BOOK REPLIES/REVIEWS (2014): S. Oliver, R. Rodriguez, R. Renzi’s (2014) FBP : Federal Bureau of Physics (vol. 1: The Paradigm Shift)

12 October 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

“Given the right conditions, the impossible is always possible”; this series still seeks those right conditions.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: S. Oliver, R. Rodriguez, R. Renzi’s (2014)[2] FBP : Federal Bureau of Physics (vol. 1: The Paradigm Shift)

I forever feel disinclined to cite ad-text about what a book (in this case a graphic novel that collects the first seven issues of FBP) claims for its content, but it still seems a kind of place to start for approaching a book when addressing readers (you) who’ve perhaps not read the book; so:

Wormholes in your kitchen. Gravity failures at school. Quantum tornadoes tearing through the Midwest. As with all natural disasters, people do what they always do: They adapt and survive. And if things get really bad, the Federal Bureau of Physics (FBP) is only a call away. FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics is the story of Adam Hardy: Young, brash and smart, he’s a rising star at the FBP, but when a gravity failure leads to the creation of an alternate dimension known as a “BubbleVerse,” Adam is sent on a rescue mission and finds his skills and abilities pushed to their limits when he discovers his partner has a different agenda… Collects issues #1-7

More succinctly: imagine Ghostbusters, but with anomalous physics (not anomalous spirits) posing the main threats faced by the Bureau.

I find three things in particular noteworthy in this series, each of which also winds up with a serious downside: an unusual characterization, the potential revolution that altering time and space portends, and a different emphasis (sometimes) within the series’ “boy fiction”.

Adam Hardy: Palestinian

To address the most straightforward of these: the authors make the central character Palestinian—a gesture potentially radical and certainly perspicacious—but they leave him named Adam Hardy (presumably Oliver’s choice), so that the specificity of his ethnicity disappears. As the creator but visual artist of the series (Rodriguez) notes, “The first big change I wanted to make in the look of the cast was Adam [the main character] and his family. Even though his last name is Hardy, he is Palestinian” (136).

It becomes difficult to “read” this from the text; he simply looks more “brown-skinned” than actually “Arab” (or Palestinian). Meanwhile, Adam’s uncle (Eli) wears a turban, and looks (stereotypically speaking) more like a Sikh than a (presumably Muslim?) Palestinian. Adam’s father, by contrast, seems in spots more to resemble Chong, and not just for participating in a marijuana deal (although obviously this helps). Adding to the confusion (and thankfully you might only notice this after finishing the book, and reading about the character design notes at its end), Rodriguez declares, “I figured an American would not progress as far in science [as a Palestinian]. I mean look at our education numbers” (ibid). One could flip out about this in various ways, but the dominating narrative about Palestinians (as Arabs generally and especially in contrast to Zionist discourse about Palestinians) would generally claim the opposite. The use of “American” here also becomes incoherent, since Adam’s birth didn’t occur outside of the United States (presumably).

The impression I get: Oliver write a narrative about a Caucasian (named Adam Hardy) and Rodriguez prevailed upon him to make a merely visual change that does not actually have an narrative significance in the story. But, just as an African-American playing Hamlet (or a Caucasian playing Othello) has no meaning or support from Shakespeare’s texts themselves, for the audience, the change becomes noticeable and might actually modify the story. Thus, Rodriguez offers the curious statement, “To save the name, which I liked, I figured in this world it’s much like Ellis Island where Adam’s family got a new name once they got off the boat” (ibid). I don’t dispute this ever happens, but if “Adam Hardy” should in some way embody “Palestinian” heritage, merely to add a brown tint to his skin and put a turban on his uncle falls short of signalling that enough, especially when changing his name would have helped immensely.

So, even though I see the change to “Palestinian” as utterly gratuitous (and, in fact, in some ways contradicts the largely standard “boy fiction” narrative that Oliver provides without, however, at all challenging that narrative), it still seems a striking gesture as an intention, albeit a failed or ineffective one.

Changing the Categories of Time and Space

Something similar happens with the deployment of the “core idea” in this series: i.e., how human beings deal with circumstances where conventional physics goes awry (i.e., local gravity reversals, the creation of parallel and temporary bubble dimensions, perhaps even reversals of time’s arrow). Those familiar with Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s (1977)[3] Roadside Picnic or the (heavily narratively modified) film version, Andrei Tarkovsky’s (1979) Stalker, will well know just how strangely and richly one may play with the idea of unpredictable physics.

One pitfall of such unpredictable physics comes up when it starts to act more like magic, although maintaining the distinction may quickly become hairy, if not impossible.[4] Worse, and in contrast to the idea of unpredictable physics as magic, unpredictable physics may also come to serve as a narrative pretence. For example, at one point a colleague tries to shoot Adam and instead of traveling in the correct trajectory, the bullet squiggles around more like the one that assassinated JFK and only hits Adam in the arm. The authors seem to acknowledge the “mere convenience” of this, because Adam reflects how freak physics unpredictably killed his father and now freak physics has saved his life.

The authors avoid, for the most part, sliding toward “magic” because they keep deploying technological devices to deal with stuff. At the same time, this only more and more reinforces the echoes of Ghostbusters, but the problem of narrative convenience (and pretence) remains the more serious problem. The book repeats, more than once, that given the right conditions, the impossible becomes possible. This explicitly counters any magical or supernatural “vibe” the book has, since it specifically cites a rationalistic (or scientific) basis for whatever weirdness happens in the series, whether a quantum tornado, localized gravity fluctuations, or inexplicably zigzagging bullets.

An example from the history of literature and literary criticism points to this as well. A popular distinction in the early Gothic novel in English noted how the denouement of a work would speak volumes. In the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, for instance, no matter how many uncanny events occur, in the end—as also in Scooby Doo—an entirely rational explanation appears to account for all of the events. In other Gothic fiction, archetypally Mathew Lewis’ (1796) The Monk, the weirdness simply gets weirder at the end, so that a supernatural explanation (complete or not) thwarts any “rational” explanation. So runs the distinction, in any case. Thus, when the authors of FBP narratively insist that given the right conditions the impossible becomes possible they certainly invoke something more on the side of Radcliffe’s (and Scooby Doo’s) rationalistic explanations. The smattering of exposition about physics also tilts the story more towards “science” than “magic”.

However, this does not explain away the narrative conveniences (or pretences) resorted to. In terms of narrative world-building, this means that the authors seem to supply too little to make a moment like the zigzagging bullet consistent with the rest of the world (rather than just an unconvincing contrivance to save the hero).

I must say: the contrivance that saves the hero may denote one of the Fundamental Laws of (Action) Fiction. In a vast number of books and movies—one may see it to egregious, virtually comical extent in Remender, Moore, Opeña, & Hawthorne’s (2014)[5] Fear Agent (Volume 2)—we see again and again how the narrative bends over backward to accommodate the most unlikely advantages for the hero. Or we’ve all watched as a villain—previously the world’s deadliest sniper—become incapable of hitting the broadside of a barn once he starts shooting at the hero; the moment in Cosmatos’ (1993)[6] Tombstone when Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp becomes unhittable makes the an exception that proves the rule.

So, much as making Adam Palestinian generates little more than a cosmetic difference in the series, too much of the world of physics seems just window-dressing (a kind of skin) overlaid on top of the usual stuff. Hence, the recurring impression of Ghostbusters but with gravitational rather than spectral anomalies.

I find this especially disappointing, since the difference than physics (rather than ghosts) purports really does go to changing our fundamental experience in the world. A gravitational reverse doesn’t provide much “drama” or “story” of course—it’s rather like a summer rainstorm, more of an inconvenience, which we weather (with an umbrella or not). But even this minor change to how the world works does require changes in how we arrange the world—cars that don’t suddenly lift off of freeways, for instance. It suggests we might have to rebuild the mobile infrastructure of the world—gravitational stability fields along the highways and sidewalks, &c. Or whatever.

Modifications to—i.e., radical modifications to—our fundamental categories of time and space stand to show us, in fictions, what alternative worlds might look like. In the overwhelming majority of (positively) utopian fictions, the authors imagine how to arrange society so as to maximize whatever they imagine needs maximizing; very much less frequently do they consider the possibility not to change human society but to alter “human nature”. We could solve the problem of human starvation if we redesigned our bodies to take in energy through some means other than nutrients. Fanciful, in principle, but by rejecting the “realism” of things as they seem, we may thus come to see alternatives our categories previously blocked. So too with the premise of this book: by taking up the possibility of fundamentally modifying how time and space behave, we might come to see alternatives we otherwise cannot. But instead of this, the authors short-shrift “world-building” and wind up more often resorting to conventional narrative contrivances. No modification to the fundamental categories of time and space occur when the bullet zigzags, in other words; the authors simply have put their hero in a tight spot and found an easy (unconvincing) way out.

Not Quite Only Boy Fiction

Most of the narrative takes up whole-cloth the tropes of boy fiction: masculine activity (here a group, centring on Adam, but which includes eventually a female) to save the world, with a magical degree of competence by the male (so long as it doesn’t prevent the further development of plot problems), a typically omnipotent villain (at least in these first seven issues) presumably worthy of the hero, and so on. Again, Remender, Moore, Opeña, & Hawthorne’s (2014) Fear Agent (Volume 2) provides a much more grotesque, utterly unself-conscious version of this.

However, here the authors show how a disaster (engineered secretly behind the scenes by the villain) serves as the pretext for the introduction of a bill before Congress that privatizes the previously government-only Federal Bureau of Physics. Besides being a politically astute recognition—or, as Klein’s (2007)[7] Shock Doctrine makes clear, simply a correct understanding of much of what lies behind the corporatization of Congress, whether deliberately (i.e., the wilful 2008 act of financial terrorism by Wall Street and/or 911 and/or Pearl Harbor and/or Halliburton in Iraq) or merely opportunistically (various responses to Katrina)—this also de-centres the typical boy fiction narrative (hero vs. villain) and points instead to the structural features of disaster capitalism that require the sort of disaster the book depicts.[8]

The series has some other subtle gestures of this type but, just as Adam’s Palestinian origins and the environmental modifications of time and space in the story seem cosmetic only, the presence of this “structural feature” in the genre of boy fiction tends to collapse back into mere (boy) hero vs. (personal) villain.

One of the ways this happens: personal betrayal happens at the drop of a hat in this series. At one point, a late-introduced character (Agent Reyes) gets blackmailed in what contextually seems a very contrived way. Imagine if someone suddenly told a nuclear physicist, “We’ve kidnapped you because we have uranium and a nuclear reactor. Build us a bomb!”—as if one may simply acquire uranium and nuclear reactors; Agent Reyes seems confronted by this kind of implausibility. I think the authors want us to believe that these schemers will get connected to the master villain, who presumably has the financial means to acquire the analogues of “uranium” and “nuclear reactors” the narrative requires at that point. Especially since the other main betrayal, of Adam by his long-time partner, hinges entirely on that partner’s co-optation by the master villain toward engineering the disaster mentioned above. At least, that seems what the story entails.

Both of these events really come out of left field, not at all clearly motivated, and more seeming just to provide Michael Bay-like explosions in the story. But regardless, both emphasize the personal corruption of the character who have access (probably because they have wealth) to the corridors of power, and thus the means, for accomplishing their nefarious deeds. The authors depict them as people who take advantage of an innocent system, except that engineering a disaster in order to create circumstances that make citizens willing to accept unacceptable changes (again) points to structural characteristics of our social world (in the US and elsewhere).

Yes, in the several historical settings that Klein identifies as illustrative of disaster capitalism at work (Pinochet’s Chile, the Reagan era in the United States, the manipulation of circumstances post-Apartheid in South Africa and with Solidarity in Poland, the Patriot Act following 9/11, Halliburton in Baghdad, New Orleans post-Katrina, &c), we see individuals working to push terrible agendas, but the very repetition of this pattern by different people in different places points to a structural, not just a personal, aspect at play. And in Oliver, Rodriguez, and Renzi’s book, they provide us a textbook example of disaster capitalism (in this case, where someone deliberately causes the disaster).

But then the narrative loses traction and makes this into the act simply of an evil man, the villain. And we might similarly name names (certainly a plurality, not one) in Pinochet’s Chile, Reagan’s United States, Thatcher’s England, &c., but these villains play the dupe, in a sense, of what the social structural (disaster capitalism) demands of them. The Koch brothers stand as puppets as much as those whose strings they think (and in fact do) pull, victims of disaster capitalism as well, except that their own operatic self-pity and access to power gives them the means to harm multitudes from that vantage point. We see the same self-pity in US discourse, when it stands baffled before the fallen towers and can’t understand, “Why do they hate us?”


I would like to imagine that somehow the modifications offered to characterization, world-building, and generic aspects of “boy fiction” would better stand up against the “gravity” of the standard discourse these narrative elements (seem, at least, to) oppose. Having recently read Yanow’s (2014)[9] War of Streets and Houses, which may function less as a narrative intended for the “general public” and more as a “secret message” to those in the know, I could tempt myself into believing that a similar “secret message” prevails here, but I can’t convince myself. In some key ways, Yanow’s text provides reasons to suspect and support such an idea—not so much here.

This seems doubly unfortunate, if only because it more clearly signals the opportunity missed than something like the massive piece of dreck like Fear Agent does. Very often, things that seem just slightly wrong can seem more significantly disastrous than something utterly wrong, but in this case I find myself much less irked (by the missed opportunity) than by something like Fear Agent, if only because the latter smugly and ignorantly goes flying by what opportunity it misses without even slightly acknowledging the mistake.

It seems tempting to impute “two minds” on the creative team, i.e., that Oliver (as the principle narrator) has one story to tell and Rodriguez (as the principle illustrator) has sought to slip a different story in, by making Adam Palestinian. But (unless we assume some outside influence on Oliver) the premise of modified time and space and the presence of disaster capitalism in the text originate (more or less) with him.

In the end, boy fiction ,narrative contrivance, and “human” (i.e., White) characterization trump the counter-gestures. Perhaps someone would say to expect otherwise makes me naïve, but let us not forget what the series insists: given the right conditions, the impossible is always possible.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Oliver, S., Rodriguez, R., & Renzi, R. (2014). FBP : Federal Bureau of Physics. New York: DC Comics/Vertigo, pp. 1–144.

[3] Strugat͡skiĭ, A., Strugat͡skiĭ, B., & Strugat͡skiĭ, A. (1977). Roadside picnic ; Tale of the troika. New York: Macmillan.

[4] Of course, one might cite Clarke here, that “any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic,” but Clarke has it backwards; we should say, rather, “any magic, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from technology.” If I went back in time to a medieval era with some widget, they might well call it “magic”. But if someone from our future showed up using magic, we would assume some sort of technological explanation must exist. We would fail to recognize their magic as magic—magic being that which operates contrary to the known principles of science. Thus, in the same way, we see that the medievalists make no error to call my “technology” “magic”—because my technological widget does indeed operate contrary to the known principles of explanation available to them at the time. Except that they have the category of “magic” (again, as simply “that which operates contrary to the known operations of the world”), while we don’t. If I get to go back to the eleventh century and insist to the “natives” that they shouldn’t call my widget “magic”, then I have no grounds for insisting to future travellers to my own time that I get to call their widget “technology” (even though it contradicts fundamental aspects of what I understand as science). Consequently, just as naturalistic fiction actually represents a sub-genre of science fiction (i.e., a parallel universe story in which the only difference from our own world centers on the characters of the novel), so we may see that technology represents a sub-genre of magic (magic, again, consisting of that which operates contrary to the known operations of the world).

[5] Remender, R, Moore, T, Opeña, J, Hawthorne, M (2014). Fear agent, vol. 2. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, pp. 1–520.

[6] Russell, K., Kilmer, V., Biehn, M., Boothe, P., Burke, R. J., Delany, D., . . . Pacula, J. (1997). Tombstone: Hollywood Pictures Home Video

[7] Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism: Macmillan

[8] Engels also said, a long time ago: the middle class has never produced anything except periodic financial collapses (whether on purpose, i.e., Goldman-Sachs & cronies, accidentally, or opportunistically, i.e., every robber baron ever).

[9] Yanow, S. (2014).War of streets and houses. Minneapolis, MN: Uncivilized Books, pp. 1–69.

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