's willing to work with that. I'll contact you via e-mail for further questions; Maybe we might be able to work something out.

karl r. de mesa said...

hey sean,

wow, this is a pretty thorough review. looks great! and salamat for this and the effort. ngayon ko lang nakita `to, though so my comments might be totally useless nwo that PAA is out of print.

i also talked to the editor before this came out and he says there was supposed to be an ediotirla intro and a table of contents. suddenly when he got the final copy of PAA it was msising. hmm, so much for clarity.

anyway, for "apocalypso" there are a few punctuation marks missing. the worst of all the mysteriously vanishing punctuations were the three "*" to indicate a time lapse and the transition of the narration between apocalypso's video report, his debriefing with Lt. Kid and the epilogue in his bedroom.

i hope that clears up what looks like sudden shifts in voice and a generally muddled narrative.

again, thanks for the review and thanks for buying PAA.

hope you purchase more of our stuff. if you liekd PAA try to check out the "FHM erotica anthology/ladies confessions special ed2" if you can since i included some of the same authors there.

cheers, dude.

Sean said...

Karl: Hi, Karl. It's been a while since I first posted this review, actually.

Unfortunately, time hasn't been kind to my assessment of the book and the publisher. Compared to the other venues out there, PAA has been left in the dust. Moreover, my own experiences with Psicom haven't quite left me a good impression of the editorial board. (I believe that somebody over there still has a manuscript of mine that they optioned for a nonexistent second volume.)

That said, I'll try to pick up the FHM anthology to see if your work reads better there. I have some reservations about FHM, mind you (because there's an obvious focus on the half-naked women, after all), but an anthology's an anthology, I suppose.

KARL De MESA said...


sadly, the half-naked and naked (yes)ladies are an intrinsic part of it -- it's genre + erotica. but i do hope you like that, too, since that antho was FHM's stab at playboy quality lit and even the newcomer girls were shot by top drawer lensmen.

all the best, dude.

Sean said...

Karl: I have nothing against erotica, and in fact, I've written a bit of the stuff in my time. However, FHM strikes me as a venue that is not necessarily devoted to quality literature; If they wish to take a stab at Playboy-quality lit, I would immediately ask why they don't make a monthly feature out of the deal. (I mean, they certainly have enough space in their magazine.) No, I feel that the lit here is a mere selling point. I feel that it's a one-time arrangement that falls far below certain noble ideals.

That said, it could be that they're merely testing the market to see if such literature would sell. If so, I understand this from a corporate point of view, and I'll probably pick up a copy soon.