Monday, September 30, 2002

I am now sufficiently moved-in that I can finally return to writing today. I have not written a word, either in my current short story or in the novel-in-progress, in two weeks. But the desk is unburied and workable, the fountain pens have been re-inked, the printer is fired up, and I've finally got the computer set-up the way I want it. (Over the last week I have experimented with four different arrangements for the computer.) It's time to throw open the doors, clear out the cobwebs, and get back to doing the important stuff.

In my post yesterday about the new TV season, I forgot to sing the praises of one of my favorite shows: Scrubs. This hybrid of ER and The Wonder Years never fails to get at least five good belly-laughs out of me, and it often does so in unexpected ways.

A couple more football thoughts, after yesterday's action:

:: I didn't get to see the Vikings-Seahawks game last night, but judging by the game's box score, it appears that the Vikings are a team that is short on talent, especially on defense, and completely devoid of leadership -- whether from the front office, the coaching staff, or even amongst the players. It's kind of sad to see a team that is a year removed from two NFC Championship Game appearances in three years sink to this level, but if you consider the Vikings' recent luck with the draft and the clubhouse problems that have been metastasizing for two or three years now, it's not all that surprising. It may be time for them to give up this year, and probably next, by cutting Randy Moss loose, taking the hit on the cap, and moving into a full rebuilding mode. The Vikings are going nowhere mighty fast, so it's probably time for them to just start over.

:: In three years we've had the arrival of Kurt Warner from out of nowhere, the re-emergence of Trent Dilfer (and his immediate, and inexplicable, re-disappearance), and the arrival of Tom Brady. If the theme in the NFL these days is "Great Quarterbacking From Completely Unexpected Places", then maybe it's Tommy Maddox's turn. He was apparently very sharp and impressive in coming in off the bench to spark the Steelers to their first win this year.

:: Apparently the officials in the Oakland-Tennessee game were being fitted for eyepatches and Miracle Ears, judging by the two blatant illegal blocks they missed on an Oakland player's punt return for a touchdown.

:: Funniest post-game comment yesterday, courtesy of Drew Bledsoe after the Bills QB-Extraordinaire won his second overtime game in three weeks (which was also the third one the Bills have played this year): "I guess I just don't do enough in regulation. I need to get more done in regulation so I don't have to keep dealing with this."

:: The Patriots finally lost. Yippee. (I've never liked the Pats much, but nowadays I'm really mad at them because they got Brian Cox, the greatest force for evil in the entire NFL, a Super Bowl ring. Cox has a ring, and Jim Kelly doesn't. Thanks, Pats. Harumph.)

:: I don't pay a whole lot of attention to the college game, but both Iowa and Iowa State had good weekends. Iowa beat Penn State (despite blowing a big lead, which I'm sure has a certain friend of mine rather angry this week) and ISU knocked off once-mighty Nebraska (which I'm sure puts my old college adviser in a tough spot, as he is a Nebraska fan teaching at ISU). And I'm slowly getting up to speed on the activities of the Syracuse Orangemen, who lost a thriller in three overtimes this week. Living in a town that actually has decent college athletics is something new. Buffalo wasn't much for college athletics.

Sunday, September 29, 2002

Football stuff:

:: The Bills have played four games. Three of those have gone to overtime. They've won two of those, on touchdown passes. They are now 2-2. I'm still of the view that they are too young and raw to really compete this year, and they're too thin on defense to stand up once they start going on the road to some pretty tough teams later in the year, but maybe I'll upgrade my original prediction for a 6-10 season. They could go 8-8.

:: I had to watch the Jets today, instead of the Bills. (I don't know if the Bills sold out today.) Man, are the Jets b-a-d.

:: I can breathe easier about my AFC Super Bowl pick, because the Steelers won today. Of course, they needed overtime to do it. But they're showing signs of life. (My NFC Super Bowl pick, the Eagles, are doing just fine. They beat up on the Texans today.)

:: Mike Martz can breathe easier now, because his team's bad luck is beginning to overtake his team's bad coaching. Kurt Warner got hurt today, in his throwing hand.

:: A holdover thought from last week, when the Bills played the Broncos: I hope Brian Griese wins a Super Bowl soon, not because I like Griese (I have no opinion of him, really) but because I'm sick of hearing the commentators on TV, every time I watch the Broncos, babble on about how Griese still lives in the shadow of John Elway. We get it, already!!

The new TV season has started at last! Here are some random thoughts on the season premiers of shows that I watch.

:: Frasier. This was rather a let-down. I think that Niles and Daphne deserved more of a wedding episode than this. I expected a grand farce dealing with Daphne's goofy English family, but there was little of that. The feeling was, "OK, we've taken eight years or however long it's been to get them together. They're together. That's that. Back to Frasier."

:: That 70s Show. OK, Eric and Donna are back together, and now apparently Hyde and Jackie are a couple. According to the opening credits, Tommy Chong isn't around anymore, so I guess his riotous stoner Leo is history, which is a shame (although admittedly the character didn't have much growth-potential). I still like this show a great deal, but I wonder how much longer these actors can play high-schoolers convincingly. I don't know how much more mileage this show has.

:: NYPDBlue. This show is underappreciated, given the level of quality it has maintained despite the revolving-door cast it's had through the years. (Only two actors, Dennis Franz and Gordon Clapp, remain from Year One.) That's about all I have to say there.

:: Everybody Loves Raymond. Brad Garrett won an Emmy for playing Robert, which is a fine thing. And now that Gillian Anderson and Sela Ward are both off regular television, I guess that makes Patricia Heaton one of my top-three beautiful women on television right now. (The other two are ER's Maura Tierney and The West Wing's Stockard Channing.) Nothing really new on Raymond; just solid, funny storytelling with a cast that probably has better comic timing than any other cast on TV right now.

:: Ed. I'm a bit disappointed, on the basis of the first episode this year. What made the Ed-Dennis-Carol triangle so interesting to me was the fact that all three characters were good people, although flawed. The solution now, though, seems to be to make Dennis into a jerk. I had higher hopes for the writers of Ed than this. But, maybe I'm wrong.

:: The West Wing. This was a terrific episode. I loved all the stuff with Josh, Toby and Donna being stranded in Indiana and the troubles that arose from their complete inability to relate to anyone outside the Beltway. The business with the assassination last year of the terrorist chief continues to be interesting; I expect this to be the first big scandal of President Bartlet's second term. Lily Tomlin has been one of my favorite actresses for years (ever since I watched a comedy special of hers on HBO when I was seven years old, even though I didn't get very many of the jokes), so I'm excited to see her on the cast. I'm hoping for The West Wing to make a return to the form of its first two seasons; last year, while high-quality, was nevertheless not as good as the first two years. They're off to a good start.

:: Friends. Yes, I still love Friends. But I also hope that this is the last year for the show, not because the quality has fallen off but because with the arrival of children on the scene, it's about to become a completely different show. Apparently they are talking about another season, which to me would be a bit pointless. At this point, I'm ready to see this season bring Ross and Rachel back together, have Chandler and Monica conceive by season's end, maybe find love (or maybe not) for Joey and Phoebe, and call it a series.

:: ER. This series has always tended to pack its episodes full, but this one was dense even by ER's standards. Parts of the story took place on three continents; we had a contagion-story, some romance, some culture-clash, a doctor alone and desperate to save a crashing patient, a blood-soaked trauma, a doctor facing a huge new challenge (Romano's recovery from the severing and reattachment of his left arm), and more. All that, in a single hour. I found this episode hard to follow, containing as it did so much plot. Nevertheless, I'm still hooked. John Carter and Abby Lockhart have the most chemistry of any couple on the show since Doug Ross and Carol Hathaway, and I'm interested to see how Dr. Romano responds to what may be the loss of his surgical skills. I just hope the show's producers remember that sometimes one can achieve more tension with less plot. Witness that harrowing first-season episode that focused entirely on Dr. Greene's efforts to deliver a baby to a woman suffering complications, or the second-season episode in which Dr. Ross rescued a child trapped in a drainage pipe during a flood. Those were sparse episodes, plotwise -- and utterly absorbing. (I do have to report a bit of gallows-humor that occurred to me during this episode. When the docs were trying to stabilize Romano after his arm was chopped off, at one point Dr. Chen says, "I can't find his pulse." I wondered: is she checking the wrist that's still attached to his body? I know, I know....)

:: CSI. They've got a formula, and they're sticking with it. Fine by me.

I'm always happy to watch a fun swashbuckler of a film, and I watched a pretty good one last night: The Count of Monte Cristo, released earlier this year and now out on video. I don't know how accurate the film is with respect to the original novel by Alexandre Dumas, but it's a highly enjoyable film nonetheless, with impostors to French aristocracy, Napoleonic conspiracies, swordfights, grand celebrations at a beautiful chalet complete with the mysterious host's entrance via balloon, a treasure map, a naive hero imprisoned by people who know his innocence, the hero's imprisonment and subsequent escape from a horrible French jail, a never-forgotten love who has married the hero's best friend in the hero's absence, and so on.

The story opens as a group of sailors land on a Mediterranean island at night, seeking immediate medical aid for their captain, who has taken sick. Unfortunately, the island is Elba, originally intended to be the final resting place for Napoleon Bonaparte in his exile. Napoleon gives one of the sailors, Edmond Dontes (James Caviezel), a letter which he is to give to one of Napoleon's friends, and Dontes -- somewhat stupidly -- agrees. He is discovered before he can deliver the letter, and he cannot even read it, being illiterate; however, this is enough for a shady police officer to have him taken to a prison island where he spends a number of years, despairing of ever having his freedom again -- until another prisoner, a priest played by Richard Harris, tunnels up into his cell. "I knew the outer wall would be in one of two directions," the priest says. "I sadly chose the wrong one." Harris and Dontes dig anew, and during the months that they dig Harris teaches Dontes how to read, how to think, and how to fight. It will come as absolutely no surprise that Dontes does finally escape, at which point he seeks revenge against those who wronged him. Along the way he picks up some unexpected allies, wheedles his way into French aristocracy, and uncovers more plots that were the real reason for his betrayal. All of this leads up to the final confrontation with his main adversary, who -- of course -- had once been his best friend.

Very little that happens in The Count of Monte Cristo is a surprise. The film is solidly traditional, with candlelit studies and cavernous French baths and those typical prisons with long, winding staircases punctuated by heavy oaken doors with equally heavy iron locks. Watching this film, one expects Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power to walk onto the screen to do lethal duel against Claude Rains or Basil Rathbone. This is not an indictment. Sometimes one wants the solidly familiar, and this film delivers it with good acting, witty dialogue, excellent photography, solid production design, and brisk pacing. The film is never boring, avoiding the danger of delving too deeply into political machinations.

There are only two real flaws in the film. First is the score by Edward Shearmur. It is decent music, big and orchestral, but it's not terribly distinctive. There is no central theme to unify the score -- at least none that I could detect, or remember after the film was over. The other flaw is in the film's climax, which doesn't so much build as arrive -- and then the obligatory last fight between hero and villain is a bit disappointing. This is the type of film that screams out for one of those wonderful Errol Flynn swordfights in a dark castle, moving from room to room, into and out of complete darkness, at one point with the combatants fighting offscreen while their gigantic shadows duel against the wall. Here, the fight takes place outdoors, with some flashy camera movement that is distracting, and then it is over rather quickly. But those are really the only flaws, and they don't detract from the film's otherwise high level of entertainment.

Now that we've seen that a good swashbuckler can still be made, maybe my favorite old, dead genre -- the pirate film -- can be resurrected (Cutthroat Island notwithstanding).

Friday, September 27, 2002


Watkins Glen State Park, Watkins Glen, NY.

Having moved from Western New York to Central New York, I have to get used to a whole new bit of geological features. I no longer live on the shores of Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes; now I'm about thirty miles inland from Lake Ontario, which is much deeper and colder. I am also much nearer to the Finger Lakes region, home to a series of long, narrow and deep lakes that run north-south. These lakes were formed when the glaciers receded after the last ice age, carving out great valleys and gorges many of which then filled with water. The Finger Lakes are the dominant feature of Central New York, but there are also other gorges, smaller and more spectacular, that are the home to frequent waterfalls, pools, and streams. The most spectacular of these is that found in Watkins Glen State Park, where footpaths follow a small stream through the deep gorge that it has carved as it spills over nineteen waterfalls and is surrounded by 300-foot cliffs of limestone. At one point, the footpath even goes behind one particularly large waterfall, for an enchanting effect.

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

In the long history of rock-and-roll song covers, the only time I can recall ever liking a cover more than the original is the Phil Collins version of "You Can't Hurry Love". (The Supremes did it well, but Phil's version just...well, it "bounces" better.) And some covers are just-plain-ill-advised: Michael Bolton's "When A Man Loves A Woman" and the Guns-n-Roses "Live and Let Die" leap to mind.

But for the life of me, I never ever thought I would live to see Dolly Parton do a cover of "Stairway To Heaven"...but guess what? She has, in fact, done just that. No, it's not as good as the original. But no, it's not a disaster. The sound is actually intriguing. She's emphasized the song's elegiac qualities and given it a folk-style treatment. Parton has actually put some thought into this. Listen to it here.

Assuming that we humans are still around five hundred or a thousand years from now, I suspect that this era will be remembered as when we began the process of leaving our planet for other worlds, and for the stars. The exploration and colonization of space has always seemed to me to be absolutely essential, not only to our survival as a species but also as a fulfillment to some part of us, deep deep down, that yearns to wander into the sky. This view of mine, that leaving Earth is our destiny and that we'd best be on with it, is no doubt a large part of why I enjoy what I call "exploratory science fiction" so much. I take this term, which I have just coined this minute, to refer to those SF stories which outline the possible "future histories" of the human race as we begin our journeys to other worlds. Kim Stanley Robinson's magnificent Mars trilogy (along with its companion volume of short fiction, The Martians) is a classic in this SF subgenre. Carl Sagan's novel Contact and the resulting film are also examples. Star Trek can also be seen in this way, at least in some of its stories such as First Contact. And so is the book I have just finished, Michael Flynn's Firestar.

This book deeply thrilled me. It is a very near-future history that centers on a very rich woman, Mariesa van Huyten, who owns a gigantic industrial conglomerate whose resources she employs in creating her very own space program. She is convinced that space is the destiny of humanity, and she is also keenly disappointed in our society's failure to live up to the early promise of its space program, to the point where she condemns the Apollo moonshots as a mistake because we eschewed the establishment of a permanent human presence in space in favor of sensational landings on the Moon which were never repeated. Everything Mariesa does, her entire life, is geared toward her ultimate goal of permanence in space. "Always the Goal", she is constantly saying when it appears that her subordinates are becoming sidetracked. Mariesa van Huyten is a visionary character, whose vision is so grandiose that we are never quite given all the reasons for why she has this particular vision in the first place, although we can make certain guesses (she is inordinately concerned with asteroids, for example). And her vision is so grandiose that the larger portion of it still lies ahead at the novel's conclusion. I assume more will become clear later on; this 850-page novel is only the first in a series of four volumes.

Mariesa's project, in Firestar, centers on the testing and development of reusable Earth-to-low-orbit vehicles which are called "Planks". (I wish Flynn had chosen a more appealing name for the ships, but oh well.) To this end, a good chunk of the novel focuses on the trials and tribulations of the test pilots her organization has recruited. This program, a sort of "Next Generation" of The Right Stuff, could make for a fascinating novel on its own, but Flynn isn't content to stop there. He also delves into the political background of Mariesa van Huyten's project. Flynn is absolutely aware that a private space program would have its detractors, and he shows us plenty of them: the government is against it (Mariesa is encroaching on the government's territory), a prominent environmentalist group is against it (for a number of reasons -- Flynn does a good job at depicting the conflicting motivations at the heart of the environmental movement, even if I am more sympathetic to the environmentalists than Flynn seems to be), and there are also shadowy competitors who are willing to stoop to very low levels to dissuade Mariesa.

But the book's complexity doesn't even stop there, with the test pilots and the political background. Mariesa is also interested in creating the first generation of the true "space age", and to this end one of her subsidiary companies is a school-management company that takes over troubled public schools. In this way Mariesa is able to shepherd future generations to her liking, although we aren't entirely sure why. This seems to be the plotline that will wind its way through Flynn's entire tetralogy.

All this is fascinating enough, but Flynn also knows that there is a dark side to Mariesa van Huyten's visionary status. Her family life is barely more than functional (and sometimes less than that), and she is frequently an unrepentant manipulator of the people around her. Flynn gives us a keen sense of Mariesa's loneliness, but he also shows us that in large part her loneliness is of her own creation, with results that are both expected and unexpected. Flynn knows that it is lonely at the top, and to his credit he depicts it as such. (He also is well aware that loneliness is not exclusive to those at the top, however. In fact, nearly every character in the book is suffering from some kind of loneliness.)

Firestar is not without its flaws. Coincidence plays too large a role, as the lives of a fairly large cast of characters keep intersecting over the ten years that the novel spans. I found Flynn's apparent belief that all we need is a benevolent capitalist to overcome the barriers erected by a sometimes evil but mostly hegemonic government somewhat cloying. The conflicts sometimes come off as forced, as if Flynn needed a conflict at that particular point; one character's deep resentment of Mariesa stems from her overhearing a conversation not meant for her ears, which is something of a soap-opera cliche.

The book also suffers from the same flaw that most near-future stories suffer: once the years of their events come and go, a certain sense of plausibility is lost. Of course, there is nothing that Flynn can do to avoid this; it's simply the way things are in telling future stories. (According to Star Trek, for example, by now we should have launched at least four more Voyager probes and killed a huge portion of the human population in a war over genetic engineering.) The school-privatization movement has lost a bit of the steam that it had when Flynn wrote this book (1996); the Russian space station Mir is used as a setting, years after its destruction; and so forth. I suppose this isn't exactly a flaw; it's just the "nature of the beast". At least Flynn gives us fictional US Presidents, instead of the Robert Zemeckis approach of digitally shoehorning Bill Clinton into the film version of Contact.

At 850 pages, I still found Firestar a very fast read. It's full of thrilling ideas, interesting characters, and a sense that it really could play out this way. Part of why I read science fiction is to assure myself that our destiny as a species really, truly does lie amongst the stars. Firestar appealed to that part of me, and I've already bought Rogue Star, the second book in the series.

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

During the last three seasons, the Buffalo Bills have posted a regular season record of 22-26 and appeared in the playoffs once (1999, when their season ended in a wildcard game at Tennessee). In that same period, the St. Louis Rams have posted a regular season record of 36-12 and made the playoffs each year, twice going to the Super Bowl and once winning it (also 1999). So how weird is it that three games into this season, the Bills have a better record (1-2) than the Rams (0-3)? The Bills have looked very tough in their three games thus far, and if not for the horrible special teams play in the opener against the Jets they'd be 2-1. Their offense has played with some fire (although the running game is still too inconsistent and Drew Bledsoe is taking way too many hits, both faults clearly indicative of the offensive line's youth and inexperience), and the defense -- while giving up a lot of yards -- has been a lot tougher than I expected. The Bills are a pleasant surprise, but I still think they're rebuilding and a 6-10 finish is likely. But look out next year, especially if Tom Donahoe (the Bills' GM) has another offseason like the last one, in which he drastically upgraded the team's talent.

So what about the Rams? I didn't pick them to go to the Super Bowl this year -- so far I'm sticking with Philly as my pick for NFC Champion -- but I certainly didn't expect 0-3. I think we're seeing a combination of bad luck and bad coaching. During last night's game, in which the Rams lost to the Bucs, two observations were made by Al Michaels and John Madden that illustrate the Rams' problems. First is something Madden said: Rams quarterback Kurt Warner is a rhythm quarterback. When he gets in a rhythm, he will cut your defense apart, make your defensive backs look foolish, and humiliate you as he passes for 300 yards and four touchdowns. But when he's not in a rhythm, he looks shockingly ordinary -- forcing passes into triple coverage, throwing too early on timing patterns, missing open receivers. Thus one key to beating the Rams is to upset Warner's rhythm, which is exactly what the Patriots did to perfection in last year's Super Bowl. Warner never got on track in that game, except for the drive late in the fourth quarter when he tied the game (only to lose when the Pats got back into field-goal range). Some of this is bad luck: the Rams are having big problems at right tackle on their offensive line, so Warner is seeing a lot more pressure than he is accustomed to. But a lot of it is simply bad coaching, which also goes back to that Super Bowl: if the opposing defense is having so much success at disrupting Kurt Warner's rhythm, then why on earth does Mike Martz insist on staying with the pass when he could simply switch to a running game that would tilt things back in his team's favor? Why would Martz not have taken one look at the defensive-back heavy scheme that New England showed him in the Super Bowl and then, licking his chops, directed Warner to hand off the Marshall Faulk on each and every down? Who knows....but that's what the Rams have done. And then, last night when Mike Martz finally shows a sign that he's realized the error of his ways and uses Faulk like he's supposed to, Faulk gets hurt. That's just horrible luck.

The other key observation last night was the telling statistic that the Rams currently own the longest losing streak in football when they're trailing at the outset of the fourth quarter (it was either 16 or 19 games; I don't recall which). That indicates a team that simply does not respond well to adversity, which is also indicative of coaching. Chris Berman of ESPN has often said: "Nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills." Well, it seems like the St. Louis Rams don't circle the wagons at all. The Rams look like a team that is floundering without direction, and then when they do start to show some direction the injury bug nips them.

(And for the Love of GOD, will someone please beat the Patriots? Aieee!!!)

Oh my God, it's finally over.

Yes, the Move (tm) is at long, long last complete. Except for all the boxes that still need unpacking...and the furniture that needs arranging...and the subscriptions that need changing...and the jobs that need finding. Other than that, it's all over.

We're now in the lovely town of Syracuse, NY. We've actually been here since last Friday, but I haven't been able to go online because our phone lines were actually broken and required servicing, which didn't get done until just this afternoon. Thus I was able to use time that I would probably have otherwise used for posting to Byzantium's Shores to actually unpack. Some random thoughts on the move:

:: My God, I own a ton of books. I still have many of my college texts (mostly the ones from my philosophy classes, complete with marginalia scrawled ten years ago). I also have a lot of books that I simply no longer want, so I'm planning to make my first foray into selling things on Ebay sometime in the next month.

:: Moving in the space of a single week does not give one enough time to go through one's belongings and weed them out. You end up moving everything, and only when you're unpacking it all do you say, "Hmmm, I still own this? Well, to the dumpster with it!"

:: It's fairly convenient that roughly every two years or so I start to thinking that we should really get a couch...and then we have to move, which firmly banishes the thought of couch-ownership for another two years. I'm back to my "happy with the papasan chair and the crappy recliner" state of mind.

:: One of the sadder duties in life is trying to explain to one's three-year-old why she can't go to the park down the street anymore...because it is now 130 miles down the street.

:: Design flaws are us: The second day after the move I got the TV and VCR hooked up, mainly so I could distract the three-year-old with her Disney movies while we unpacked. She was thrilled when I announced that I had all the wires hooked up, and all I had to do was turn everything on -- whereupon I learn that the VCR, when unplugged long enough before being replugged, goes into its handy "setup" mode upon being turned on that first time. The bad part is that to work the setup mode, the remote control is required. And the remote control was still at the bottom of some box, somewhere, someplace. Not only is there no way to work the setup mode with the VCR's front panel buttons, there is no way to cancel the setup mode -- until the setup mode's second screen, where you can cancel the thing by pressing "Clear" on the remote.

:: Design flaws, part two. Actually, I'm not sure if this is a design flaw, but our phone lines were out of order until today. Yesterday morning, the knob on our new apartment's front door broke and was inoperable -- with all of us inside. So we're locked in, and we can't call the maintenance people. We had to wait twenty minutes or so until someone actually wandered by outside, at which point we shouted for them to call the maintenance folks. Ugh. (The maintenance folks, though, arrived within five minutes of our flagging down the neighbor.)

:: Our property is shared by a golf course. So far I've counted four golfers who have managed to land their shots on our building's front lawn, which is not remotely in the same direction as the hole toward which they are theoretically shooting. And I'm sorry, golfers, but I consider the golf cart to be one of the most ridiculous inventions of all time. I watch these guys shoot, return to the cart, put their club away, hop in and drive to the ball's present location in roughly the same amount of time that I could have walked there in the first place. Unless you're that pro golfer with the ailment that makes the cart necessary, you don't need the cart.

:: Good stuff I've discovered about Syracuse: the Barnes&Noble here is larger than either of the B&N's in Buffalo, which surprised me immensely. The main shopping mall, the Carousel Center, is one of the most beautiful malls I've ever seen (and I've been in a lot of malls). A project is afoot to expand the Carousel Center until it becomes the largest mall in North America, which wouldn't bother me at all (although I wonder a bit why they'd want to build such a thing in a small town like Syracuse, which is roughly the same size as Cedar Rapids, Iowa). The Buffalo Bills are still on TV here, and to the best of my knowledge there is as yet no Krispy Kreme store in Syracuse. (Believe me, that's a good thing. Of course, I'll also consider it a good thing when they get one.)

And, for those dying to know what Syracuse looks like, here's a photograph of what is apparently the tallest building in the city. The photo links to a site where various images of the city can be found.

Saturday, September 14, 2002

It's amazing how the twists and turns of life are sometimes -- well, most times, to be realistic -- completely unexpected and, though welcome, also traumatic.

My wife's company rewarded two years of her hard work two days ago with a promotion, effective one week from today. That's the great part. The traumatic part comes into play thusly: the promotion entails moving the family, in the space of a single week, one hundred twenty miles down the road to Syracuse, New York.

Leaving Buffalo is sad enough; leaving Buffalo basically with no notice whatsoever is utterly shocking. And it's more than a bit scary, as I really know nothing at all about Syracuse. A move is hard enough; a move to a place that us pretty much completely unfamiliar is quite scary. (And there's the fact that my wife and I have always maintained that if and when we ever moved away from Buffalo we would head west, not farther east.) We spent the last two days there apartment hunting (we seem to have found one), and the town seems fairly nice. It's got a Borders and a Barnes&Noble, so I won't go completely crazy. I was dismayed to find that there is no Target there, but then I was relieved to find that the first Target in Syracuse will be opening sometime next month. (Which means they will be hiring....hmmmmm.....) I also find myself worrying that life in Syracuse won't be as fulfilling as life in Buffalo; Syracuse is one-half Buffalo's size, and I'm also afraid that the Great Lakes character that I love so much about Buffalo -- hell, about the entire Great Lakes region, from Buffalo to Cleveland to Chicago to Wisconsin and, stretching the definition a bit, to the Twin Cities -- will be absent. These fears will, I hope and expect, be laid to rest as I explore my new "home". At the same time, though, I suspect that it will be a long time before I can refer to Syracuse as "home" without the quote-marks.

(If I have any readers from Syracuse, feel free to let me know what's great about your city!)

(And because of the immediacy of the move, this will be the last post to Byzantium's Shores for at least five days, and maybe as much as a week. If disaster strikes, it will be ten days before I'm writing here again -- but I don't expect it to be that long.)

Thursday, September 12, 2002


Test vehicle for NASA's Project Orion.

Project Orion was a concept of a spacecraft that would be used for interstellar travel. The ship would achieve propulsion by detonating nuclear explosions against a collision plate at the bottom of the ship, kicking the ship along in a kind of nuclear "putt-putt" motion. According to Carl Sagan in Cosmos, development of Orion was set aside when the United States signed a treaty that forbade the detonation of nuclear weapons in space. "This seems to me a great pity," Sagan writes. "The Orion starship is the best use of nuclear weapons I can think of."

The test vehicle pictured here was actually flown in 1959 (using conventional charges, not nukes). It remains the only live test of an Orion vehicle to date. More on Project Orion can be found here.

I have added a couple of new blogs to the "other journeys" section at left: one belonging to Dominion, called A Skeptical Blog (note the neat "shifty eyes" in his masthead), and Die Puny Humans, by comics writer (among other things) Warren Ellis. He's got an entry on Batman that....well, see for yourself.

I've also added permalinks to Arts and Letters Daily, National Public Radio, and WBFO (Buffalo's local NPR station).

AICN has an article containing some reactions to a screening of Hayao Miyazaki's film Spirited Away, including a conversation with the great filmmaker himself. An interesting error occurs in the transcription of the conversation (at least I assume it is an error). Miyazaki is quoted thusly:

"Fantasy is an absolutely essential element for children, as a temporary respite or escape or as a sucker and source of support. But if you go to completely into it and surrender to it, it can become a psychosis. It may sound hypocritical, since we sell videos: but I believe you should watch the films just once."

I could be wrong, but I suspect that he said "succor", not "sucker".

I'm also interested that Miyazaki, one of cinema's finest fantasists, evidently judges fantasy worthwhile almost entirely for its cathartic abilities. He doesn't mention the possibilities that fantasy offers for exploring theme, which interests me because of the strong theme of family that seems present in much of his work.

Now if this isn't one of the freakiest bits of coincidence in history, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

It's all Sean's fault.

I wasn't going to write this essay. I wasn't going to post any personal reflections on 11 September. I was content to quote three particular items from works that are special to me: Walt Whitman's poem "O Captain! my Captain!", as a token of the enduring American culture; the picture and quote from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, as a reminder of the rank absurdity of the concerns that so often move humans to killing and war; and an epitaph from Guy Gavriel Kay's novel The Lions of Al-Rassan, the words of which would not, it seems to me, be out of place on the gravemarkers of any of the people who perished that day. On a day when every medium – television, radio, the Net – was saturated with personal remembrances, the offerings of one more blogger seemed redundant, even irrelevant. But, Sean asked an interesting question today:

"How should we remember?"

Everyone remembers in different ways. This is only natural, and necessary. A person who escaped the still-burning towers and lived will remember the day in a far different manner than someone who sent a loved one off to work, perhaps with a kiss or perhaps not, at the WTC or the Pentagon only to later find that their loved one had not gone off to work but off to die. A person who called in sick to work at the WTC that day will remember it differently from a person in rural Iowa who has never been east of the Mississippi or a person in Portland, Oregon who has never been east of the Rockies. How different are my memories of 11 September from everyone else's, and how different are everyone else's from mine? Sean's question thus becomes not how we should remember, but how I should remember.

I had no personal connection to the events of that day. No one I know died or was injured; no one I know lost a family member; no one I know, so far as I am aware, even saw the attacks take place. There was not even a sense of fraternity in living in the same state as the WTC. Buffalo is a Great Lakes city, with more in common with Detroit than New York City. In fact, Buffalo is far enough away from NYC that one could drive from Buffalo to Cleveland and back in less time than it takes to drive from Buffalo to NYC, one way. I expect this is true of any large state; how much kinship does a person in El Paso feel with a person living in Texarkana? Thus, the horror that day was more for fellow Americans than for fellow New Yorkers. Not that this, in any way, lessened the horror. I suspect that day was precisely as horrifying for people who watched the attacks on TV in Honolulu as it was for the ones who watched them on TV in Buffalo or Pittsburgh or Des Moines. However, even as the day unfolded I could not help but think of the "six degrees of separation" that are said to exist between ourselves and anyone else in our world. It turned out that my closest personal connection to the attacks was through my father, a college professor of mathematics one of whose former students worked for Cantor-Fitzgerald.

After 11 September, I did not write for three days, nor did I listen to a single note of music. I think I read, but I don't recall. Art was the farthest thing from my mind, until the events receded enough that my stories returned. (One of those stories, directly inspired by that awful day, can be read here.) Part of the problem was the fact that a good deal of what I write is horror, for what possible literary horror could ever approach the reality of 11 September? Of course, I soon remembered that fiction does not approach reality so much as enhance it; and besides, storytelling has been at the heart of all attempts to find something of value in the wake of horrible events. That is the ultimate basis of storytelling, horror and otherwise, going all the way back to the most primal myths. In any event, I struggled to find my own personal connection to the attacks, to close the sense of disconnect and find my reason to remember - - and my way of paying tribute, when eventually that time would come as today it finally did.

Like many, I wondered why these attacks. It surely was not a mere desire to wreak as much death as humanly possible; if body count had been their sole concern, surely the terrorists would have struck two days before, crashing their planes into sold-out NFL stadiums. No, these were attacks on our very culture. These people don't just hate us. They hate our culture - - every culture, in truth, as was shown when the Taliban destroyed the great stone Buddhas.

And there it was. They wanted to destroy our culture, a culture which has produced Mark Twain and Steven Spielberg and Leonard Bernstein and Jackson Pollack and Charles Burchfield and Charlie Parker. They wanted to destroy a culture whose relics include Gravity's Rainbow, Kind of Blue, Star Wars, Casablanca, East of Eden, Star Trek, Foundation, and Cosmos. They wanted to silence a culture that has spoken through such voices as Superman, Gully Foyle, Butch and Sundance, Professor Childermass, Tom Sawyer, Andy Dufresne, and the Joad family.

And with that realization came another: that while I had always loved America in an abstract sense, the way one always loves one's hometown because it's the first thing they knew, I had also loved America for its culture. America is my home. America is my country. And America is my culture. This country has produced so many, many works of art that have shaped me as a person and (I hope) as an artist. That is the personal connection I sought to 11 September: the attempt of a joyless, beautyless culture whose only notable feature is empty, ugly piety to destroy a culture that, while young, has contributed greatly to the march of human expression. So that is how I remember 11 September, and how I mark the day: by partaking of my culture.

I read some American poetry today. It was not a day for Tennyson, as much as I love his verse. I listened to American music today; it was not a day for Hector Berlioz. For dinner I made a pot of American chili, and for dessert, an ice cream cone. I didn't discover America on 11 September; but because of 11 September, I rediscovered it.

And that is how I will remember the wicked day: not only for the fires and the deaths, but for everything that came before and everything that is certain to come after.

O Captain! my Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
  But O heart! heart! heart!
    O the bleeding drops of red,
      Where on the deck my Captain lies,
        Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung--for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths--for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
  Here Captain! dear father!
    This arm beneath your head!
      It is some dream that on the deck,
        You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
  Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
    But I with mournful tread,
      Walk the deck my Captain lies,
        Fallen cold and dead.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892).

The planet Earth, as photographed by Voyager 1 as it left our Solar System. The shaft of light is a reflected sunbeam on the camera lens, and that pale blue dot is our world.

"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar', every 'supreme leader', every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there -- on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

"The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

"Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

"....There is perhaps no better demonstration of the foly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

--Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

Know, all those who see these lines,
That this man, by his appetite for honor,
By his steadfastedness,
By his love for his country,
By his courage,
Was one of the miracles of the god.

-Guy Gavriel Kay, The Lions of Al-Rassan.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

A brief political reason: I finally figured out, after this post of his, just what bothers me so much about Stephen Den Beste's insistence on the moral imperative that the United States has to act unilaterally against Iraq. What bothers me is that SDB seems to genuinely believe the US-Iraqi dispute to be a dispute between two nations and two nations only: the US and Iraq, and that no other nations need concern themselves with out little war. It seems to me that one lesson of history is that "private little wars" like this tend to have effects, for good or ill and foreseen and unforeseen, on far more nations than just the two combatants.

I still waver on the issue of whether or not we should invade Iraq, and I'm not going to delve into it here; I've broken my "no politics" pledge enough already. But I will note that I find the current meme in the pro-war community, "It's between the US and Iraq and everyone else can butt the hell out", to be a dangerous and possibly short-sighted attitude.

And as Mr. Gump would say, "That's all I have to say about that."

I'm one of those people who still watches ER religiously, so I greeted this news item thusly:


I have now seen the funniest movie trailer in history. I have played this thing ten times or so since I discovered it (via Roger Ebert's Movie Answer Man column). Check it out. If you've ever tired of those ponderous film trailers with that deep, gravelly voiced guy starting off "In a world where....", you'll love this.

I've been on a roll lately with the novel-in-progress. As it stands, I've got four more chapters to do before it's done and ready to be spit upon and laughed at accepted warmly by an agent and, then, a publisher. This is something of a milestone for me, as I have been working on this particular item for nearly six years now. (And it will actually be longer than that, as this is only Book One of a duology.)

Of course, that six years is not one unbroken stream of work. Like most proto-writers, I used to go through periods during which I would consider that "I really ought to get some work done on the book" and yet, never actually do any writing. Never a day without lines is a tougher commandment than it sounds.

I'm a bit worried right now about the length of the thing. Currently, the word count stands at a little more than 135,000 words. Allowing for my average chapter length, I expect the novel to weigh in at 170,000 to 180,000 words. If one assumes roughly 400 words to a page in a mass-market paperback, that puts my book at around 400 to 450 pages or so. Somewhere I seem to recall encountering advice that first-timers should err on the side of brevity, but I may be wrong. And assuming that the book actually comes before an actual editor whose reaction isn't "Send the form letter and bring me the next manuscript!!", there will be a lot of editing to be done in the future.

Anyway, it's still pretty exciting to actually be nearing a conclusion of sorts. And then it's on to the second volume....

Monday, September 09, 2002

I haven't tried to write one yet, so I can't be sure, but it seems to me that haunted house stories must be fairly hard to pull off successfully. The tropes are by now very familiar: the brooding mansion sitting on a large estate out in the country; the history of eccentric owners who met dolorous ends in the house; the fact that people who have attempted to stay in the house have failed miserably; the odd, almost robotic housekeeper who still stays on at the house; decriptions of the house itself as "evil", "malevolent", et cetera.

All of these tropes are present in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Maybe it's the familiarity of the haunted house story that made the book suffer a bit for me, as I found the story rather hard to really get involved in. The feeling of malice in the book never really came alive, at least not until near the end. The book does not so much "build" as "meander", and then it suddenly arrives. The only real indicator of an impending climax in the book is the dwindling page-count as one reads it, which I found disappointing. I've admired Jackson's short fiction, and I have also read a great deal of praise for her novels (and this novel in particular), so I am quite surprised by my reaction.

The story is fairly simple: four people go to live for a time in Hill House, as an experiment at the behest of a researcher into the paranormal. Living in the house tends to bring out the worst in all of the characters, for some reason, and it is to Jackson's credit as a writer that each character becomes unpalatable in his or her own way. Unfortunately, though, the characters are not balanced, as the tortures and self-loathing of Eleanor overtake everyone else. (Yes, I know that in the end there is a reason for that, but it still doesn't help the two-hundred plus pages leading up to it.) There are the standard "things that go bump in the night", but some plausible explanations for this are provided along the way. In fact, nearly everything that happens in the book seems to have a plausible explanation, so we are never particularly certain if Hill House really is haunted or not. That's an interesting angle, but it never really takes flight.

I wanted to like The Haunting of Hill House much more than I did. My attention was simply never grabbed as a good horror story should (or any good story, for that matter). For a very similar story executed in more involving fashion, check out Richard Matheson's Hell House.

Sometimes in sports when a bad team rebuilds, a specific progression can be traced. First, they are the bad team that everyone wants to play because they're an easy target; that was the Buffalo Bills last year. Then, they become the bad team that nobody wants to play: they still lose most of the time, but they scrap and claw and fight and always keep the game close. That could very well be the Buffalo Bills this year, especially after the opener yesterday, which they lost, 37-31 in overtime, to the New York Jets.

Most of the Bills' "question marks" going into the game actually did well. The offensive line was able to run-block effectively, allowing Bills RB Travis Henry to put up over 140 yards rushing. Their pass-blocking wasn't as good -- Drew Bledsoe faced an awful lot of pressure -- but that will most definitely get better. The defense also did a good job of keeping the Jets offense from ever really developing a rhythm for more than a series or two. So how did the Bills end up losing? Because their special teams, which for more than three years now have been substantially less than "special", blew the game by giving up a blocked punt and two kickoff returns for touchdowns -- including the opening kickoff in overtime, so the game ended in OT before there was ever a play from scrimmage. Special teams play has been a train-wreck for the Bills ever since that playoff game in Tennessee that they lost (also on a kickoff return, this one with twenty seconds or so left in the game). Oh, where is Steve Tasker when you need him?

How was Drew Bledsoe's performance? Well, it's wonderful to be able to watch the Bills and have some confidence in the quarterback again, something which has not really been the case since Jim Kelly's retirement. He did throw two interceptions, although I only consider one of them to be a true interception because the other was one of those deals where the receiver gets a hand on the ball, but then the defender pops him, knocking the ball into the air where another defender, who happens to be in the right place at the right time, plucks it from the air. Calling those against a QB's stats has always struck me as a bit unfair. Maybe they should be called "deflections" instead of "interceptions". Bledsoe also engineered a last-minute drive to tie the game, which was utterly thrilling. Welcome to Buffalo, Drew.

(An interesting side note: Drew Bledsoe's first play from scrimmage in his NFL career, back in 1994 with the Patriots, was a pass play on which he was sacked by Bruce Smith of the Bills. His first play from scrimmage as a Bill was a pass play on which he was sacked. Weird.)

Sunday, September 08, 2002

A quick maintenance note: I have removed the permanent link to James Lileks's site, not because I don't care for his viewpoints -- although I don't -- but because his writing style has become grating to me. I was originally interested in his writing because I found a certain kind of warm humor in it, but that element appears to have vanished completely.

I expect that every writer has a shelf full of reference books to which they turn on a regular basis. Even a writer who works in fantasy, making up his or her setting and details as the work goes along, has to rely on a number of references for things like environmental information, literary techniques, poetic allusions, and the like. Some of my more frequently used reference works include the following.

:: The Rand McNally Atlas of the World: Masterpiece Edition. This is one of those gigantic atlases with close-up, topographical maps of just about every place on the earth. Immensely useful.

:: The Oxford Essential World Atlas. Why have two atlases? Because the Oxford one is smaller, being a large trade paperback as opposed to an eighteen-inch high, two-inch thick tome like the Rand-McNally. Sometimes I don't need the close-up view, so the Oxford suits me fine.

:: Historical Atlas, by William R. Shepherd. And then there are times when I need to know what the borders of the Ottoman Empire were, or perhaps the ecclesiastical districts of Plantagenet-era England, or the route of Marco Polo's journey to China, or the limits of Mongol encroachment into the West. This book has all that and more. I've meant to update this book over the years -- the one I own dates from 1956 -- but the old one hasn't lost its usefulness one whit.

:: Scientific American's How Things Work Today. I haven't had a whole lot of use for this book in my own writing yet, but it's full of information on the current state of technology for laypersons.

:: The New York Public Library Science Desk Reference. This is a big catch-all book about the current state of the sciences. If I ever turn to writing SF, I suppose I will use it more than I do now, although it's a fascinating book to dip into.

:: The Oxford Book of English Verse. Here's another one that I should probably update, as my copy is seventy years old. Every writer needs an all-purpose collection of poetry....

:: Immortal Poems, edited by Oscar Williams. ....or two. This one's more compact, being a mass-market paperback. It also contains a lot that the Oxford doesn't.

:: World Poetry, edited by Washburn, Major and Fadiman. This is just what the title says, and it's as wonderful as useful.

:: Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Also just what the title says. This book has capsule bios of authors, capsule entries on their major works, entries on literary techniques and movements, and a lot more.

:: The Bible, King James Version. I'm not much concerned with the theological aspects of the Bible, so I keep the KJV, which is a towering achievement of the language.

:: Almanacs. I'm not loyal to any particular almanac. I buy a new one every three years or so; currently I have the TIME Magazine almanac. I bought this one, as opposed to the World Almanac, simply because it was cheaper at the bookstore I was in on the day that I decided to update my almanac. You never know when you're going to need some tiny little fact like who won the 1949 World Series or when the Chrysler Building was erected or the dates of King Henry VII's reign in England.

:: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. This book is absolutely essential.

:: Dictionaries. Currently I own two: The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition and The Oxford Pocket Dictionary and Thesaurus, American Edition. (I'm not sure how the Oxford can be remotely considered a "pocket" dictionary. The thing won't fit in any pocket I've ever seen.) My AHD has more entries than the Oxford, but the Oxford has the thesaurus in the same volume. I am also a member of a book club that includes access to the full Oxford English Dictionary online, although I don't use that perk as often as I originally thought I might.

Of course, there are a large number of other books that I use as reference materials, but the ones listed here are my main workhorses.

This weekend was a sad one in my family: our oldest cat, the nine-year-old Persian named Jasmine, passed away. It was very sudden and very quick, which is bad because of the shock but is also good because of the quickness of the whole thing. We are one of those families for whom pets are pretty much full family members, so her loss was hard. Also hard is explaining what has happened to our three-year-old daughter. She understood that something happened that made Mommy and Daddy very sad, and she understood that Jasmine became very sick...but she evidently hasn't put the emotions and the reality of the event all together yet. This is the first death in the family that she has experienced.

Thursday, September 05, 2002


Multnomah Falls, Oregon.

I've lived near one of the world's greatest and most famous cataracts, Niagara Falls, for more than twenty years now; but before that I lived near another of the most beautiful of the world's waterfalls, the spectacular Multnomah Falls. This cataract is located in the Columbia River Gorge, an hour or so from Portland. The water volume is certainly nowhere near Niagara, but Niagara can't begin to boast Multnomah's amazing height. The falls are created when a lovely but unremarkable stream plunges more than six hundred feet over an escarpment. The hiking trails in the park devoted to the Falls yield a number of amazing views, from the pool where the Falls land to the bridge at the Falls' midheight to the observation deck located at the very brink of the Falls. It's been more than two decades since I saw Multnomah last, and I would dearly love to go back.

The image links to an official National Parks Service website devoted to Multnomah Falls.


This is a new semi-regular thing I'll be doing whenever I feel like it, not unlike my "Poetical Excursions". We've all had the experience of seeing a movie and noticing a small detail that either enhances the mood of the film or imagination of its setting (these are almost always intentional), or that detracts from the goings-on in a bad way (these are not). Basically, in this mini-series I will simply cite some details that I've noticed in films I've seen, for good or ill. These details won't always reflect on my overall opinion of a film, however; I may cite a detail that I love in a film I dislike, or vice-versa.

So, here we go....

GOOD: Dumbo. In the film's very last scene, after Dumbo has learned how to fly with his ears and has saved the circus and become a celebrity, he is flying along behind his circus train while his mother, the previously harshly-treated Mrs. Jumbo, relaxes in style in her new luxury car. As the music climaxes, Dumbo swoops down into his mother's waiting arms, and returns her embrace by wrapping his immense ears around her. I love that.

BAD: Contact. There are a few grating details in this film, which all arise from the digital creations of things that weren't there to begin with. Now, I can deal with actual CNN personalities appearing in the film, although I would really rather that Bob Zemeckis and the film's crew had gone the way of, say, The West Wing and created their own White House Press Corps and news reporters. Seeing Bernard Shaw report on fictional events in the film is jarring. Equally jarring are the appearances by Bill Clinton, who was President at the time of the film's making. They use actual speeches of his, with the words edited so as to reflect the President's reaction to the film's events, but still the whole thing seems fake. And finally, there are some aerial tracking shots over the immense crowds that gather at the VLA in New Mexico and Cape Canaveral for the testing of The Machine. In these shots, the same green tent appears...over and over and over. Ugh.

GOOD: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. After the big chase through the Coruscant skyline, which began when Obi Wan Kenobi lept through a glass window to grab onto the flying assassin droid, some worker droids are shown replacing the glass. A lovely touch.

BAD: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Now, you'd think that a filmmaker of George Lucas's attention to visual detail would notice the fact that late in the film, Padme presses the exact same button on her ship's control panel to do completely different things. This is not unlike the fact that the "Fire Phasers" button on Star Trek is rarely in the same place twice.

BAD: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Speaking of Trek, how can the bridge of the Klingon Bird of Prey in STIV be completely different from the bridge of the Bird of Prey in the preceding STIII: The Search For Spock, when they're the same ship? Were Kirk and crew sufficiently bored during their time on Vulcan that they rebuilt the bridge and still left it looking like a Klingon bridge?

GOOD: Superman. When Lois Lane is hanging for dear life from the helicopter that has crashed on the roof of the Daily Planet building, Clark Kent exits the building at street level. Something flutters to the ground behind him, and it turns out to be Lois's hat. That's pretty good, as is Clark's small expression of frustration when he looks for someplace to change into Superman and notices that phone booths have been replaced by phones-on-poles.

BAD: Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Indy and Sallah take the headpiece of the Staff of Ra to the Imam for deciphering, they are told that the staff is to be "six qadam high". (I have no idea how that unit of measure is really spelled, by the way.) Sallah helpfully puts in that this is about seventy-two inches, which we can deduce is six feet. Therefore, one "qadam" equals one foot. But on the reverse of the headpiece is the direction to subtract one "qadam" to "honor the Hebrew God whose Ark this is". That makes for a five-foot staff. So far, so good -- until the actual scene in the Map Room, where the Staff of Ra is shown to be at least six inches taller than Indy himself. So, are we to conclude that Indy's height is four foot six?

Tune in again....

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

I watched part of the Frontline special on PBS last night, the subject of which was Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, an examination of religious themes surrounding the events of 11 September 2001. What I saw of the show was fascinating, and I hope to see it in its entirety again. The most striking segment depicted a rabbi who has used transcriptions of those gut-wrenching cellphone calls from those who died in his daily chants. Hearing those words -- Tell the children I love them, take care of them, I love you, goodbye -- sung to those Hebrew chant melodies is utterly haunting.

Until now, author Neil Gaiman has been primarily known as the writer behind the remarkable Sandman comic book series. He's written other things -- a couple of novels, some other comics, and a battery of short fiction -- but he's still been mostly known as the Sandman guy. That's likely to change, though, now that Gaiman's novel American Gods has won both the Hugo and the Bram Stoker awards for Novel of the Year and now that his newest book, Coraline, is drawing rave notices.

I actually finished reading American Gods on Saturday, the day before it was awarded with the Hugo. Now, I haven't read the other novels that were nominated this year, so I cannot honestly say whether the award was given correctly. I can only say that Gods is an excellent novel. The story is about a man called Shadow who has been paroled from prison on the same day that his wife is killed in an automobile accident. With nowhere else to go, Shadow ends up in the employ of a strange man named Wednesday who moves in some very strange circles. It turns out that Shadow is to play a part in a war between the fading, old-world Gods and the new-fangled American Gods, deities such as commerce and the Internet. Along the way, lessons are learned and secrets revealed, as is always the case in large-scale works like this in which nothing is ever as it seems.

Gaiman achieves an interesting mix of literal description and metaphorical construct in depicting the conflicts of his novel. At one point, he goes so far as to write:

None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as a metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman...religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.

The book is at times quite literal in its description of events, and at other times it takes on a dreamier, surrealistic tone -- especially in passages involving Native American spirituality and its relation to the onset of American society and the constant arrival of new Gods. This can seem facile at times, for how else would one contrast the businesslike demeanor of America versus the more spiritual concerns of others? However, it gradually becomes clear that Gaiman is after something else, and the line blurs substantially as the novel progresses, and as we begin to suspect that the two sides depicted in the novel may not be quite as we are told they are.

Gaiman's use of setting is also fascinating. The book is set mostly in the upper Midwest. (Gaiman himself lives in Minneapolis.) He invokes landmarks and attractions that will be well-known to anyone familiar with that area as settings in his novel, and particularly fascinating is his depiction of the seemingly idyllic town of Lakeside, Wisconsin which may not be quite as idyllic as it seems.

The novel is very episodic in structure, basically moving from one set-piece to the next. There isn't so much of a linear development of the plot, which may bother some readers. Gaiman also includes small vignettes that take us out of the main action of the novel entirely in order to depict side-struggles and events in his America, where Gods interact with mere mortals. The most impressive of these, to me, was the lengthy vignette involving an Arab immigrant to New York City. American Gods was written before 11 September 2001, but it is difficult to not read this section of the book in that light. In fact, reading this book after 11 September is an exercise in the American spiritual landscape, as Gaiman makes us wonder just who our gods really are.

The book's only flaw, in my estimation, is its conclusion. Gaiman leaves one particular story thread, and a fairly minor one at that, unresolved until after everything else has been dealt with; then he returns to that story thread and ties it up with a few more revelations. The answers Gaiman gives are satisfying, but the episode still feels a bit out-of-place. Perhaps, though, this is Gaiman's intent -- his way of depicting the continuing cycle of divinity at play with the profane. I'm not really sure.

I found American Gods immensely enjoyable, as a piece of contemporary fantasy in the manner of Charles de Lint or Robert Holdstock. Recommended.

Everything that the vibraphone is today can pretty much be traced to a single musician: the amazing Lionel Hampton, who used his proficiency on that instrument to become one of jazz's leading lights.

Sadly, Lionel Hampton has passed away at the age of 94. NPR's tribute to Hampton can be heard here.

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

A couple of nifty links:

:: ABCNews has a nice article about people who collect things that actually doesn't make collectors look like, well, weirdos of The Simpsons's "Comic Book Guy" variety.

:: Slate has an interesting article making the case for Randall Cunningham as a member of football's Hall-of-Fame. I never thought that Cunningham's career was quite up to that level, but after reading this, I'm not so sure. And that touchdown pass of his against my beloved Bills in 1990, where he dropped back into his own end zone, ducked under a certain Bruce Smith sack (and this was Bruce Smith in his prime, mind you) and then put the ball in the air for what turned out to be a 102-yard touchdown pass, remains etched on my brain after twelve years. (The Bills won that game, by the way.)

:: More football stuff. (Get used to it!) All the ESPN gurus have their predictions up on one handy page. The Rams appear to be a majority pick to win it all, although it's not unanimous. What is unanimous is that nobody is picking the Patriots to repeat. On a page to himself, of course, is the Tuesday Morning Quarterback, who is back writing football-related haikus.

On the day before the Hugos were awarded to various luminaries in SF-dom, I got my latest rejection slip in the mail from F&SF. This was not surprising, really. The story in question -- "Stains" -- is a psychological horror story with a very muted supernatural element, inspired by Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart". F&SF doesn't seem to print many stories like it. So why did I send it there at all? Well, for a number of reasons. First, there is F&SF's track record for response times: my responses from them (all rejections, by the way) have always come within ten days of submission, allowing me to get the thing out to another market. Second, there is the matter of word-limits. I am almost incapable of writing a story in under nine thousand words, and most of mine gravitate to novellette length (twelve to fifteen thousand words, roughly). There just aren't that many markets for short fiction willing to handle those kinds of lengths, so I pretty much submit to all the ones that do. I suppose I could figure out how to write actual short stories, thus giving myself more markets to submit to and (theoretically) increasing my chances for publication, but somehow that doesn't seem right. I would rather write the stories that I have to write, in the manner that I have to write them, than try to shoehorn myself into some other category. (One proviso: I don't think that I am overly wordy in my fiction. When I edit my stories for submission, I can get pretty draconian. I always remove at least ten percent of the original wordage, and in one case I actually excised twenty-five percent. That particular story came closest to being published, with an editor holding onto it for nearly six months while he tried to find a spot in his publication for it. Alas, 'twas not to be....)

So, what's next for "Stains"? Tomorrow it's off to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Congratulations to all the lucky folks who won one of these at ConJose (the World Science Fiction Convention, held at San Jose) on Sunday night. I'd love to win one of these someday, but I think I'd rather win the Bram Stoker since I write more horror than fantasy (and I write no science fiction currently). I'd also like to actually be published, which is probably a prerequisite of sorts. Sigh....

Sunday, September 01, 2002

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has released its first recording under the Naxos label. The CD is a disc of three orchestral works by American composer Frederick Converse (1871-1940), a composer of whom I had never heard until I learned of this recording, which is part of Naxos's effort to explore the rich history of American classical music beyond the usual "big names". It's also thrilling to see my hometown orchestra finally appearing on recordings that are nationally available.

This is the text of a post I made to the Usenet newsgroup back in March, about Howard Shore's Oscar-winning score to Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. I've linked to the article on the Google Groups Archive, but I wanted to have a copy here on Byzantium's Shores as well.

Now that Howard Shore has won his Oscar for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I should like to explore for a moment the score’s remarkable qualities.

It seems at first to be precisely the kind of score one would expect for a large-scale epic fantasy, and in many ways it is. It is full of gigantic orchestral passages, fanfarish heroics, darkly scored passages with lots of low brass for the villains, big choral passages, ethereal choral passages, and melodies both happy and melancholy. Shore’s work is deftly done in all those regards and more. While his orchestral and choral writing are indisputably splendid, with Shore directing his massive resources with consummate craftsmanship and aplomb, the score is hardly unique in that regard; instead his work here stands squarely in the tradition of Goldsmith, Williams, Herrmann, Rozsa, Korngold and all the other great composers of epic scores. What makes this score so remarkable, especially in this day of frequently substanceless bombast, is its construction: its symphonic and leitmotifistic cohesion in which many themes are interrelated and manipulated with a constant eye and ear for Story.

When the track-listing for the LOTR:FOTR CD was made public, the striking detail was that most of the track titles were actual chapter titles from the book. And then, in his Oscar acceptance speech, Shore specifically noted "the words of Tolkien". These are not coincidences. The LOTR film project is tied to its literary forebear to a much greater degree than most other notable book-to-film translations, and this turns out to be the key to Shore’s work on the LOTR score. Shore uses his music not just to create mood but to reflect Tolkien’s themes and stories. In fact, while Shore’s score almost perfectly enhances Peter Jackson’s film, it is Tolkien’s story that dictates how Shore uses his themes.

Consider, first, what can probably be called the score’s "main theme": the theme for the Fellowship of the Ring itself. In its boldest form, it is a fairly obvious heroic theme, and it is heard in full at the film’s most overtly heroic moments: when the Fellowship is first formed at Rivendell, and when Aragorn and Frodo leap the bottomless gap in the Mines of Moria. These are moments of undeniable triumph, and the use of the Fellowship theme there is entirely appropriate. What makes the theme interesting is in how it is formed. Shore gives us very brief snippets of it throughout the score up to the Fellowship’s official formation, musically depicting the slow coming-together of the Fellowship’s core. And then, after Gandalf’s fall in Moria, the Fellowship’s theme is never heard in full again. It is quoted as the Fellowship leaves Lothlorien by a single horn, so soft as to almost be offstage. We hear it again a few moments later, louder but no more complete. The musical symbolism is clear: the Fellowship itself is incomplete, and the lack of balance in the theme foreshadows the eventual final breaking of the Fellowship. We next hear it partially quoted as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli pledge to go after Merry and Pippin. However, the theme immediately seques into the score’s other main theme, that of the Hobbits.

The Hobbit theme is first heard when we first lay eyes on the Shire, and the theme is similar in contour to the second phrase of the Fellowship theme. That interrelatedness of the Fellowship and the Hobbit themes allows Shore to effortlessly switch between the two, and this similarity – the way the middle section of the Fellowship theme echoes the Hobbit theme – musically depicts the fact that the Hobbits are central to the mission of the Fellowship itself. Shore is musically illustrating Tolkien’s conceit that a race long-ignored is about to step to the fore of the crucial moment in Middle-Earth’s history.

It is also important that the Hobbit theme is first heard when we actually see the Shire, but not when we first see a Hobbit in the film: in the Prologue we see Bilbo finding the Ring, but the Hobbit theme is not heard until we see Frodo in the Shire. Thus Shore tells us several things musically: that it is Frodo, not Bilbo, who is to form the central focus of the Fellowship, and that the Hobbits are bound up very closely with their homeland. Hobbits, Tolkien tells us, rarely leave the Shire; in fact, they rarely leave their own communities within the Shire. Thus it is that when we first hear the Hobbit theme it is played as a folk-tune on a fiddle over a playfully tapping drum-rhythm. The next notable use of the Hobbit theme comes at Rivendell. Shore does this to convey a sense of homecoming – Tolkien calls Rivendell "The Last Homely House" – but Shore scores the theme for solo clarinet, the purest sounding of instruments, and gives it some extra ornamentation, enough of a variation to make the theme sound somewhat different. The sense of homecoming is fleeting, and we know from the music that it is not to be permanent.

As noted above, the Fellowship theme at the end of the film yields to a lush string statement of the Hobbit theme. This is an obvious musical depiction of the separation of the Fellowship; but the strong relation between the two themes allows Shore to make the transition from the former to the latter without some kind of "bridge" section, highlighting the sense of separation to an even greater degree. Thus it is that at the film’s end the Hobbit theme plays, in its saddest incarnation, as Sam and Frodo head down into Mordor. But even then, Shore gives us something more: underneath it can be heard the same tapping drum rhythm from the theme’s first statement. Shore is here depicting that it is more than Hobbit against Sauron; it is the Shire against Mordor.

The interrelation of themes in Shore’s LOTR score is not limited to the Fellowship and the Hobbit themes. There is a militaristic theme for Saruman and his Uruk-Hai, and this theme opens with three notes (C-B-C), very similar to the notes that open the Fellowship theme (C-b-flat-C). Where the Fellowship theme uses the major-second interval and solid rhythms to create a sense of heroism, the Saruman theme uses the minor-second and an off-center syncopated rhythm to create a sense of malice. Why would these two themes be so related? Because the C-B-C motif, the germ from which both themes are grown, can be said to be the "Man" motif. It is no accident that the first full statement of the Fellowship theme is not heard until the arrival of Men at Rivendell. A scene with Gandalf and Elrond makes clear that the fate of Middle Earth is now in the hands of Men, for good or ill. Thus two themes for the key men in the story, one good and one evil. It is further worth noting that we do hear a variant of the Fellowship theme, in a minor key, when Gandalf rides to Isengard to confer with Saruman. Shore is musically foreshadowing the betrayal. He is telling us, through music, that Gandalf’s trust in this particular man is misplaced and will come to ill.

So Shore gives strong, thematically-based depictions of the story’s two most prominent races. His treatment of the other two is more muted, more impressionistic. This is also perfectly in keeping with the story. There is no theme per se for the Elves; instead there is a kind of tone-painting that is ethereal in nature, hinting musically that the Elves are outside the history of Middle Earth. Shore employs shimmering strings and soprano vocalists to suggest the almost alien nature of the Elves. Their music is entirely different from nearly everything else in the score. But Shore also recognizes that the film’s two Elvish locales, Rivendell and Lothlorien, are very different in character, and thus while he takes a similar approach to each they both still sound very different. Lothlorien has a darker, earthier sound with hints of Middle-Eastern flavor, and Shore even goes so far as to employ a different soprano vocalist for the Lothlorien music, one with a different sound than Enya. The difference in tone is carefully considered, as is the entire decision to not define the Elves with a single theme of their own. He is musically reinforcing Tolkien’s conceit that the Age of the Elves is ending. The Elves are, to a certain extent, "outside" of Tolkien’s history, and thus their music by Shore is "outside" of his symphonic conception.

Something similar can be said for the fourth race, the Dwarves. Of them we only see Gimli alive; the rest is hinted at through the shattered remnants of the Mines of Moria. Here Shore employs very low sounds – men’s chorus, low strings and brass, et cetera – and he takes a leaf from Wagner and uses anvil-like percussion. Like the Elves, there is no Dwarf-theme per se; this allows Shore to compose Dwarvish music that feels incomplete. This is most striking when the music swells as Gandalf illuminates the Great Hall of Moria, but even then we don’t get a full melody. The story tells of empty, cavernous spaces; thus Shore creates music that is empty and cavernous. And he does so brilliantly before moving onto frenetic action music for the escape from Moria.

Finally, there is the Ring theme itself. Shore does not use the Ring theme nearly as often as one might expect; we hear it several times in the Prologue, primarily as the Ring’s journeys from one "owner" to the next are detailed. Its most striking use occurs late in the film as the Fellowship rows past the Gates of Argonath. Aragorn points the great statues out to Frodo, and the symbolism of the exiled King of Gondor coming home is hard to miss; so why is the Ring motif used instead of, say, the Fellowship theme or perhaps some other permutation of the "Man" motif for Aragorn’s return? Because Shore knows his story, and he knows that Aragorn’s return home is not to be – at least, not yet. He knows that soon Aragorn will have to turn west and go to Rohan (in "The Two Towers"), while the Ring’s journey to its home will continue. Thus it is the Ring theme that we hear. Once again, Shore’s sense of Story guides and
illuminates his themes and how he uses them.

And to think of the at-least six hours of "Lord of the Rings" score that Shore still has ahead of him to compose. Music for the Ents, for the Riders of Rohan, for Minas Tirith, for the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, for Shelob and her lair, for the Cracks of Doom, for the Battle at Helm’s Deep, for the Gray Havens….bring it on, Mr. Shore.