29 April 2016

Thomas Chatterton: Eighteenth-Century Forger

A comment by a dissertation committee member had me going through Charles Kingsley's Two Years Ago looking for bits where people talk about poetry. What I discovered was a conversation between the kindly old Doctor Thurnall, naturalist and physician, and the young John Briggs, would-be poet. Doctor Thurnall tells Briggs he's gotta love nature more to be a good poet:
"Throw away the safe station in which God has certainly put you, to seek, by some desperate venture, a new, and, as you fancy, a grander one for yourself? Look out of that window, lad; is there not poetry enough, beauty and glory enough, in that sky, those fields,—ay, in every fallen leaf,—to employ all your powers, considerable as I believe them to be? Why spurn the pure, quiet, country life, in which such men as Wordsworth have been content to live and grow old?"

The boy shook his head like an impatient horse. "Too slow—too slow for me, to wait and wait, as Wordsworth did, through long years of obscurity, misconception, ridicule. No. What I have, I must have at once; and, if it must be, die like Chatterton—if only, like Chatterton, I can have my little day of success, and make the world confess that another priest of the beautiful has arisen among men."
So this is useful to my purpose (as it suggests a good poet is a good scientist), but I was like-- who the heck is Chatterton? Because obviously I've heard of Wordsworth, but I've never heard of this fella, which maybe suggests Briggs is full of it. (He usually is. He later changes his name to Elsey Vavasour because he believes it's more a proper poet's name.) Thomas Chatterton turns out to be an eighteenth-century poet, born in 1752.

Chatterton's big thing was that he made up a fifteenth-century poet, and most of his poetry was ostensibly work by one Thomas Rowley that he had supposedly discovered in manuscript form. Amazingly, he was only sixteen years old at the time. Born into poverty, he tried to leverage his "discoveries" into acquiring a patron, to little success; he turned to political poetry, and didn't get very far there, either. He committed suicide in 1770 at the age of seventeen.

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton (1856)

He did come to fame after that; in 1777, a book of the poetry of Thomas Rawley was published by a credulous editor. Word about the forgery spread, but it might not surprise you that the Romantic poets loved this guy. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley all mention him in their poetry or dedicate poems to him. I'm guessing from the tenor of the above passage, though, that Kingsley was not a fan.

28 April 2016

Review: Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century by Laura Otis

Trade paperback, 268 pages
Published 2011 (originally 2001)

Acquired and read December 2012
Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century
by Laura Otis

Laura Otis's monograph explores the way nineteenth-century writers and scientists imagined communications, especially how their conceptions were shaped by the idea of the network, as in both the telegraph and the nervous system. Viewing these two systems as relatable could cause one to see human networks as mechanical: Charles Babbage "approached bodies and machines in the same way, studying patterns of movement and seeking the simplest arrangements of parts that could produce a desired motion" (29). It could also cause you to view mechanical networks as living things; Emil DuBois-Raymond believed that a "telegraph network modeled on an organic system would allow a society to survive-- and conquer-- just as a sophisticated nervous system allowed a living animal to succeed" (49).

Otis moves from this set-up of the issues to discuss the influence of these network theories on nineteenth-century literature. Most notable is, of course, Eliot's Middlemarch and its famous "web." This is often taken evolutionarily, but Otis provides a strong reading of the novels webs of communication. The book ends with readings of literature that's more explicitly telegraphic, most of which I've read: Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes, Wired Love, and Henry James's "In the Cage." The book then ends by considering the "web without wires" (i.e., telepathic communication) and Dracula. One sometimes wishes Otis could step back more: there are compelling readings of individual texts here (I ought to cite her take on Middlemarch), but the overall "theory" of her argument is not readily apparent. But as an examination of ways of thinking embodied in ways of writing, it rates highly.

27 April 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XX: Batman: Fortunate Son

Batman's back, baby! Forget about your multiversal crises, and sink your teeth into some good old-fashioned street crime...

Comic trade paperback, 90 pages
Published 1999

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2015
Batman: Fortunate Son

Writer: Gerard Jones
Artist: Gene Ha
Colorist: Gloria Vasquez
Letterer: Willie Schubert

Year Four, Summer
This is a weird book, no doubt about it. A rock musician that Robin's really into commits a crime, or seems to, Batman decides the team will investigate, as a favor to Robin. It turns out that Batman utterly despises rock music, and he and Robin (quite temporarily) split up. It also turns out that in additional to homicidal maniacs (right down the hall from them, in fact), Arkham Asylum houses rock managers who did too much drugs. Also also: the ghost of Elvis Presley, but blond, and only ever referred to as "God"!

Yet... I cannot imagine a better story of Batman and rock music. The weirdness of the story doesn't bother me, because it's operating by its own rules; this is a heightened world where rock music is powerful, where it instigates riots and sweeps people up at the drop of a beat. It's weird and kind of mystical without being magical or fantastical. People can be hypnotized by it, and terrible crimes can be committed by its adherents, all because of the music. It can do great good, but also great evil, and people will do anything to harness its power. You might now be saying, "this world sounds an awful lot like our world." That's the point!

Of course Batman hates rock music, then. Even at its best, it's disorderly, it's suspect. You don't need the scene where young Bruce Wayne is told to turn off that rock music, because it's time to go to the theatre, to make him hate it. Rock is about changing the world, but through disorder. It's accomplishing what Batman stands for the most, through means that are utterly alien to him.

Click to enlarge, duh.

I should also say that I really liked the look of Gene Ha's art, though his storytelling was often confusing. He draws Batman like a guy in costume, if that makes sense; you can tell his suit is something he's wearing, especially his cowl, not something that magically molds into his body. I don't think that approach would work for every Batman story (it's hard to imagine it in my next read, Batgirl: Year One, for example), but it is the right approach for this one, a story which emphasizes the fragility of who Batman is and what he does.

Next Week: And then there were three... the Bat-Family grows again in Batgirl: Year One!

26 April 2016

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode XXXI: The Unifying Force by James Luceno

This is it! It took me a year and a half to reread the series in chronological order, but I've finally come to the end of The New Jedi Order. I have to say it hasn't held up: I remember liking much more of it than I did on this reread. Its highs are still great (Edge of Victory, Star by Star, Traitor), but when you're not always eagerly picking up the latest installment to find out what happens next because you do know what happens next, the repetitiveness, aimlessness, rough edges, and dull characterizations become much more apparent.

Hardcover, 529 pages
Published 2003

Acquired December 2003
Previously read February 2004
Reread September 2015
Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: The Unifying Force
by James Luceno

Year Five of the Invasion (Months 1-3)
The New Jedi Order goes out much as it began, which is to say: blandly. Given a nineteen-book series with tons of characters to wrap up, Luceno devotes significant chunks of time early in the novel to Boba Fett and Judder Page, neither of whom have appeared in these books before. A lot of the novel feels oddly low-key: Zonoma Sekot appears in the sky over Yuuzhan'tar/Coruscant, but no one seems particularly worried about or interested in what ought to be an ominous moment. Luceno has obviously read Traitor, unlike Walter Jon Williams, but I'm not sure he gets it any better. He can bog anything down in procedural details, even the wrapup to a four-year galaxy-spanning epic, unfortunately.

Next Week: A new reading adventure begins: twelve novellas for twelve Doctors, as I finally hit up the prose fiction celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who!

25 April 2016

Review: The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

Benny Summerfield meets Irving Braxiatel and the Doctor meets Sherlock Holmes in my reviews at Unreality SF this week, of the audio adaptations two-fer Theatre of War and All-Consuming Fire.

Trade paperback, 301 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1883)
Acquired and read March 2016
The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

I was a bit surprised at this novel: it's published in 1883, so the same year Wilkie Collins finished Heart and Science, and the year after Thomas Hardy wrote Two on a Tower. Yet its much more prescient of modernism than either of those late Victorian works, reminding me more of early James Joyce or E. M. Forster than Schreiner's actual contemporaries. It has a fragmented, difficult style, but one appropriate to its subject matters, about the difficulties of coping with massive complex systems like religion and patriarchy while living on the fringe of the massive complex system that is empire-- though Schreiner is seemingly way less interested in interrogating its complications than she is those of gender and religion. I liked it, but I wanted to love it; I frequently enjoyed the detached narrative voice, but sometimes found it more difficult than I felt was necessary. There was some engrossing stuff (the horrific victimization of children by Bonaparte Blenkins), some funny stuff (Bonaparte's more comedic escapades) some great stuff (Bonaparte's final comeuppance), some intriguing stuff (young Waldo's adventures in the world), some startling stuff ("'Waldo,' she said, 'Lyndall is dead'" is such a powerful sentence), and some weird and offputting stuff (most of the last couple chapters). Probably worth another read someday, and I would certainly teach it; I don't think I've read another book quite like it.

22 April 2016

The Reeve-Era Superman Opening Credits

Recently, I was listening to my soundtrack collection, when the opening track to Superman III (1983) came up. Now, this is not a great film by any means, but I maintain that the first half is fun, especially the scenes between Clark Kent and Lana Lang, perhaps the most Christopher Reeve ever got to do as Clark, as opposed to Superman. The opening track is called "Main Title (The Streets of Metropolis)," and it plays over hijinks as Clark commutes to work at the Daily Planet:

It's by Ken Thorne, though he's imitating the stylings of John Williams. I find the whole sequence sort of bizarrely charming, in a slapstick sort of way, capturing a lot of the moral simplicity of the old Superman movies. (I haven't seen Batman v Superman, so I'm not going to slam it, though of course the fact that a big Superman fan such as myself didn't see it is itself a slam of sorts.)

One notes the way the names fly up from the bottom of the screen, over the action; I think this is supposed to be somewhat reminiscent of what is undoubtedly the greatest film opening credit sequence of all time, that of the original Superman: The Movie (1978). Seriously, watch it on full screen and turn up the volume:

Chills, man, chills. Every single time I watch it, and for every single name that flies in with that funny little noise. You know I didn't see this movie until I was in high school, but it's seared itself into my brain as if I saw it when I was five years old. I'm not sure why there's the prologue about the Daily Planet's Depression-era reportage, though.

The credits for Superman II (1980) are not quite as awe-inspiring, but playing John Williams's Superman march over a synopsis of the previous film gets me revved up a lot, too:

I also have a fondness for the opening credits to Supergirl (1984), with music by Star Trek's best composer, Jerry Goldsmith. Apparently they were hella expensive: those flying names are physical models:

You can see that they were really trying to create something as impressive for Supergirl's first film as they had for Superman's though, I don't think they quite succeeded.

But by the time Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) came out, everything about the Superman films, including the opening titles, was cheap, even if they did get the composer of the original Star Trek theme, Alexander Courage, to do the music this time. Seriously, the credits look like you could have knocked them out in twenty minutes on an Apple IIe:

I feel like I would be embarrassed if I had seen that in the theater. "This is what I'm paying money for!?" (The movie does have its moments, though. Or rather, a moment. I will always love the bit where Superman says in complete seriousness, "It's common knowledge that you hate children and animals, Luthor." Gene Hackman just shrugs.)

Of course, the nostalgia-fest that was Superman Returns (2005) went back to the original source here, with a set of titles that updated the original with modern effects technology:

Plus some really swell Marlon Brando narration. As this was the only one of these movies to come out during my adult life, it's the only one I got to see on the big screen, and I will always love it for giving me my only chance to see the sheer spectacle of classic-era Superman credits in their intended glory.

21 April 2016

Early SF Tales from the Eaton Collection: When All Men Starve by Charles Gleig

Hardcover, 192 pages
Published 1898 (originally 1897)
Borrowed from the Eaton Collection
Read January 2015
When All Men Starve: Showing How England Hazarded Her Naval Supremacy, and the Horrors Which Followed the Interruption of Her Food Supply
by Charles Gleig

To be fair, this book sounds from its title like it ought to be awful: another in a long stream of didactic Victorian books about political economy, imperial power, and land ownership. But to my surprise it wasn't. Charles Gleig, who apparently mostly wrote YA naval adventure tales, turns out to have a less obviously moralizing tone than many of his contemporaries. He's pretty sarcastic about the amount of money that goes into the imperial project, and about how the British upper classes overlook the plight of the lower classes, and how the middle classes have been bamboozled into siding with the upper.

The starting point for the novel is conflict between English and Boer settlers in South Africa that allows the Germans to land on a pretext of peacekeeping, doing so unimpeded because Britain pursues a diplomatic, rather than military solution. Soon, it's too late, and Britain is not just fighting Germany, but France and Russia have seized the opportunity and are demanding British withdrawal from the Mediterranean. Gleig isn't interested in your typical jingoistic future war, though: this is not The Next Crusade or even The Three Days' Terror. Rather, he focuses on the effect of the war on an already strained domestic situation: war mean no exports, which means no profits, which means mass unemployment.
The remedy [to the bread famine], hinted unpatriotic Socialism, was to make peace. War might be glorious, but what was glory upon an empty stomach?
     But as yet there was no general desire for peace. The nation hurled defiance at all accursed foreigners, and would yet find a Nelson to drive the Allies from the seas. […] Let Labour eat his turnips and be patient; above all, let him trust in the failing wisdom of the Government and all would be well. (76-7)
Because the government ignores the people (Gleig is particularly scathing of Radicals who are not actually radical), things spiral out of control at home while war is waged abroad. A Socialist leader, Jim Scalds, is arrested after a speech in the town of Braiding; the people riot, and when the police accidentally kill a rioter, things really go nuts.

The Justice of the Peace who arrested Scalds is hung, but a man named Robert Margrave, a former major in the "little wars" unites the rioters under his control. Gleig doesn't flinch from the violence, but he also doesn't revel in it; the book mostly reports it matter-of-factly, and I think it does a good job of expressing sympathy for the working-class position, unlike many of Gleig's contemporaries.
That regrettable excesses were committed, that violence and bloodshed marked the overthrow of the old order in Braiding, has to be admitted; but there is no evidence connecting Robert Margrave with the acts of violence perpetrated by his undisciplined followers, whilst, on the contrary, the rapidity with which some semblance of order was restored sufficiently indicates the force of character possessed by the man who dominated and guided the coming rebellion. (147)
The rebels aren't met in London by the military, but the police, and Gleig is most regretful over the horrific massacre that results: "one is forced to admit that the massacre left an indelible stain upon the character of the British rough" (178). Six thousand policeman are killed, but only one-third die in the actual battle: the others are killed afterward, while trying to flee. Buckingham Palace is burnt down, but the mob lets Westminster stand, apparently conscious that the only thing worse than the current government is no government: unlike many of his contemporaries, Gleig gets that these people aren't actually anarchists; they only want a just government. Margrave, though he is praised for his ability to channel the mob throughout, cannot control the revolution in those early days in London.

That's where the book ends, with the mob dancing around the embers of Buckingham Palace in a pretty haunting scene: "So they dance on, till the grey dawn steals up from the east and the burnt palace looms black and haggard in the cold light of morning" (192).

One thing I should note is that the book is fun and playful in its construction of future history; there are lots of footnotes, some of which cite what I think are real books, but many of them must be fake because they're things like London during the War by Andrew Slang and Chronicles of the Revolution by Professor Ducky. (I bet these are references to real writers, because Gleig likes doing this kind of thing; for example, the book transforms the real Sir Compton Domville into "Sir Dompton Colville" or Sir John Hopkins into "Sir John Skipworth."*) He's not the only person to do this kind of thing, but he's more playful than most, even establishing that "Alfred Norrison" (i.e., Arthur Morrison of A Child of the Jago fame) wrote novels about the events he's chronicling.

I particularly liked this skewering of writers of military fiction:
The English are a pugnacious race, yet how few Englishmen care very greatly to study those minutely detailed descriptions of sea fights which are to be found in the pages of James, Brenton, Laughton, Colomb, or even Mahan. The picturesque pen of a Froude, the robust irony of a Stevenson is needed to pierce the smoke of battle and show us the deportment of the dramatis personæ; otherwise the average citizen is sadly prone to yawn over whole pages of tactics and military manœuvres. (96)
He uses this as an excuse to not engage in such minute chronicles himself. Thank goodness, because he's right: they're dead boring, and his take is much more interesting.

* Thanks to Jess Nevins for pointing this out.

20 April 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Prose Fiction #10: Project Crisis!, Part LII: Countdown [novelization]

I keep trying to catch up on audio drama reviews and not entirely succeeding, but here's a review of The Avengers: The Lost Episodes, Volume 5 at Unreality SF. Meanwhile, I'm switching gears away from Final Crisis, but on the way I'm stopping to read another prose tie-in:

Trade paperback, 321 pages
Published 2009

Borrowed from the library
Read September 2015
Countdown by Greg Cox

Cox's novelization of 52 was not as good as the comic series on which it was based, but his novelization of Countdown is better. Mostly, this is down to the quality of their respective source materials: 52 was a good comic, and one of the things that made it good was its huge span, in terms of both time and characters, which was hard to pare down for a 300-page novel in a way that kept the story effective. One of the many things that made Countdown to Final Crisis bad was its aimlessness, its repetitiveness, its plot-lines that went nowhere, or issues that served only to repeat the content of previous issues. Judicious cutting could only make it better, not worse.

So, tons of the original comic is gone here, to good effect. First off, two whole plot-lines are just removed: there's no Karate Kid and Una search for a cure to the OMAC virus, and there's no Pied Piper and Trickster on the run for the murder of the Bart Allen Flash. These were probably the worst of the various threads of Countdown, so no loss there. This leaves four primary plot-lines: Holly Robinson and Harley Quinn among the Amazons, Mary Marvel trying to tame the power of Black Adam, Donna Troy and Jason Todd searching for Ray Palmer, and Jimmy Olsen investigating the death of the New Gods. These plot-lines still aren't great, but they are better, because Cox deletes a lot of terribleness. There's no tie-ins to wider DC universe events, like Amazons Attack! or the death of Bart Allen. Donna and Jason only visit a couple parallel Earths, and never encounter Monarch. There are no cutaways to the incoherent meetings of the Monitors. Jimmy Olsen doesn't learn ten times over that his powers only activate in situations of danger. OMAC doesn't eat Apokolips. Earth-51 isn't destroyed even once, much less twice.

Cox manages to give everything some focus: instead of being hunted by Donna and Jason because of something something morticoccus virus, Ray is seemingly recruited because he's needed to save Jimmy in the final battle against Darkseid. The whole book becomes about driving to that moment, to stop Darkseid from acquiring all the powers of the Gods and controlling the imminent Fifth World. (I'll be curious to see if Cox's novelization of Final Crisis makes any explicit links to the events of Countdown.)

If this all seems like damning with faint praise, well, it is. There's still no substance here. Mary Marvel still behaves stupidly for no apparent reason. Jimmy Olsen's romance with Forager is still pointless. Jason and Donna still stand around for most of the book. I did kind of like the Holly/Harley plot, but it's not much to write home about, either. How have they changed as people? Have we even learned anything about them? These aren't characters, they're ciphers being pushed around by a pointless plot.

It does read quickly, though.

Proposed Countdown novelization drinking game: drink every time a main character meets someone and thinks to themselves, 'I thought [x] was dead, but I guess I heard wrong/I saw wrong/they got better.'

Next Week: I return to the early days of Batman in Project Gotham!

19 April 2016

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode XXX: The Final Prophecy by Greg Keyes

Mass market paperback, 305 pages
Published 2003

Acquired 2003
Previously read November 2003
Reread September 2015
Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: The Final Prophecy
by Greg Keyes

Year Four of the Invasion (Month 12)
This is probably the best of the post-Traitor books in The New Jedi Order, though it's also the weakest of Greg Keyes's four contribution to the saga. Jaina ends up involved in some wacky space war escapades that feel like they're there to take up page count, but the core of the book is the adventures of Jedi Knights Corran Horn and Tahiri and Yuuzhan Vong Nom Anor, Nen Yim, and Harrar trying to get to Zonoma Sekot, which might hold the key to defeating the Yuuzhan Yong. All three Yuuzhan Vong characters have reason to be disaffected with the leadership of Supreme Overlord Shimrra, but different reasons. Keyes is as always great with characterization, and particularly his handling of the Yuuzhan Vong stands out: all three characters might be rebels, but none of them are "good guys" as a result, and they all come to their rebellion from different perspectives still influenced by their culture. His achievement is especially notable with Harrar, who had been a paper-thin villain in James Luceno's books, but little else, prior to this.

The problem is that the action feels inconsequential; some things happen that are of importance to The Unifying Force, but the stakes aren't very high. It's a shame that this was Keyes's last Star Wars book, as I thought he, Troy Denning, and Matt Stover were the big discoveries of The New Jedi Order. Denning and Stover went on to write many more Star Wars novels (as did, alas, Luceno), but Keyes moved on to original projects after this. Though these days he's writing tie-ins to properties like Interstellar, X-COM, Independence Day, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Elder Scrolls, so I feel like returning to Star Wars would be a step up.

Next Week: I wrap up this long odyssey through The New Jedi Order in The Unifying Force!

18 April 2016

Review: Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation by E. H. Gombrich

Trade paperback, 466 pages
Published 2000 (originally 1960)

Acquired September 2015
Read March 2016
Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation
by E. H. Gombrich

I don't remember why I asked for this book any more, other than that it has something to do with how we see, an issue that permeates many of my interests in teaching and scholarship. I ended up being surprised, then, in that it had a lot to do with my interest in literary realism and what it means to be "realistic": something I often emphasize in my teaching is that being "realistic" is usually a set of codes and tropes. Like, George Eliot considered herself to be realistic in Adam Bede in the 1850s. But modernism in the early twentieth century was also about being realistic, but "realistic" for Virginia Woolf was a very different set of things than it was for Eliot. E. H. Gombrich's books is about the history of "realistic" art, and something he captures very well is that "realistic" has always been a set of conventions: we very rarely draw from life; rather, there are certain ways that we signal "this is drawn from life" even as it is drawn from artistic convention. The Pre-Raphaelites and the Impressionists were both aiming for realistic, they just had different ways of creating the illusion of realism. Or as he himself puts it: "in all styles the artist has to rely on a vocabulary of forms and that it is the knowledge of this vocabulary rather than a knowledge of things that distinguishes the skilled from the unskilled artist" (293).

The peak of the book is really Chapter IX, "The Analysis of Vision in Art," where Gombrich unites the previous eight chapters to deliver a series of key insights. (The following two chapters kind of feel like filler.) First is that the "achievement of innocent passivity" is probably impossible: everything we see is filtered through our preconceptions: "Whenever we receive a visual impression, we react by docketing it, filing it, grouping it in one way or another, even if the impression is only that of an inkblot or a fingerprint" (297). All perception is relative. Gombrich argues that even John Ruskin, who was a book advocate of the idea of the "innocent eye," actually understood this: he "demands a willingness to use a pigment which in isolation still looks unlike the area to be matched in order that it may look like it in the end [i.e., in the completed picture]" (310).

I liked Gombrich's point that all representation thus becomes referential, and I think something similar is true in literature. Each artist and each artistic movement learns to see "reality" from the previous one: "If Constable saw the English landscape in terms of Gainsborough's paintings, what about Gainsborough himself? We can answer this. Gainsborough saw the lowland scenery of East Anglia in terms of Dutch paintings which he arduously studies and copied. [...] All paintings, as Wölfflin said, owe more to other paintings than they owe to direct observation" (316-17). In literature, the postmodernists owe the modernists owe the naturalists owe the realists owe the romantics and so on, each one deriving their attempts to depict "reality" from each other more than reality itself.

The result of this in art (and, I suspect, in literature) is that "when complete fidelity to visual experience had become both a moral and an aesthetic imperative" (311), everything fell apart: "if you were really faithful to your vision in every detail the equation would not work out: the elements will not fuse in the end into a convincing whole" (312). This gives us both alternate attempts at representing the real, and also movements like cubism, which "kicked aside the whole tradition of faithful vision and tried to start again from the 'real object' which they squashed against the picture plane" (312). But Gombrich is careful to assert that art is not subjectivity all the way down: we absorb some subjecivities into our vocabulary because they say something compelling to us about reality:
There is such a thing as a real visual discovery, and there is a way of testing it [...]. Whatever the initial resistance to impressionist paintings, when the first shock had worn off, people learned to read them. And having learned this language, they went into the fields and woods, or looked out of their windows onto the Paris boulevards, and found to their delight that the visible world could after all be seen in terms of these bright patches and dabs of paint. [...] The impressionists had taught them, not, indeed, to see nature with an innocent eye, but to explore an unexpected alternative that turned out to fit certain experiences better than did any earlier paintings. [...] As Oscar Wilde said, there was no fog in London before Whistler painted it. (324)
Which, I would once again hold, is true of good literature as much as good painting. This book has a lot to say about visual illusion, but it's also a very good introduction to the importance of conventions in all forms of art, both the perpetuating of them and the upending of them.

(The reproduction of images in my copy, a 2000 "millennium edition" and 14th printing, was often muddy. I don't know if the book looked like this originally in 1960, but it was sometimes difficult to make out the details Gombrich's text was alluding to.)

15 April 2016

Victorian Poetry of Science: May Kendall

I recently got to sit in on a graduate seminar here, on the topic of "Around 1900." (I attended the week they did The Time Machine, of course.) The professor supplied a copy of "The Lay of the Trilobite," an 1885 poem from Punch by May Kendall. It contains many gems, including (my favorite) some jabs at good old Huxley:

The poem sparked off a memory in me, of a similar poem I had read while doing some research on depictions of dinosaurs in the Victorian periodical press. Also printed in Punch the same year was "The Ballad of the Ichthyosaurus," about how terrible the poor fossil lizard (not actually a dinosaur) had it on account of his large eye but small brain:

Victorians loved ichthyosaurs; I feel like I came across references to them everywhere when conducting that research project. The illustration for this poem is particularly good, as the ichthyosaurus presents himself as an educated fellow, complete with academic cap:

(I don't know who drew it. I guess I could probably figure it out from the signature, maybe.) I particularly like this illustration because it reminds me of an 1863 short story from All the Year Round called "Nutcracker," where the protagonist seeks wisdom from one Doctor Lacerta, "the oldest living lizard, and therefore the wisest, in this part of the world. The wisdom of the lizards cannot be measured, nor even conceived of by men, whose origin is of infinitely later date in creation." Stories in All the Year Round were not illustrated, but I like to imagine Doctor Lacerta looked like this ichthyosaurus from Punch.

"The Ballad of the Ichthyosaurus" turns out to also be by May Kendall, who apparently penned a whole line of science-influenced poems for Punch. Many, if not all of them, were collected (sadly sans illustrations) in an 1887 volume called Dreams to Sell, which you can access on the Internet Archive. One poem, "'Taking Long Views,'" makes me think of The Time Machine. Here are some (nonsequential) stanzas:
'Comfort!' I said, 'I can't discern
   The nature of our planet's end,
Nor should I greatly care to learn.
   We've many aeons left, my friend!
Whether we last from age to age
   A frozen ball, or turn to flame,
To me, at this inspiring stage,
   Is very much the same.'

[He said] 'If we should fall, you understand,
   Such heat the crash would generate
The solar system might expand
   Into its primal gaseous state.
It would be awkward, I maintain,
   The same old cycle to renew;
For once let things come round again,
   And we should come round too!'

'Peace, peace!' I said. 'However dark
   The destiny the aeons bear,
You won't be here the wreck to mark.'
   He cried: 'That causes my despair.
I want to know what will take place,
   I want to see what will be done.
Oh, shall we wander into space
   Or fall into the sun?'
Well, dude, if you invented a time machine, you'd know the answer! Of course, if The Time Machine is any indication, that would only lead you to bigger worries. Like giant crabs.

14 April 2016

Review: Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative by Lisa Zunshine

Hardcover, 214 pages
Published 2008
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative
by Lisa Zunshine

I know I have detailed notes on this book somewhere, but I'll be damned if I can find them now, so a cursory review will have to do. Cognitive literary theory is a field I've often struggled with, including an anthology edited by Zunshine herself where I found almost every essay unconvincing, but this is probably the example of the field I've gotten along the best with. Zunshine lays out how "strange concepts" work, especially in the arena of science fiction. A "strange concept" is "counterontological," which means it includes "information contradicting some information provided by ontological categories" (Boyer, qtd. in Zunshine 67). She works mostly with robots: they resist categorization because they have some attributes of machine life, but (in science fiction) they also have many attributes of organic life. Thus they might not be subject to (for example) the rules regarding death that we feel thinking beings ought to follow.

Strange concepts are the foundation of much science fiction (and other kinds of fiction, of course; Zunshine also discusses fairy tales a lot): "Violations of ontological expectations thus seem to be ripe with narrative possibilities. Turn to any realm of ordinary human experience (social, emotional, ethical), and consider it in the light of such a violation-- and there is a story waiting for you" (69). This, if I'm remembering and understanding Zunshine right, makes strange concepts very powerful: by violating our assumptions about how the universe works, they allow us to expose and explore those very assumptions, which is at its base, I think, the appeal of science fiction. (In sf, the counterontologies have an empirical/rational framework, as opposed to fairy tales, where it's all done by magic, which I think convinces us that the counterontologies have some level of real meaning in the case of robots that they don't in the case of orcs.)

It's a well written, clear book, obviously aimed at a literary critic who is not familiar with cognitive literary theory; I could see assigning this book to advanced undergraduates. If I have a complaint, it's that Zunshine betrays little awareness that people have gone before in some of these areas; I found her work pretty congruent with that of Darko Suvin (he claims "cognition" as one of the necessary conditions for sf, after all), for example, yet he goes uncited.

13 April 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part LI: Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2009)

Borrowed from the library
Read August 2015
Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape

Writer: Ivan Brandon
Pencillers: Marco Rudy, Cliff Richards, Neil Edwards
Inkers: Mick Gray, Jack Purcell, JP Mayer, Prentis Rollins
Colorists: The Hories
Letterer: Sal Cipriano

I don't know why all the Final Crisis Aftermath books have verbs for subtitles, but I kind of like it. It would have been even better if they'd all used exclamation marks like Run!, though. Isn't Escape! a much better title than Escape?

In my review of Ink, I said it was my favorite FCA tale, but this one has supplanted it. This is the first of them that doesn't feel like the writer is trying to make something out of Grant Morrison's leftovers, that feels like its writer actually has his own story to tell. Ivan Brandon and Marco Rudy pick up some time after the end of Final Crisis, with its hints about Brother Eye and a Global Peace Agency. In Escape, Tom Tresser-- apparently a master of disguise called "Nemesis," but a new character to me-- wakes up in the Electric City, a sort of prison, a weird surreal prison whose wardens insist it's not a prison, and where his fellow inmates who know him refuse to talk to him. Many of the other prisoners seem to be characters who also worked for the government: Amanda Waller, Rick Flag, Blackhawk (I'm not sure which one-- Janos Prohaska?), Atomic Knight, Cameron Chase, the Spy Smasher.

The writing and the art are both deliberately disorienting, with Brandon providing little in the way of answers and Rudy embedding panels within panels to put the reader off from following the story. The characters don't know who to trust, they don't know who put them where they are or why, and imprisonment might not even be the purpose of their jailers. I was often confused by this story, but always intrigued, as the answers always felt just outside of my grasp. It reminded me-- quite deliberately, I suspect-- of The Prisoner, and that's almost always a good thing. The wheel with the options of DEATH, FREE, PEACE, VIOLENCE, ESCAPE, PANIC, RESET was a great surreal touch, and the seeming time travel elements were perfect icing on the cake of confusion.

I expected the end to be one of those endings that explains nothing, but to my surprise just enough explanations were provided to make me feel like there was a logic to this, and to intrigue me to read on. There was a purpose to everything that happened, one that stems from the events of Final Crisis and has repercussions for the future. I do want to know how the Buddy Blank and Brother Eye we see here relate to the ones from Countdown to Final Crisis and Final Crisis itself, though; that wasn't terribly clear.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. It was bold, it was different, and despite its obvious debts to both The Prisoner and Jack Kirby, I didn't feel like I'd ever encountered anything quite like it. I look forward to seeing what happens to Tom next, and unlike with most of these Final Crisis Aftermath tales, I actually can; Ivan Brandon apparently wrote a followup miniseries called Nemesis: The Impostors. Sadly, it's uncollected, so I'll have to find the floppies somewhere.

Next Week: That's it for Final Crisis and its tie-ins, so I jump backwards slightly to continue my superhero prose fiction reading project with the novelization of Countdown!

12 April 2016

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode XXIX: Reunion by Sean Williams and Shane Dix

Mass market paperback, 390 pages
Published 2003

Acquired 2003(?)
Reread July 2015
Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Force Heretic III: Reunion
by Sean Williams and Shane Dix

Year Four of the Invasion (Months 10-11)
I had memories that this was the best of the "Force Heretic" novels: Luke and company finally reach Zonoma Sekot and learn its secrets while Han and Leia go on a rollicking space adventure on a weird planet. Well, I don't know if the difference was that reading all three Force Heretic books in one go really showed how little happened, but this time I found it the worst of these books. As always, nothing actually happens, yet nearly 400 pages are somehow taken up. Seriously, I don't get how Williams and Dix do it; both plots here are extremely simplistic, yet hundreds of pages somehow go by. Events that should be momentous have all the energy sapped out of them; events that should be fun are delivered as dully as possible. The midpoint peak of The New Jedi Order turns out to be an aberration; it is ending as dully and as falteringly as it began.

Who was the "Force Heretic," anyway?

Next Week: We're almost done! It's the antepenultimate New Jedi Order adventure: The Final Prophecy!

11 April 2016

Review: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 104 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1895)
Acquired and reread March 2016
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

It's been a long time since I read this; it might be the only one of Wells's 1890s scientific romances I didn't have cause to reread at some point during graduate school. But here I am at last, and I'm glad I did. It's depressingly easy, sometimes, to forget how brilliant H.G. Wells was during the 1890s. Not only does he invent the genre we now calls "science fiction" by looking at the stories around him (time travel narrative, utopian narrative, future-war narrative) and figuring out how they work and then outdoing them all,* and not only does he have a better grasp on what science actually is than all his contemporaries, but he's just a really good writer. Like, there's some seriously gripping stuff when the Time Traveller fights the Morlocks, and Wells's eye for detail is great. That final sequence, with the Time Traveller on the beach of the dying Earth under a dying son, is a haunting image that I have remembered since reading this book in childhood.

One thing that struck me this time out was the scale of it all, and how inconceivable it really is. The Time Traveller ends up in the year 802,701 A.D. We currently think that homo sapiens evolved around 200,000 years ago; in 1895, things were a little less certain, and some thought the species might go back to the Pliocene (which ended 2.5 million years ago) or even the Miocene (which ended over 5 million years ago). Still, the gap between the Time Traveller's native period and the future era he travels to is longer than recorded history-- and yet he's constantly trying to figure out how this future world descends from his contemporary society. That's ridiculous, but I'm pretty sure it's the Time Traveller's mistake, not Wells's. One mustn't overlook that this is a very mediated story (the narrator is telling us a tale that the Time Traveller told him, so our access to what actually happened is pretty distant). The Time Traveller is constantly projecting narratives onto events that turn out to be false, though he always thinks that this one that he's currently operating under, this one is right... up until it's proved wrong. He has little self-awareness; no matter how long he's among the Eloi, for example, he seems to keep expecting Weena to act like a human of his home era. Anyway, it's patently absurd to find an answer for the biological divisions of the year 802,701 in the class divisions of 1895; he wouldn't look for an answer to the problems of the Victorian era in the events of 798,912 B.C, and yet he does the opposite.

He can't help it: we like to impose our narrative on history, and many of our narratives are nationalistic. (And we see in The War of the Worlds and The War in the Air evidence of Wells's obsession with the dangers of nationalistic narratives.) I was reminded of "England, Long and Long Ago," a piece on geological history from an 1860 issue of All the Year Round. As you can tell from the title, it makes this history of geology a history of England, even though the time of the iguanodon was 125 million years ago, long before "England" has any meaningful existence. We impose our narratives on history, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the museum; there's an 1862 issue of All the Year Round that shows how the narrative of "England, Long and Long Ago" has been concretized in the form of "Owen's Museum." Of course, Wells shows how pointless this all is: when the Time Traveller goes to visit the museum to discover the story of the future, there's nothing for him there to discover. The museum is useless as a record of history, because 800,000 years is more than any human being or human institution can cope with. But the Time Traveller doesn't see this for what it is, and keeps trying to impose a familiar Victorian narrative on events that don't allow for it. But the fact that the span of evolutionary history wrecked this museum makes me think that Wells saw what his protagonist did not.

This, of course, raises the issue of what else Wells saw that the Time Traveller did not. I mentioned earlier that the narrator is always expecting the Eloi in the general and Weena in particular to act more human than they actually do. The touch of the Eloi he finds attractive; the touch of the Morlocks he finds repulsive. He sees the Morlocks as brutes and monsters, but it is the Eloi who do not tend their children, leaving them to fend for themselves. The Eloi are beautiful... but they have little else that convinces you of their humanity. Meanwhile, the Morlocks are cunning and possess intelligence and curiosity. But what if he's just projecting a narrative onto events again: the Eloi are beautiful and therefore good, while the Morlocks are hideous and therefore bad. Because of the influence of the George Pál film, no doubt, I always imagine that at the novel's end, the Time Traveller has returned to the future to help the Eloi make a go at it... But reading it this time, I started to wonder: What if he was backing the wrong side?

* Of course, Wells has to explain how his take is better than others'; the narrator specifically states that he has no guide in the future world, unlike in all those other utopian books you read.

08 April 2016

Robert's Rules of Order, the Republican National Convention, and Donald Trump

So I've been eagerly following the results of both U.S. primary elections, the first time I've ever really done this. In the case of the Republicans, it's not because I feel invested in the future of our country, but because in all likelihood there will be some parliamentary shenanigans, and what is more exciting than that?

According to FiveThirtyEight, it's unlikely that Donald Trump, despite currently having the most delegates, will have the 1,237 required to secure the nomination in the first round of voting. That's because the rules of the Republican National Convention require a majority (i.e., more than 50%) and Trump only has a plurality (i.e., more than anyone else). As a result, there is a possibility that someone who is not Trump could end up winning the Republican nomination even if he has more delegates than anyone else.

So: people are angry about this. In the comments on this Newsmax article (I don't know what that is, I just found it while trying to figure out if the RNC used Robert's Rules of Order), someone opines, "It's outrageous that the top vote-getter (either in the popular vote or in a delegate count that reflects the vote), doesn't automatically get the nomination. There is no point in having an election if following the voter's preference is optional. A plurality always wins." Or as someone else puts somewhat more levelly in the comments on the FiveThirtyEight article I linked above, "The controversy is that no one would expect the delegates for a candidate with the most votes would ever switch to another candidate. For instance, suppose one candidate had 45% of the delegates and 11 other candidate had 5% each." According to these Internet commenters (and I think many out there agree with them), the recipient of the plurality of votes ought to be winner.

This is actually an issue I've faced myself, as I was Parliamentarian of my university's graduate student deliberative body during a three-way midterm election for Vice President. This group operated by Robert's Rules of Order; the RNC does not,* but I suspect the principle was the same. Say you have a three-way race, and no candidate receives a majority, which is what happened to us. Like this:

Now, you might look at that and think, "Candidate B has more votes than anyone else; they should win." But what that neglects is that Candidate B is not the will of the majority of the assembly: in fact, a majority of the assembly voted against Candidate B. So why should they be in charge?

Some would say you should have a run-off election where Candidate C is removed because they received the fewest portion of the votes, and then so everyone can re-vote for just Candidates A and B, and almost inevitably one of them will get the majority. But Brigadier General Robert is not down with that at all. The eleventh edition of Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised specifies
if any office remains unfilled after the first ballot, as may happen if there are more than two nominees, the balloting is repeated for that office as many times as necessary to obtain a majority vote for a single candidate. When repeated balloting for an office is necessary, individuals are never removed from candidacy on the next ballot unless they voluntarily withdraw-- which they are not obligated to do. The candidate in lowest place may turn out to be a "dark horse" on whom all factions may prefer to agree.
For example, say Candidate A prefers Star Trek and Candidate B prefers Star Wars, and all of Candidate A's supporters consider Star Wars cheesy children's entertainment with an overstated cultural importance and Candidate B's supporters think that Star Trek is self-important, overmoralized nonsense. But Candidate C is a Stargate SG-1 fan and no one in the room really has a strong opinion on Stargate SG-1 (because, who does). For Candidate A's supporters, C is a better option than B (otherwise lightsabers are going to become mandatory accessories at meetings), and for Candidate B's supporters, C is a better option than A (because otherwise, "live long and prosper" is going to replace the Pledge of Allegiance at meetings). Candidate C becomes an acceptable compromise candidate because they just want everyone else to remember SG-1 exists.

So: despite the fact that Candidate C did not receive a plurality in round one of voting, Candidate C turns out to be the candidate the majority are most comfortable with, and after some haggling, they are elected to the office of whatever weird deliberative body this example is about. (In the case of the three-way election I presided over, nothing this clear cut took place, because no one had really staked out clear policy positions. Everyone had got about a third of the vote in the first round of voting, and after the second, things had shifted a little, but not very much. One candidate dropped out at that point, though, and thus a majority vote finally emerged in the third round. But the way things were going, we could have been there all night.)

"Point of order!"

All this is to say that if Donald Trump does not obtain a majority of delegates, and then does not get elected as the Republican nominee, that does not mean that the outcome doesn't reflect the preferences of the voters, or that democracy has been circumvented. It means the majority of people voted against Donald Trump, and they compromised on a candidate that would make that preference come to pass.

* They apparently use the same rules as the U.S. House of Representatives (see here), which is like... terrible. I mean, seriously awful.

07 April 2016

Early SF Tales from the Eaton Collection: The Invasion of New York; or, How Hawaii Was Annexed by J. H. Palmer

Hardcover, 248 pages
Published 1897
Borrowed from the Eaton Collection
Read January 2015
The Invasion of New York; or, How Hawaii Was Annexed
by J. H. Palmer

There are some works of literature from the past we make excuses: "It was a different time. They didn't know any better." And there are times this is okay, when people are straining to work out new moral standards in an era with different one. The Invasion of New York deserves no such concession. This is a shit book, with shit writing and shit politics and shit ethics. It's interesting as a relic of an ugly moment in American history (and one that's still with us today), but it has no redeeming literary merit of any sort, even in the context of often-rocky 1890s proto-science fiction.

In brief: At the ceremony of the annexation of Hawaii, 10,000 Japanese infiltrate the city; meanwhile, Spain amasses a fleet in Cuba. Both of these actions prompt an immediate response. Battleships and guns are catalogued exhaustively and lovingly as the United States attacks Havana. Seriously, you can sense J. H. Palmer's hard on. The Spanish sneak around the American fleet and attack New York, but don't worry; America kills 'em all anyway. The Japanese bombard San Francisco; in retaliation, after recapturing Hawaii, America continues on to Japan and bombs the hell out of 'em. Whoo, America!

Here are some choice bits of jingoism/racism:
  • A lieutenant from the Maine who's been captured in Hawaii gives his report: "all the indignities of his position forced themselves upon him in overpowering strength, and with a shout of rage he threw himself upon the Japanese guard on his left and seized him by the throat, nor could his grasp be released until a lifeless mass the Japanese was flung to the ground." (22-3)
  • The reaction to learning about the Japanese attack on Hawaii: "There was no debate; a desperation born of a nation insulted, of a flag outraged and dishonored, animated Republicans and Democrats; there was but one sentiment in one word. War! War to the Spanish cowards who slaughtered helpless women and starved their children! War to the Japanese upstarts who defied the progressive civilizers of the West! War! Horrid! Cruel! but war on all who dared to even speak of the glorious flag with derision!" (34) Yeah, say something about our flag, and we'll kill ya. Freedom of speech!
  • I don't know anything about J. H. Palmer, but he still seems bitter about the Civil War: "There had been another war, not altogether of the past, a cruel internal conflict, fought for a principle, two principles, for a principle involving integrity of government, a principle of property rights; but a war tolerable by reason of its mistakes. Now there must be war, not to place a North against a South, not to free a slave and impoverish a million; but because Time was ripe for War." (57) Dag, how much it stinks to free slaves if it makes some people poor!
  • Well, at least destroying San Francisco was a boon for urban planning: "Instead of bewailing the destruction of a beautiful city, steps were immediately taken to rebuild everything worth rebuilding; to seize the opportunity to correct mistakes made I first laying out San Francisco. New buildings were projected and commenced, streets widened in places, more open spaces provided for, and the city in many ways improved from an æsthetic and business point of view" (107-8)
  • America retaliates on Japan: "In the morning, at the first streak of day the bombardment was recommenced. No sentiment about this—this was war. This was what Japan wanted, this was what the fleet was here to give. And the flimsy structures were battered, were given up to fire, were demolished, until ruin covered everything. Still white flags were seen everywhere on the shore." (202)
Go America! But seriously, don't read this book; it's one of the worst I've ever read. Jingoistic shit with no real story or characters or ideas.

    06 April 2016

    Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part L: Final Crisis Aftermath: Ink

    Over on Unreality this week, I've got a review of a Big Finish release of a B7 Production for BBC Radio 4, a one-hour(!) adaptation of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. It's got Derek Jacobi and Hayley Atwell in it, which is nice.

    Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
    Published 2010 (contents: 2009)

    Borrowed from the library
    Read August 2015
    Final Crisis Aftermath: Ink

    Writer: Eric Wallace
    Artist: Fabrizio Fiorentino
    Colorist: Michael DiMotta
    Letterers: Pat Brosseau, Steve Wands

    Is this the only Final Crisis Aftermath tale that has the same artist draw every issue? Kudos, I guess.

    A key part of the "Submit" issue of Final Crisis was the villain Mark Richards a.k.a. the Tattooed Man, who Black Lightning convinced to be a hero for once. That was my first encounter with the character, but he's back here, trying to make a new life as a hero and a member of the Justice League in his hometown of Liberty Hill, a rough part of the D.C./Baltimore metro area.

    Like most of these "aftermath" titles, I wanted to like Ink more than I did. How does one go from being a villain to being a hero? As Mark's wife points out to him, it's about more than doing the right thing, it's about living it. I liked this part of the book, and I liked the way Mark's tattoos were depicted: dragons, flying skulls, sexy demon ladies, samurai warriors all coming to life off Mark's body and helping him do battle. The warrior and the demon have minds of their own, Mark discovers during the course of this tale, and he has to navigate their goals and actions as well as take responsibility for his own. Though his storytelling is occasionally obscure, I tended to really like Fabrizio Fiorentino's artwork, especially the way he handled the tattoos themselves, as fantastic creations of light. Fiorentino really captures the murkiness of Liberty Hill throughout the book.

    What worked less well for me were two things: Mark's wife and Mark's brother. Mark's wife seems to shift opinions randomly whenever it will help the drama, first telling Mark he needs to do something about their son who is falling into gang membership (I guess she can't do anything herself) then when he makes sure his son goes to jail for murder (a murder he didn't commit, but one he is proud to take credit for, and in a situation where jail is actually the safest place for him to be) she gets all mad at him. Then, when Mark's illusory demon woman momentarily appears in bed with him, his wife kicks him out of the house for having an affair. Women, so irrational, amirite? Secondly, Mark's dead brother is (spoiler) revealed as the villain. I don't know if this backstory was something known to readers of Mark's earlier appearances (which weren't all that many; he seems a pretty obscure character to pick up for Final Crisis), but it's casually tossed off early on in the book, only to suddenly become central to it later on, and it feels completely arbitrary and without resonance. The book would have been better off keeping its focus on the corruption within Liberty Hill itself, which worked well in the early parts of the book, and had more of a genuine emotional throughline.

    All that said, this is probably my favorite of the three Final Crisis Aftermath tales thus far. It feels like there's something actually at stake here-- a man's soul-- and it's nice to see that man come out on top. The final page promises more to come in the story of the Tattooed Man, but I'm not sure that ever actually happened.

    P.S. Why is the Eastern European nation of Modora (familiar to me from its appearance in the classic Elongated Man: Europe '92) home to a "savage" African tribe? Even for the DCU, that's weird.

    Next Week: Is the Global Peace Agency as evil as its name makes it sound? Find out in the last tale of the Final Crisis, Escape!

    05 April 2016

    Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode XXVIII: "Or Die Trying" by Sean Williams with Shane Dix

    PDF eBook, 6 pages
    Published 2004

    Read July 2015
    Star Wars: "Or Die Trying"
    by Sean Williams with Shane Dix

    Year Four of the Invasion (Month 9)
    This short story, originally published in Star Wars Insider, bridges the gap (such as it is) between volumes II and III of "Force Heretic." Mostly what happens is Jaina recites some trite, nonsensical arguments against using technology to help people live longer (criminals might use it! and besides it's unnatural, unlike previous medical advances, I guess) and someone lets us know the fate of a minor character from 1996's Shadows of the Empire (someone out there must have been demanding to know, I guess). A waste of its mere six pages.

    04 April 2016

    Review: Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels by Barry Gifford

    Trade paperback, 618 pages
    Published 2010 (contents: 1990-2009)
    Borrowed from the library
    Read March 2016
    Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels
    by Barry Gifford

    A few years ago now, I read the comic adaption of Perdita Durango, the second novel of the Sailor & Lula series by Barry Gifford, and I was sufficiently intrigued to pick up the books themselves, the first seven of which are collected in this volume. All of them concern, at least peripherally, the relationship between Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune, a couple from North Carolina.

         "Ever'body got a past," said Red.
         "Just some got more future in 'em than others," Buddy said.
    Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula (1990)
    If anything sums up the "mission statement" of Wild at Heart, it's that. Ostensibly it's a road trip novel. Sailor's just been released from jail for accidentally killing a man in a bar fight two years ago, and he and his girl Lula aim to pick up where they left off, only Lula's mom doesn't approve of Sailor, and sends a private detective to hunt the two of them down as they flee to California... but the couple's money is running out. Wild at Heart is an odd story, mostly consisting of characters telling stories to one another, or to themselves, in short chapters of 2-3 pages. Sailor and Lula both tell each other about their first sexual encounters (neither are very pleasant); the private detective, Johnnie Farragut, is an aspiring writer, and a couple of his attempts are embedded in the narrative; Sailor and Lula tell each other about movies they've seen, books they've read, and music they've heard; and plenty of the people they meet on their travels have their own stories they relate. The "plot" is largely irrelevant; the joy of the book is letting these weird and often dark stories about strangely named people wash over you, but it took me a while to realize this and get into it all.

         "Need funds to research," Romeo said. "Like the $1,925 some fundraiser withdrew without permission this morning from the First National Bank of St. Bernard's Parish on Friscoville Street in Arabi. Science needs money, just like everything else."
         "You tellin' me you're a grave robber or a bank robber? I ain't totally clear."
         Romeo laughed and stuck a fork into his stuffed catfish.
         "Scientists gotta eat, too," he said.
    Perdita Durango (1991)
    I didn't entirely grok Perdita Durango when I read the 1995 graphic novel adaptation by Bob Callahan and Scott Gillis. I'm still not sure I do. Perdita was a side character in Wild at Heart, an accomplice in a robbery Sailor gets involved in near the end. This story follows her, alongside a crazed scientist/cultist/psychopath named Romeo; they kidnap a young couple to use in a blood sacrifice, and the story follows their cross-country flight, as they talk and have sex. Perdita is an interiority-free enigma, which is clearly the point, but not enough of a point to keep me interested even across 120 pages. Probably the least interesting and most unpleasant of the Sailor & Lula stories, no doubt due to the lack of the stabilizing influences of Sailor and Lula themselves. Some good jokes, though.

         "Ain't it somethin', though, Dal, how it's just one weird thing happens after another?"
         "Stay tuned," said Dal, opening the front door. "I got a powerful hunch there ain't never gonna be a end to it."
    Sailor's Holiday (1991)
    Sailor's Holiday feels like Gifford regretted the way Wild at Heart ended. Minor spoilers: at the end of Wild at Heart, Sailor is sentenced to ten years in prison for his part in a robbery. The book has an epilogue where he's released, gets to meet his ten-year-old son Pace for the first time, and decides he's better off away from Lula and Pace. Which is an okay, if depressing, ending for a single book, but doesn't really work if you want to write more stories with these characters. Sailor's Holiday feels like it exists to walk back the events of that epilogue. Six months later, Pace gets kidnapped, which causes Sailor to come gallivanting back into their lives in an effort to save him. This is less interesting and colorful than most of the other Sailor & Lula stories, mostly serving to get the characters back into position for more tales about their relationship, I felt.

    "The world's an awful cruel place, son. Worst place I ever been."
    Sultans of Africa (1991)
    It's been about six years since Sailor's Holiday, and the Ripley family lives in New Orleans now, and young Pace has fallen in with a bad crowd, much like his daddy did around the same age. While Lula goes on a trip to see her mother, Sailor has to track down and save Pace without his wife finding out what's going on. As always, the plot is not particularly riveting, but it's not meant to be. There are some fantastic irrelevant details here, especially the brothers Smokey Joe and Lefty Grove Rattler, son of Pie Traynor and Mary Full-of-Grace Rattler, the latter of whom now resides in Miss Napoleon's Paradise for the Lord's Disturbed Daughters. Flimsy but full of fun.

    "Death and destruction ain't never more than a kiss away," she said. "Woman shot at the King of Sweden knew that much."
    Consuelo's Kiss (1991)
    With Consuelo's Kiss, Gifford raises his rambling plots to high art: this was my favorite story in the book other than Wild at Heart, and I really enjoyed each of the following ones, too. Sailor and Lula go on a road trip for Sailor's birthday (it's been a dozen years since Sultans of Africa) to see Elvis's home in Memphis. Meanwhile, Lula's mother is at the bedside of the dying gangster Marcello "Crazy Eyes" Santos, a recurring character in previous books. Meanwhile meanwhile, a sixteen-year-old girl named Consuelo is hitchhiking her way to the college where her lesbian lover goes, but she attracts some undesired attention. Meanwhile meanwhile meanwhile, Pace now lives in India. Sailor and Lula give Consuelo a brief ride, and later return to help her when she ends up in jail (only they can't): that's about all these tales have to do with one another. But as meditations on different forms of obsessive love, they come together perfectly: we see the best and worst that human emotion has to offer, and not always in the way you might expect. Surprisingly moving at times.

    "Lula used to always say the world is wild at heart and weird on top, and sometimes it's tough stayin' out of the way of the weirdness. Kinda like a tornado, you never know where it'll set down or what'll be left in place after it blows through."
    Bad Day for the Leopard Man (1992)
    Fun fact: despite Sailor's claim here in Bad Day for the Leopard Man, Lula never said such a thing before, though she does think it to herself in Wild at Heart. She only says it aloud in the film version of the first book! Which is appropriate, as one of the many plots of Bad Day for the Leopard Man is a hack film director with artistic aspirations (Pace works for him as a PA) saying he wants to make a movie of Sailor and Lula's story. Meanwhile, Lula gets kidnapped and everyone sits around the phone worrying. This is probably the least effective of the last three Sailor & Lula tales, though I did still enjoy it. Especially the glimpses into the weird mind of the film director, but even moreso the bittersweet, brutal ending, which made me realize how much I'd grown to like these characters.

    "I don't think the world is so wild at heart any more, Beany, just weird on top. Probably each generation on its way out thinks what's come after them is missin' a bulb and dimmer for it. Then again, maybe it's just us old folks can't see so good and it hurts us to admit it."
    The Imagination of the Heart (2009)
    The first six Sailor & Lula novels came out in a three-year period; this one appeared seventeen years later. It's a bittersweet coda, with Lula going on a Sailor-less road trip with friends to see Pace in a post-Katrina New Orleans. (The timeline of these books is fuzzy at best.) Much of the book is made up of Lula's diary entries, which are nearly heart-wrenching, though between them come the usual Gifford weird stories and strange hijinks, some of them quite brutal. I really liked this one, and it sums up the relationship between the two leads perfectly.