Monday, April 30, 2012

A to Z: Zany!

Hey, I made it! It's the end of the A-to-Z Challenge. Let's look at some Zaniness, shall we?

According to this site, the word 'zany' was first used in English by none other than William Shakespeare, although its origins are apparently Italian:

Somebody zany is amusingly crazy or clownish. If you object to my definition, then you may be in the company of the compilers of several current dictionaries. It’s a hard word to pin down — we all think we know what we mean by it, but we may find describing it in plain English surprisingly hard.

That may have something to do with the way the word has evolved. It was first a noun, to describe a performer in the commedia dell’arte, an improvised Italian comic form of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The zany was a foolish servant, a buffoon, who attempted to mimic the actions of his master, himself a clown. The servant was given the generic name Giovanni (the Italian equivalent of John), much as English servants of the same period were frequently called Andrew (indeed, one English equivalent to the zany was a merry-andrew), or as a Glaswegian might call someone Jimmy as an all-purpose name. In time Giovanni turned into zannie and we imported it in that form.

. We tend to think of zany as meaning a special kind of madcap comedy, one in which questions of sanity are best left at the door. Here's Merriam Webster on the case:

1: being or having the characteristics of a zany

2: fantastically or absurdly ludicrous (a zany movie)

However, looking at definition number one under zany as adjective, I see that zany can also be a noun. This, I did not know! y interesting word, actually. Merriam-Webster defines it thusly (same link as above, toggle a link there to switch from noun to adjective):

1: a subordinate clown or acrobat in old comedies who mimics ludicrously the tricks of the principal

2: a slavish follower

3a : one who acts the buffoon to amuse others

The noun use of zany seems to have dropped out of usage, in favor of the adjective. I've never, to my knowledge, heard of someone refer to a 'zany', but I have heard, many times, someone or something described as 'zany'. So how about some zaniness in fantasy and SF?

Well, there's quite a lot of comedy to be found in both genres. Fantasy isn't all long, wordy, and ponderous tales involving plucky rural heroes making their way across a vast continent to the very stronghold of evil; there's plenty of funny stuff be found. But not everything that is funny is also zany. I'd definitely file the books of Christopher Moore in the 'zany' category, and they are cheerfully zany, full of wild leaps in logic and loaded with highly eccentric characters; his books are, in the words of Merriam-Webster, "fantastically or absurdly ludicrous". That's part of their charm. Moore writes the kinds of books where two women in a rubber raft at sea find themselves in between two whales who are about to engage in the physical act of whale-love, or where a six-year-old Jesus causes a stir in his hometown when he makes his own face appear in the Passover bread.

Interestingly, Moore has also written a book that fits the noun use of zany, the wonderful Foole, in which Moore tells the story of King Lear from the viewpoint of the Fool...the zany, you might call it.

Lois McMaster Bujold's "Miles Vorkosigan" books aren't really zany, per se, but they do have moments when the humor rises to a certain level that's almost zany. Ditto Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard Sequence (comprising The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies. I suspect that the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series is pretty zany...but I wouldn't know. I haven't read them. (I'll hang my head in shame.)

Fantasy and SF in the movies? There, it's easier to find zaniness on display. Ghostbusters is pure zaniness, through and through. So is Back to the Future, Galaxy Quest, and most of Star Trek IV. Men in Black is zany, and amongst animated films, The Emperor's New Groove is as zany a film as I can remember. And you have to include the films of Monty Python, which are as zany as it gets and which are often filled with fantastical content.

I'm sure it comes as no surprise that I'm a fan of zaniness, both in life and in fiction. Serious things are good, but zaniness is a part of life, is it not? Life should be a little bit zany...or a lot zany, if you can manage it. The trick is to find your preferred versions of it and incorporate them into your life. Don't be afraid to, as Merriam-Webster defines it, "act the buffoon to amuse others"...even if it means the occasional pie in the face.

And with that, I come to a successful close of the A to Z Challenge for 2012, Huzzah! Maybe I'll do this again next year....

Sunday, April 29, 2012


YAHHHH? What on Earth is that?

Well, it's a rough transliteration of the final death shriek of Red Leader at the Battle of Yavin in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. He's just led an unsuccessful attack run on the two-meter-wide thermal exhaust port, failing to get his proton torpedoes to go down the shaft to the reactor ("Negative! It didn't go it. Just impacted on the surface."). He orders Red Five (Luke) to gather the remaining pilots (Wedge and Biggs) for one last shot at the exhaust port, before his ship is struck by blaster fire from Darth Vader's TIE Fighter. Red Leader's ship sinks toward the surface of the Death Star, and just before he goes up in a ball of flames, he screams, "YAAAHHHHH!".

So what are we on about here? Acts of self-sacrifice or going-bravely-into-the-night in fantasy and science fiction.

Few things in fiction are more inspiring, frankly, than some person choosing, with their full faculties about them, to undertake an action or series of actions that will result in their deaths but will also result in someone else's survival. In fact, it's not even in fiction that this is inspiring, because such actions are typically seen as among the very highest things one can do, and it's the act of self-sacrifice that makes the Jesus story what it is. Noble acts of self-sacrifice, and their cousins – bravery in the face of certain death – stir our emotions like nothing else. It's the soldier who throws himself onto the grenade that's about to explode; it's the person who gives up their seat in the lifeboat for someone else as the ship sinks.

It's the man who, bearing an extremely close resemblance to a man who has been falsely imprisoned and sentenced to death, conspires to take his place in prison so that the convicted might rightly go free.

It's the woman who offers her seat on the last helicopter to the deep underground shelter, as the asteroid nears its humanity-killing collision with Earth, to a desperate woman and her child who weren't originally offered spots in the survival lottery.

It's the First Officer who knows that his starship will be destroyed if he doesn't brave the lethal radiation of the engine chamber and personally mix the matter and antimatter by hand to make the final warp jump to safety possible.

It's the woman superhero who has realized that her powers are out of control and that she will soon forever lose her command over them, to the ill of all, unless she gives up her own life.

It's the musicians who, knowing that their escape from the sinking ship is impossible, decide to do what they do best as the waters near: keep playing.

It's the patriot who, with his head in the noose, states quite clearly that he wishes he could live, just so that he might do it all again.

It's the freedom fighter on his execution table, refusing to pledge fealty to the despotic King against whom he has struggled for years, just to get the execution over with.

Self-sacrifice and courage in the face of certain death are impulses cut from the same cloth, and when such a moment is captured well in a story, it's always a moment of power and high emotion. It need not even involve death, really; the final scene of Casablanca is pure self-sacrifice, all the way; Rick is choosing to go to a concentration camp so that Ilsa and Victor can go free. (He can't foresee that it doesn't quite work out that way, thanks to the ever-unknowable convictions of Captain Louis Renault.)

Having a character make a choice that brings about doom for themselves, no matter what form that doom might take, so that someone else might prosper, is about the most fool-proof way I can think of to make a character into a hero. You can have a flawed hero, as much as you want, but a true hero, deeply flawed or not, will make that choice each time.

Above I allude to Spock's self-sacrifice in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The rest of the crew reciprocates with acts of self-sacrifice in the next film, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, so that Spock might live. Their sacrifices are real and painful. Near the end of the film, when Kirk and crew have brought Spock back to Vulcan so that his katra (his living essence, just go with it) can be reintroduced to his regenerated body (again, just go with it), they are waiting to see how it went. Sarek (Spock's father) comes to Kirk, and this exchange takes place:

SAREK: Kirk, I thank you. What you have done--

KIRK: What I have done...I had to do.

SAREK: But at what cost? Your ship. Your son.

[Kirk's son, David Marcus, had been killed in the course of the film, and Kirk had to put the beloved Enterprise on self-destruct to defeat some Klingons.]

KIRK: If I hadn't tried, the cost would have been my soul.

Trek III is often derided, and yes, it has its flaws, but it also has this amazingly succinct and wonderful statement of what heroism is all about. And for a virtual meditation on the entire theme of self-sacrifice, Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry fills the bill, with so many such acts -- including a good number in the last hundred pages -- that the trilogy can, for some (myself included), be emotionally overwhelming in spots.

In the end, these kinds of scenes and characters make us ask, does it matter how one falls down? And the answer, as given in The Lion in Winter, is simply this:

Wow, one letter left!

Sunday Burst of Weird and Awesome

Oddities and Awesome abound!

:: In writing yesterday's A-to-Z post, I did a bit of looking up on stuff for the Colossal Cave game, and I found this map of the game. Great stuff (spoilers, if you're playing or have any intention of playing it).

:: Stand-up comics have to deal with hecklers. You might think that usually a quip or two gets the job done...but not always. Some comics don't go for the surgical strike of a quick, devastating quip. Instead, they go for incendiary explosives, followed by salting the earth above their hecklers' dried remains so that nothing ever grows there again. (Foul language in every one of these...but if you watch any, be sure to watch Patton Oswalt's, whose takedown of his heckler achieves a kind of poetry.)

:: I've been reading Carl Sagan of late, so in that spirit, here's some wonderful astronomy. Lots more where that came from, if you're not checking it out regularly!

More next week!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Some recent comics reading

Catching up on some notes about some stuff I've read over the last few months, in this case, comics....

:: I recently read in its entirety the comic book series Air, by G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker. It's a very strange story, much in the vein of things like LOST, with weird mysteries compounding more mysteries and lots of strange goings-on, surprising revelations, plots that start small but end up huge, characters whose loyalties and status as heroes or villains isn't immediately obvious. For the most part, Air is well done and intriguing, although it does suffer from the fact that it quite obviously ends too soon. The story slowly unfolds, and then it suddenly becomes clear that the book had been canceled by Vertigo Comics, so instead of building over time, the book quickly starts to wrap up and then it ends.

Our heroine is a flight attendant named Blythe, who has taken this particular job despite severe phobia of heights (to the point where she has to pop pills to deal with it all). She finds herself in the midst of a highjacking in which her plane is directed toward a country that doesn't exist, and then she is living out her worst fear: tumbling through the sky without a parachute. Except she is rescued by a tall, handsome stranger named Zeyn. We learn of a shadowy government (or not) group that has goals all its own, and then, before long, the story plunges us into lost countries that appear on no maps, ancient Aztec artifacts, a new kind of engine that will revolutionize aviation, visions of a bird-snake named Quetzalcoatl, and a lot of ruminations on the nature of terrorism.

Air is an intriguing read that held my interest most of the way, even though, as I noted before, I could sense that the air (no pun intended) was let out of it toward the end. The comic's art is good when dealing with people, but in the flight scenes the series could have used an artist more able to suggest a feeling of 'soaring' and the wonder that exists in the sky. Still, Air was, for the most part, an enjoyable read – and a reasonably generous one, at 28 issues collected into four trade paperbacks.

:: The movie The Rocketeer is an entertaining little adventure flick that I enjoyed back when it came out in the early 1990s. However, I did not realize that it was based on a comic book, by a man named Dave Stevens. An omnibus edition collects the complete adventures of the Rocketeer, which were apparently serialized in several publications before at last appearing in a one-shot issue that resolved a cliffhanger. Unfortunately, that's all that exists of The Rocketeer; Stevens died of leukemia not long after finishing The Rocketeer. I was pleased to note the degree to which the film honored the retro homage tone of the comic. There's a lot to be fond of here.

:: I have mixed feeling about Craig Thompson's latest work, Habibi. I honestly don't know what to make of it. This long, sprawling tale follows two youths in a fictional Arabic land, a young woman and a boy, whose grim turns in life bring them together. They run away into the desert and make a home, of sorts, in an abandoned boat, where the woman cares for the boy, who slowly grows up and starts to notice things about the woman he lives with.

I really don't want to say more than that about the story, which is very long and meandering and full of developments that put the characters into positions of nearly abject horror. I found large parts of the book distasteful, with a relentless focus on sexual behavior that borders on depravity and the limits to which our two heroes must endure horrible things in order to survive and find their way back to one another. It's to Thompson's credit that when they finally do find each other again, there are no easy, happy endings; instead, the events leading to that point continue to haunt them in ways that they will probably never completely surmount.

Still, there's just no getting around the fact that I found long stretches of Habibi downright unpleasant, and there are parts that are nearly impossible to fathom, such as the mad man who clings to a sunny disposition on life, which would be fine were he not convinced that the objects he pulls out of a sewage-choked river are treasures.

Habibi also confounds expectations in other ways. There are times when the nature of what's going on in the story seem to convincingly place the story in some passed time, decades or centuries ago, but then we discover that the Arabic palace that is full of concubine-slaves and the beggar-society of eunuchs are both located in a city that is also the home of modern skyscrapers. I'm not sure what statement Thompson is trying to make about the Arab world here, but the juxtaposition of a society stuck in medieval times in its sexual mores while building for the current century is unsettling.

Thompson's art is, as ever, absolutely stunning. There are pages upon pages in Habibi that beg to be reproduced and framed. Thompson's major recurring theme is the nature of the Arabic written language, and many of the book's finest pages clearly draw artistic inspiration from the traditional illumination of Arabic manuscripts.

I'm just not sure what I think of Habibi as a whole. I can't say that I liked it, but it's certain to stick in my mind for a good while.


Wow, we're almost done with this whole thing. Pretty cool! It's been fun thus far, and I look forward to next year's edition. I've only missed one prescribed day thus far, which was yesterday, but as the Challenge does not include Saturdays, I can catch up right here and then finish up with Y and Z tomorrow and Monday. As for X, let's talk about magic words, of which XYZZY is one!

XYZZY? What's that, you may ask? Well, many moons ago, fantasy adventure games on computers had no graphics, so everything was done via text. (Insert voice of Peter Falk as the Grandpa in The Princess Bride here: "When I was your age, TV was called 'books'.") The computer would give you a textural description of where you were, what you could see, hear, and smell, what you could pick up, what directions you could go, and so on. And then you would tell the computer what you wanted to do. These were called "text adventures" back then, although as time went on they would come to be known as "interactive fiction". There were quite a few of these games around in the 1980s, and to this day, there's a small but active subculture still producing these with vigor. I haven't played one in years, but I lost a lot of time as a kid doing so.

The great classic of the genre is probably Zork!, but the original, the one that started it all, was a game called Colossal Cave (or just plain Adventure on some systems). This game started you outside a little house in a forest. As you explored, you'd find an empty stream bed. You'd follow the empty stream bed, to a steel grate that was locked. After figuring out how to open the steel grate, you would enter the Cave via the grate. And thus the tale begins, in which you explore Colossal Cave to find things like canaries in cages; a magical rod; treasures like rubies and golden eggs, the goose that laid the golden eggs; a snake barring your way; a dragon barring your way someplace else; a bridge blocked by a troll who demanded payment for passage; and if you weren't careful, a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. The object of the game was to recover treasures from the Cave and bring them back to the little house. However, there were puzzles galore here: Some treasures couldn't be easily transported. Others had puzzles of their own, like how to get to them. And that had to pay him a treasure in order to pass the bridge, but if you do that, he keeps the treasure...and you can't win the game unless you return all the treasures to the little house. What do you do? Hmmmm!!! (To this day, I remember the feeling of triumph that came over me when I solved that particular puzzle. That, and the one about getting past the Dragon.)

But anyway, getting back to the original topic here, there are special locations within the cave, from which you can teleport yourself back to the little house, through use of a magic word, and one of these magic words was XYZZY. This served as a way to escape danger quickly (the few villains wandering the cave can't follow you to the little house), and as a shortcut so you didn't always have to type out all the directions back to the little house from the cave entrance; just get back to one of the magic-word enabled locations, say the word for that location, and poof!, you're there. Drop the treasure in the house and then go back and keep exploring.

Colossal Cave was, to a certain degree, a grab-bag of tropes from classic fantasies, adventure stories, and fairy tales. There were allusions to The Lord of the Rings, as well as things like Jack and the Beanstalk. Magic words fit right into this, as magic words abound in fantasy. They are a very old staple of the genre, all the way back to the Arabian Nights (which I really need to blog about, having read a selection of its stories recently), and the "Open Sesame!" of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves". The idea of magic words is very, very old, and in fact, it has in some ways become so much a part of the greater notion of magic that a lot of times, magic words aren't described as such at all. They become, in the parlance of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the 'verbal component' of a spell: the mystical-sounding mumbo-jumbo that a wizard must utter in order to get off a fireball or magic missile.

These kinds of magic words are an extremely important component of the magic system of the Harry Potter books. Over the course of the stories we come to know a good deal of the spells that the wizards in that world use, mainly by way of the words used to cast them. We learn that proper pronunciation is very important ("It's Levi-O-sa, not Lev-i-o-SA!"), and through these words, we're able to tell what the various wizards are up to, merely by the words they use. One of the key flaws, I think, in the last of the Potter films is that the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort is dialogue free, including their final spells against one another; in the books, Harry explains to Voldemort precisely why he's about to lose the battle, and Voldemort tries anyway, while in the movie, Harry doesn't explain what's happened until afterwards. And there's a real sense of fittingness in the book, when Harry is able to ultimately defeat Voldemort with Expeliarmus, which he learned way back in the second book.

The Lord of the Rings has its share of magic words and incantations. The most notable is probably when the Fellowship is trying to enter Moria via the secret door, and Gandalf tries every magic word he can think of to get the doors open. But it turns out that the Dwarves enchanted the door to open with only one word, and they inscribed the word itself right on the door, but in such a way as to make you not realize that was the word at all. The magic-words thing is more inconsistently handled in the movies; Gandalf and Saruman's battle in Orthanc is incantation-free, but they both shout incantations into the sky while the Fellowship is trying to climb over Caradhras. And when Arwen crosses the river with Frodo and the Nazgul are threatening to follow, Arwen begins uttering words in Elvish, and you know that, well, "shit's about to go down". But when Gandalf returns as Gandalf the White, he uses magic without any incantation whatsoever. I don't know that JRRT ever had in mind any kind of rigid 'magic system', complete with rules for magic use, that all the "How to Write Fantasy Books" articles and books say that you need to have.

In Star Wars, however, there is no hint of magic words, no incantations needed to invoke the Force, at all. For a story that is as steeped in the tropes and traditions of mythology as Star Wars is, this fascinates me. The Force has no 'verbal component' at all, so far as I can see.

So, what magic words have I forgotten or omitted for reasons of space, and what favorite magic words of yours are there?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A to Z: Women

I've been thinking a lot lately about Women. No, not like that. Well, OK, maybe a little like that. Sometimes. But not always. And only about the one I married--look, can we get on the topic at hand here? OK? OK.

But seriously...I've been thinking about women as characters in fiction. This has been brought on by a number of things, such as some online discussions I've read, but a bigger factor has been reading George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, and by far the biggest factor was writing Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title), in which each of my three main characters is a female of differing age: one is a full-grown woman, one is a teenager, and one is an eight-year-old girl.

Why did I choose three females? In the case of the two young ladies, I wanted a pair of leads, but I didn't want to do the brother-sister thing, because that's been done a lot. The older woman came along later; she was actually a character who was intended to play a small role, near the beginning of the book, mainly to facilitate some exposition, but as often seems to happen with characters of mine, this one decided to stick around. For, like, the whole book. But hey, that's OK. She's pretty cool.

I liked the dynamic of these three characters, but it was at times a struggle for me to write them in a way that I felt somewhat convincing as women, and I think that's because I'm a man. I didn't want to write three men in the bodies of women. Did I succeed? Well, I don't know yet. I hope so, though.

(And no, I didn't take Melvin Udall's advice on writing women.)

What I really, really, really wanted to avoid was writing women as passive creatures, people to whom things happen, and people on whose behalf others act. I didn't want a bunch of rescue sequences, featuring strong male characters coming to the rescue of a damsel or two in distress. Nor did I want super-powered heroines who were super-active. I just wanted real people. (Who are Princesses. In space. Reality's a tough nut to crack, sometimes.)

I've mentioned, in my posts on George RR Martin's books, that I'm troubled by the depiction of the female characters in his universe. Some are active, some are passive...but all struggle mightily against a world dominated by men, a world in which men will tell spirited women, "What you need is a good raping." I recently read this article that takes Martin strongly to task for his depiction of women:

WHERE WILL YOU END UP IN MYSTICAL DRAGON LAND? If you are an unmarried woman, it is 100% certain that you will be raped or experience attempted rape (4/6: Arya, Sansa, Daenerys, Brienne). If you are married or engaged, there is a 75% chance that your husband or fiancee will beat or sexually assault you (3/4: Sansa, Cersei, Daenerys). If you are an adult woman who exercises authority, you will be killed (Catelyn) or imprisoned (Cersei), because your attempts to exercise said power will backfire (Catelyn, Cersei). If you are a child who exercises authority, you will not be killed or imprisoned, and will be seen as competent (Daenerys). It helps if your subjects are cultural Others, in which case your superiority is assumed (Daenerys). As with all female children, however, you will be sexually assaulted (Arya, Sansa, Daenerys). If you have a traditionally male role, with traditionally male skills, you will merely be threatened with rape (Brienne, Arya); if you are traditionally feminine, or occupy a traditionally feminine role, attempts to sexually assault or beat you will be successful (Sansa, Cersei, Daenerys). If you are the rare character who is an adult, occupies a position of authority, exercises power, and has not been sexually assaulted or beaten by her partner (Catelyn), don’t worry: You’re not getting out of this story alive.

VERDICT: George R.R. Martin is creepy.

Ouch. And while I'm enjoying the series, I honestly can't argue with a whole lot of this. Now, my problem continues to be the fuzzy line between depiction and approval; I'm not comfortable drawing conclusions as to George RR Martin's level of sexism based on these books. But I do find a great deal of the treatment of women uncomfortable or downright distasteful. It could well be that he intends this because he's depicting a world that's hell for women, but is he planning to develop this world into one that is better for women by the end? Or is this just the way it's going to be? Time will tell.

In my own writing, I'm unlikely to go the Martin route because I'm just not terribly interested in sex as a matter of literary exploration. In this my work is more likely to be like JK Rowling's than GRRM's. I hope to write a number of books featuring the adventures of these characters, so I imagine that sex will have to come along at some point. But I'll probably handle it subtly and offscreen, or so I hope.

A week or two ago I saw this photo on Tumblr:

A pretty large debate fired up over it. I personally found the picture deeply distasteful, and not just because it plays cut-and-paste with one of the most iconic photographs in history. I disliked it because I don't like what this suggests about Superman, and I don't like what it suggests about Wonder Woman. It suggests to me that Wonder Woman is just waiting for a man to come along and sweep her away, and it further seems to imply that the only man suitable for Wonder Woman is Superman, which seems odd because everyone knows that Superman's ideal woman is Lois Lane, a normal human. I find this picture incredibly creepy because it displays Wonder Woman as submissive.

I'm not terribly interested in submissive women, or passive women, as fictional characters. (And probably not as people, either.) I want to write women who are agents of their own action, women who may need others sometimes but who can gets things done on their own. An occasional rescue is OK, but so is an occasional rescuing of someone else. And I want my female characters to think. None of this should sound odd, because that's what I want of pretty much any character, male or female.

I really hope this post made sense.

Something for Thursday

Sometimes a song is its own best comment. Here are the Chieftains and Rita McNeil, in a hauntingly beautiful rendition of "Come By the Hills".

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A to Z: Villains

A good adventure tale needs a lot of things: a hero or two or three or four, a problem for them to solve, long odds, improbably escapes from certain doom, high stakes if they fail...and a Villain. It's often said that a tale of adventure succeeds as much on the strength of its villains as it does on the strength of its heroes. A great villain is fun to watch, and on some small level, we might even find ourselves rooting for him or her...maybe not for ultimate victory, but at least for keeping things tough and interesting for our hero.

The best villains are, obviously, people. Except for the ones that aren't. How's that for hedging your bets! But it's really true. When I think of adventure movies or books that I love the most, those are the ones that often boast the best villains. And in adventure tales that fall short for me, it's equally often because the villains just aren't interesting, or fun, or they are so evil and despicable that it becomes depressing just to watch them in action.

A good example of the last kind are the Gary Oldman character in the Harrison Ford-as-President flick Air Force One. At first he's OK, but as the film goes on, Oldman doesn't play him as a person who is having the least amount of fun – a villain should seem to enjoy him or herself a little – and then there's an awful scene where he threatens to kill a defenseless woman if the President doesn't surrender. The President doesn't surrender, so he kills the woman after counting down from ten with his gun pressed to her temple. The scene cast a huge pall over the rest of the movie. There was no particular thrill when President Indiana Jones defeated Oldman in the end; it was just, "OK, that monster's gone now."

Another such example is the Jeremy Brett character in The Patriot, the Mel Gibson Revolutionary War epic. Brett plays this guy as a lunatic who is perfectly happy to kill anyone he wants, and this culminates in a staggering scene of awfulness when he has his men round up an entire town's people into a church...and then bars the doors and sets the church on fire. Ye Gods. (It doesn't help that the Nazis would do just that, 180 years later.) Again, it's so over-the-top and awful that for me, Brett's final defeat in the movie had little feel of actual triumph.

So, who are the good villains, then? Well, they're all going to kill...but they make choices about when to do it, and they only do it when they must. Kind of like heroes, right? Which is why it's best if the hero and the villain can be shown to have some of the same kind of personality. I think of that wonderful scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Belloq points out to Indy that they really aren't terribly different. "It wouldn't take much to make you like me," Belloq says. "To push you out of the light." And he's right. Belloq is a big reason why Raiders is the best Indiana Jones film.

Villains have to be motivated, and they have to act in ways that are consistent with their motivation. But villains also should, if they are to be compelling and believable, clearly see themselves as the heroes and the hero as their personal villain. The best example of this I can think of is Hans Gruber from Die Hard; he gets nearly as much screen time as John McClane, and it's not all just Hans killing hostages and saying evil-sounding things in his lair. Gruber's got a plan and he's got motivations, and the film lets us see his annoyance and irritation – as well as his intelligence – when things happen that derail the perfect execution of his plan. Alan Rickman lets us see Hans's wheels turning. Hans Gruber is one of the best villains of all time.

Of course, there are outliers to the above. HAL-9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey is a fascinating villain and deeply memorable, even though his motivations are inexplicable. We're never told (in 2001, anyway) why the ship's computer would become psychotic; it's effective because of how odd a thing it is. And then there's The Lord of the Rings, whose main villain is never directly interacted with, and whose physical embodiment is a giant flaming eyeball. Tolkien's skill is such that he still manages to create with Sauron a palpable feeling of menace, and a sense that Sauron's actions are driving everything that happens in our story.

And then there are the villains in comics. Each major superhero seems to have one or two iconic villains that they tend to be the ones to square off against: Spiderman has the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus; Superman has Lex Luthor; Batman has the Riddler, and so forth. You don't see very often things like the X-Men squaring off against the Lizard, or Batman having to deal with Brainiac (but you do see it from time to time). That's always interested always felt a little bit wrong when there would be 'crossovers of villainy'. And sometimes it gets a bit hard to swallow, such as the issue of Spiderman that acknowledged that 9-11 had happened; in that issue we saw Doctor Doom shedding tears. That was just tough to believe.

Books, of course, can get even deeper with the villains. In Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana, Brandin is portrayed at first as an evil enough man to have erased an entire nation from memory, but it quickly becomes more complicated than that, and GGK allows us to see him as a man who deeply loves his wife. I have a friend who is watching the Games of Thrones teevee series, but he hasn't read the books, so when he said, "Wow, I hope they kill Jaime this season. That guy's a scum!" I had to laugh. Is Jaime a villain? He is in the first two books. In the next gets complicated.

So: villains have to be motivated, and they have to seem that they are the protagonists in their story. And they should be the tiniest little bit sympathetic. You know, kind of like this guy:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Oh yeah, "Maximum Overdrive" wasn't a book

All sixty-two (at this moment) of Stephen King's books, ranked. I've read nowhere near all of his work, and I don't plan to...King himself admits that he can be uneven. My first King book (in 1998, after an attempt to read him during high school and not finding him my cup of tea at the time) was Insomnia, which ranks toward the bottom of this list. I liked it enough to read more of him, but generally I try to stick to the things he's written that are fairly well-regarded. The Stand, Salem's Lot, and It are all astonishingly good, and of course, On Writing is utterly essential.

A to Z: Universes

Way back when, movies and teevee shows and books and whatnot used to be pretty much self-contained items. But nowadays, in a lot of cases, as specific movies and teevee shows and books and comics branch out into multiple sequels and spinoff series and all of their sequels, what becomes important isn't so much the original story. Instead, the entire setting of the story takes primacy. Thus, a Universe is born.

At what point does a fictional setting become a universe? Star Wars takes place a long time ago 'in a galaxy far, far away', but at what point did it become possible to talk about the Star Wars Universe? My guess is that it was when other stories started to be told there, other than the original three movies. The emergence of the Star Wars universe seems to me to have arisen in the mid-1990s, when, on the heels of Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, a whole bunch of new books started coming out...and then comics...and then games...and all this before the Prequels started even shooting. Star Wars had become a Universe.

The same thing happened to Star Trek, when it went from being the adventures of a specific crew of a specific ship to also including the adventures of another crew, 80 years later, and then the adventures of the crew of a space station, and then the adventures get the point.

And then there are the big comics publishers, Marvel and DC, both of whom have their own universes. All their respective superhero books take place in the same world, so that there can be crossover appearances that take characters from one book into another. It's not enough to have Spiderman having his own adventures; no, every so often he has to have a run-in with, say, Daredevil or the Hulk or whomever. Most times this is just fun name-dropping, but it's also a subtle way for the comics companies to cross-market their other books, the ones you might not be reading.

Famously, the DC Universe became extremely cluttered and complicated over the decades, until the point where the Powers-That-Were decided to do a big storyline in which the entire universe would basically be re-booted. Apparently this didn't take, as there have been several reboots since the original Crisis on Infinite Earths. Meanwhile, Marvel's Universe, while not so complex, was still plenty crowded -- which allowed Marvel to make money a few times by putting out a Complete Guide to the Marvel Universe, or something like that, which was basically an encyclopedia of just about everybody. And Marvel, too, had its Giant Enormous Crossovers, which they called Secret Wars.

In Firefly, the characters actually refer to their Universe, by calling it "the 'Verse". Oddly, nearing ten years after the show's brief run, the Firefly universe is among the most beloved and yet least explored; all we have are fourteen teevee episodes, a movie, and three graphic novels. That's it.

So, what's the difference between a Universe and a 'World'? For instance, nobody talks about the Lord of the Rings Universe. They refer to its world, or even to the world by its name, Middle-Earth. A Universe seems to me a primarily science-fictional concept, and needs more than one planet to be properly a Universe. But why a Universe, and not a Galaxy? Well...who knows? I personally like the word "Galaxy" better, but what if you start mucking around with black holes and stuff in other Galaxies? What if you start to dink around with multiverses? Aieee! It makes the head explode!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sentential Links


These links are culled from the list of blogs participating in the A-to-Z Challenge. I haven't done enough surfing of the other participants, so herein I shall try to partly atone for that.

:: In the end, I ended up with some prince-ling guy in a toga being lazy, speaking of which, I couldn't be bothered to draw whatever it was he was sitting on. But then again, I'm doing these really quickly. (Cool -- he chose the same 'R' word that I did!)

:: These days, a night out at the movie theater seems to be a luxury for teenagers with excess cash, single people who are employed, unemployed people who have nothing else to do and childless couples. If a family of four went to see the Hunger Games in IMAX at the same theater I went to, that’s a total of $72 in movie tickets -- before they even think about getting something to snack on or drink. Looking at entertainment options from a parents’ or family's’ perspective -- especially those who are on a budget, movie theaters don’t seem to be very family-friendly. (Isn't that the truth. I get to a movie in a theater maybe two or three times a year these days. My last one was to take The Daughter to The Secret World of Arietty.)

:: Questionable intentions were brought by he,
Quartet gently playing in the corner.
Qualifying his earnest pedigree,
Quick to satisfy his plea for her honor.

:: A shibboleth sounds like it could be an Outer God from the Cthulhu mythos ("IƤ! Shibboleth! The Black Goat with a Thousand Young!") or a mystical stone in an Indiana Jones movie ("Behold! The Shibboleth of Akran!") or maybe, I don't know, a fizzy, boiled sweet ("A bag of lemon shibboleths please, mister!")

:: Satie wrote music to dream by.

:: Everybody has some manuscripts languishing in a comatose state, don't they? I'm talking about full drafts, or at least mostly-done, that suddenly manifested some deep flaw that drained out the spark of life. So you wrapped it up for long-term storage in your mental non-intensive care unit and figured you'd get back to it at some point.

:: The name 'Nyota Uhura' once translated means 'Star of Freedom' in Swahili. One of Star Trek's greatest mysteries is why Uhuras christian name was never even uttered in the classic series or movies until recently in Star Trek 2009. (A Star Trek blog! How cool is that!)

More next week!

A to Z: Trains

There's some part of me that thinks that no matter how far in the future we get, no matter how awesome the spaceships or starships we build, there's a degree to which human transportation will never exceed railroads for romance, intrigue, and a just plain civilized feel. Trains rule...and judging by fiction out there, a lot of writers and creators agree.

What is it about trains? Well, you have a confined setting, but it's a setting on wheels, and therefore, the setting moves. So you get the best of both worlds: you can lock your characters in one place and watch them interact, or you can have the train stop and have some other stuff happen. Trains increase the intrigue by virtue of the fact that once on, you can't get off until it stops. Trains lend themselves to tension in so many ways.

Trains are also a concept which can be modified to fit nearly any time frame. Trains figure in a lot of far-future stories, as far from their 'wild west' forebears as you can get...and yet, there they are, strings of metal cars, riding atop rails or suspended from cables or embedded in tubes. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Quade boards a train once he gets to Mars in Total Recall. In the Commonwealth of Peter Hamilton's space opera novels, one travels from one world to the next not via starship but via train, as it's the trains that pass through the wormholes to other worlds.

Trains can be futuristic, but they don't have to be. The most famous fictional train right now may well be the Hogwarts Express, which departs from Platform Nine and Three Quarters in London for the great school of wizardry. The Express isn't one of the major locations in the Potterverse, but it appears in each tale, its importance quietly understated.

Of course, trains figure all the time in "real world" fiction. There's the Agatha Christie novel Murder on the Orient Express (whose solution is one of the more elegant to be found in Christie), and the same train figures prominently in the James Bond book and film From Russia With Love. You can't have Westerns without trains, and one of the most riveting action films of recent years, , dealt with a runaway train.

I wouldn't want to live in a world without trains, and I deeply wish I lived in a country that took them more seriously than others.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Question for Titanic Experts

I've been wondering this for a while, and I haven't been able to find an answer in my cursory research, so I thought I'd throw the question up here. On the bow of the great ship, there's a feature that I've always wondered about. Specifically, what is it? It's the round thingie indicated by the arrow in this photo.

What is that? Anybody know? My geek brain tells me that this is the Titanic's main deflector dish, but I know that ain't right. (Or, if that is right, man, did that thing ever fail spectacularly.)

A to Z: Spaceman Spiff

Once upon a time, the occasional adventures of one of the greatest of all Interplantery Adventurers Extraordinaire appeared in daily newspapers across the world. You couldn't be certain of when he would appear, but sooner or later, there he'd be, and we'd thrill to his exploits, as envisioned by a young schoolboy with, shall we say, a fascinating combination of powerful imagination and a very short attention span. Yes, it's our hero, Spaceman Spiff!

Spaceman Spiff is, as most cultured persons know, one of the imaginary alter-egos of young Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes. Spiff tended to turn up in moments when Calvin's attention span was wandering wildly from something he probably should have been attending to more (such as school lessons), but not always.

Bill Watterson (creator of C&H) always seemed to me to have a really good grip on the fact that for children, the boundary between reality and imagination is nowhere near as strong as adults tend to prefer. Kids seem to have this ability to switch back and forth between their imaginations and their realities almost seamlessly, which can be confounding for adults who have lost this ability (or worse, the ability and the memory of how wonderful that ability made the world). This very ability seems to me a key component in the lives of creative individuals, and amongst the oft-cited characteristics of young Calvin, it's his astonishing creativity that seems to go unnoticed much of the time.

I always thought that Watterson in C&H was able to stay right at the line of pointing out that imagination is a good thing, while also pointing out that yes, our hero Calvin can take things too far. But it's fascinating to me that, in the last of the "Rosalyn the Evil Babysitter" storylines, Rosalyn was finally able to get some control over Calvin not by battling against him, but by giving in and making Calvin's signature sport, "Calvinball", work for her. She had to endorse imagination in order to corral this kid who was running out of control.

The Spiff stories were also notable in that tales like this -- and when Calvin imagined himself to be other things, such as a dinosaur, or superhero Stupendous Man, or hard-boiled private investigator Tracer Bullet -- allowed Watterson to really go all-out with his art in a way that you really can't do when your comic strip is set in the real world. Watterson was thus able to cook up nasty-looking aliens, landscapes of other worlds, and various bits of explodey-spaceshippy-goodness. In creating a kid with an extremely potent imagination, Watterson created for himself the ideal playground for a cartoonist with an extremely potent imagination. (He would also cite that he would use such opportunities to pay tribute to the comics masters of the past, like George Herriman of Krazy Kat.)

So, let's all raise a glass to the ongoing and incomplete and always-interrupted adventures of Spaceman Spiff, and to the imagination, both real and fictional, that created him!

Here's my favorite of all the Spiff strips:

Friday, April 20, 2012

A to Z: Royalty

Kings and Queens, Dukes and Duchesses, Princes and Princesses, Lords and Ladies, Czars and Czarinas, and to an extent, Presidents and First Ladies. If there's one thing about humans, it's that we sure do love our Royalty.

Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922), "A little prince likely in time to bless a royal throne"

The concept of royalty is almost impossible to escape, even in our democratic, pseudo-egalitarian society. Royalty commands an enormous level of fascination for us all, to the point where we are endlessly fascinated by real-life royalty in countries that have it; we have royalty figures in our public life and entertainment worlds; and royalty is an extremely common theme or facet in just about all of our storytelling. Why is this?

Well, I'm sure that rivers of ink could, and probably have, been used in the explorations of the anthropology of our continual fascination with the concept of royalty and in the specifics of its practice. I'd assume part of it is some fascination with authority figures -- for the same reason that lots of stories set on ships, either sea or space, focus on the Captains -- and our hopes that those who are high above in terms of societal importance are living lives that are filled with their own problems and difficulties. I also suspect that's why writers gravitate to those types of characters, too: because you can really work in some conflict when normal human concerns have consequences that affect nations, or star systems, or even worse. (And I'm no different -- I've just finished the draft of a novel about space princesses!)

But we also like glamour and pomp and ritual and that sort of thing as well, which following royalty provides in abundance. I think that's a big part of why there was such a large American audience for last year's wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton; I think that ritual of that sort is pretty appealing on a very basic level. Even in this American democracy, we have pomp and ritual surrounding the Presidency. There's a march that's played for the entry of the President, and there's ritual involved in installing a President every four years, including a sacred oath.

Will we ever be without royalty, or some form of royal impulse? I suspect that our tendency toward royalty is something that makes us very human. I can't see a humanity that has totally divorced itself from fascination with those who drive our society, and if we do attain that, I'm not sure we won't still be human but rather something else.

In fantasy, a common meme is that of a 'rightful King'. The realm was once in a Golden Age, but something happened to the King or Queen at that point -- a tragedy, perhaps, or maybe some kind of error of personal morality -- and the Golden Age ends. The Kingdom suffers because the King has not returned to take his throne, or because the King has not atoned for his sins, and so on. In The Lord of the Rings, Gondor has remained Kingless since Isildur fell, and as a result, the realm has become weaker and weaker, until Aragorn can, as rightful King, set things right. In The Lion King, all is well in the Pridelands until Scar kills his brother the King and usurps his throne; only Simba's return can again put things right. And when King Arthur commits the act (under sorcerous duress, but he does it all the same) of bedding his half-sister and then killing the children to prevent the fruit of that union from coming back to haunt him, the realm suffers to such a degree that Arthur decides that only the Holy Grail can put things aright, so he sends the Knights of the Round Table to find it.

Thus it often is that the land itself is seen as tied to its Royalty. This conceit is a very, very old trope in storytelling, and it shows the ongoing potency of the very concept of Royalty.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A to Z: Q

The obvious choice here is to talk about Q, but I couldn't decide which one. This Q?

Or this one?

Luckily, this is my personal blog, where the only rules that apply are the ones that I choose for myself, and which I can summarily set aside any time I want, so...let's talk about both Q's!

Our first Q is less well-known as Major Geoffrey Boothroyd. (The only time we ever hear his name in the James Bond movies is in The Spy Who Loved Me, when he holds a door open for Agent Anya Amasova, and she thanks him by name.) Q's first appearance was in From Russia With Love, when M informs Bond during his briefing that "Q branch has been working on something special for you." In walks our man, looking pretty young and spry back then, played by actor Desmond Llewellyn. He's got with him a briefcase that has trick catches that, if not opened properly, causes an explosive to go off; contains a rifle that's nicely broken down into a bunch of small pieces (this was 1962, well before X-ray machines at airports!); and fifty gold sovereigns. There had been a character in Dr. No simply referred to as "the armorer", who relieved Bond of his Baretta pistol (derisively calling it a fine gun "for a lady's handbag") and giving him his trademark Walther PPK, but the guy we would know as Q didn't come until the second movie.

But it was in the third Bond film, Goldfinger, that Q would become iconic. That's when he unveils his tricked-out Austin Martin DB-V, with machine guns in the headlights, spinning license plates, homing device trackers, and the ejector seat. It's too bad that the car doesn't end up amounting to much...but Q's attitude toward James Bond becomes clear when Bond says "You're joking!" in reference to the ejector seat, and Q replies, "I never joke about my work, 007."

Q was a fixture for most of the remaining Bond films. He wouldn't appear in Live and Let Die, but he'd be present for all the remaining films until Die Another Day; Q was revealed to be retiring in The World is Not Enough; he even introduced his successor, who was played by John Cleese, in an inspired bit of casting. There was a giant pall cast over the whole thing, though, when Desmond Llewellyn died in a car crash not long after TWINE came out.

The Daniel Craig films have not availed themselves of a Q character yet, which I hope is forthcoming, even if I also hope that the gadgets don't get too outlandish (the invisible car in Die Another Day was too hard to believe). Maybe in Skyfall; I don't know yet.

My favorite Q gadgets? I loved the exploding key ring in The Living Daylights, the wrist-activated blowgun of Moonraker, and the fountain pen filled with acid in Octopussy. And my favorite Q moment came in Licence to Kill. In that film, Q actually goes out into the field to assist 007, who has gone rogue. Now, all through Bond's career, Q has constantly complained that Bond never returns his gadgets in their original working condition. Late in the movie, though, Q is posing as a peasant sweeping a sidewalk when the bad guy drives by. Q alerts Bond via the little radio he has attached to the broomstick...and then, with his job done, he casually tosses the broom aside.

But...what about the other Q?

This Q showed up immediately on Star Trek: The Next Generation, right in the very first scene of the pilot, and he was originally depicted as a representative of a nearly omnipotent species that is deeply ambivalent toward humanity. Played with zeal every time he showed up with John de Lancie, Q put all of humanity on trial through the persons of Picard and the rest of the bridge crew. I think the character of Q went through evolution, though, as all characters do. Originally, Q was seen more as a trickster character, but then he became more of a gadfly through whom the Enterprise crew learned their deeper lessons about the universe and about life. Most of Q's episodes were highly memorable: it was Q who made the Borg aware of the Federation; it was Q who greeted Picard in the afterlife and somehow arranged for him to experience an astonishing life lesson.

I never liked Q as much when he started turning up on DS9 or Voyager, when the producers started to explore the entire 'Q Continuum' and the politics thereof, which had the unfortunate effect of turning Q into, well, another in a long series of alien races with their own concerns and whatnot. When he was by himself (for the most part), Q something unique unto himself.

Something for Thursday

Space Shuttle Discovery DC Fly-Over

They were chunky, clunky ships. They looked cool at first, since they looked like something that should fly, instead of the capsules and LEMs that had looked like distended tin cans or crumpled bits of tin foil. They looked, at first, like what you might think of when you thought "spaceship".

But over time, they looked clunkier and clunkier. Their fragility became scarier and scarier, and two of them carried their crews to their deaths. An inevitability, that -- we do not collectively flaunt danger without danger eventually exacting a price -- but still, two of them ended their final flights in flame. They became something of a joke over time, a literal holdover of 1970s technology into the 1980s, then the 1990s, then the 2000s. Newer ships were promised; pretty pictures of potential newer ships were trotted out every so often. Presidents would show up, pay lip service to our destiny up there, and then go home. And yet, these clunky spaceships kept flying, until someone finally decided that they would fly no more.

And yet, there are no new ships. There will be again, someday...but not for a while. One day, someone will decide to take a slightly smaller step, but a much more giant leap. But for now, we look up and think, "We've gone far enough." Really...what kind of human thought is that?

These ships are done, and none take their place. This saddens me greatly. I was no great lover of these ships, which were utilitarian and got the job done for longer than they should have. But they did a job, and now their voyages are done. I just wish it didn't feel like the voyages were ending.

Godspeed, Columbia and Challenger; Godspeed, Enterprise (the one that never flew), Discovery, Endeavor, and Atlantis. Here is a selection of Bill Conti's music from The Right Stuff.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

From the Books: Lester Bangs on Dick Clark

Awww, dammit, Dick Clark is dead.

I'm not old enough for Dick Clark to be a rock-n-roll icon for me; he was a game show host first, and such is how I'll default to remembering him. "Audience please, may we have absolute quiet. All right. For one hundred thousand dollars, here is your first subject. GO!"

I don't have a lot to say about Dick Clark. The guy was an omnipresent fixture, and even in the much-derided appearances of his on New Year's Rockin' Eve the last few years, even as he struggled to form words, I could really see the spark in his eye, the one that said, "Yeah, I'm on teevee and how cool is that!"

But here is an excerpt from an interview that Lester Bangs did with Dick Clark for Creem, back in 1973. After some intro, Bangs notes that Clark's thoughts spring from his head fully-made. (Keep in mind, folks, this interview took place 39 years ago, and is a product of its time.)

How wired would you have to get, for instance, to compete with this natural life stylin' poppa's rap: "There was a lady the other day that gave a fascinating speech in acceptance of an honorary degree she got at some college somewhere. Dolly Cole, she's the wife of the chairman of the board of General Motors, so you know obviously where her politics lie and where her thinking goes, but she came up with a great line, she's a self-educated lady and very charming, I did five television shows with her once, I got to know her reasonably well – she said to the graduating class, she apologized for her truck-driver language in front, she said, 'All of you here attending this school who are complaining of the materialistic world can be assured that there are a couple of parents home working their ass off to keep you here.' Which is an interesting thought. The other great line I read, and this is fabulous, is that in this generation of young people who all wanta be individualistic, the line is, 'Look, I wanna be different just like everybody else!,' we are really coming into a carbon-copy generation. It's really unique. As a student of young people, I've never seen such a one-dimensional group of people in all my life – in thinking, in dress, even in music habits."

I mean, did you ever! What I wouldn't give to talk, hell, write like that – what incredible organization, what lucidity. But I suspected the facile flash of the superficial, generalized savant, so I lammed into him: Just why are you so interested in young people, Dick?

"Sheer unadulterated greed. That's a facetious answer; it's mostly true. It's been a very good livelihood secondarily, and I would appreciate it if you wouldn't excerpt it and just publish that part. I enjoy it. If I didn't, there's no amount of money in the world could make me do what I do. And let's face it, it's a hell of an interesting way to make a living. You never know from day to day what young people are gonna do next."

That reminds me, Dick. Whadda you think of fag-rock?

He gets a worried look. "Do you think this is going to be widespread?"

Sure! David Bowie, Lou Reed, all those guys at the top of the charts, the queers are taking over the country!

He chews on that one a minute, and comes back typically unruffled, reflective: "Anything that's new takes a while before it gets disseminated across the country. You get the JC Penney versions of fashions of what the style leaders are wearing. There's an interesting premise in all of this, in the youth world, you take the lunatic fringe, the avant-garde, the style leaders, the nuts. And if you are careful enough to determine what they come up with that's a legitimate trend, then you'll be able to figure out eventually what the people in the middle, I don't mean necessarily geographically but in the case of our country it is pretty much the middle, will be doing in the next number of months.

"Bisexual...what's the other word, AC/DC? I think its partially fad and partially goldfish swallowing, as protest was. A lot of kids got into protest because it was 'the thing'. It was not popular to criticize legitimate protest at the time, but I used to make the joke about the kid who had the sign in the bedroom closet that said 'SHAME', and would at any given moment take the sign and go out and march. The sign was apropos to anything. That may be what's happening with the fag-drag crazy transsexual rock scene. I think that's a quickie. I think more importantly that's an indication of the desire to have show business return to music. That's why you have an Elton John, a Liberace, an Alice Cooper. That's show biz. We all know Alice is a put-on, a shuck. But what's funny is when you read the sociological commentators and how torn up the whole straight world is over this craziness. I can't attach any significance to that."

Does he then see the hope of rock's future in relatively wholesome groups like Slade, or the bubblegum androgyny of Marc Bolan? Nope. "I don't think Slade will make it in the States for the same reason T. Rex didn't make it. He thought he was Mick Jagger. He was Donny Osmond. Print it. The schmuck. I went over there at the time that there was a necessity to fill our subteen gap of idols, to try to convince [Bolan's] people that it would be a good time to move on the American market in that area. The trouble was, the poor fellow believed his own publicity, when you had Ringo Starr running around taking pictures of him with an 8-mm camera. He believed he was going to be Mick Jagger, which he is not. He's been so many things in his career I don't guess he knows who he is. And he has been so ill advised – this happens with so many artistic people – a man of obviously great talents, but no business acumen. And so therefore never the twain shall cross and he went into the sewer.

"I'm always distressed by the supposedly bright people who don't know what they are. Take the Monkees, who thought they were the Beatles. They could have had a very nice thing going in their area for another couple of years, despite the fact that it was a shuck. It was a commercially built commodity for which there was an audience from which they could have made a great deal of money and retired and passed it on to their children. Instead Mickey Dolenz thought he was Paul McCartney. He went up to Monterey and they laughed at him.

"Again statistically, look at the record books and you'll see that every ten years in the middle of the decade some sort of freak superstar arises. You can take it back to Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby, through Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, then you had Bill Haley and Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, so now you're upon it again. Sometime in the next two years there'll be an individual who will be a white, male, single performing artist. Probably American."

Changing the subject to his show, I wondered if he consciously strived to put forth a certain image of American youth in the kids that appeared on "American Bandstand".

"Well, I dunno. They're kind of middle-of-the-road kids, I guess. It wouldn't be a typical concert audience because they're dressed differently. The only dress requirements we have are that the girls can't wear pants suits. It's only because of the visual thing, because it's a hell of a lot more interesting to watch a girl in a skirt. And with long hair in closeups it's very difficult to distinguish male from female, so you use that attractive element. That's only a matter of practicality," he adds. "it's not a prejudice on my part. I'm not a big leg man or anything."

For some reason, Dick, hippies and counterculturites seem to think you're stodgy. I asked him if he had a clue and he came back with both barrels. "That was very predominant about three or four years ago, but it's become passe now. It was a good institution to play games off of. Than it suddenly dawned on a lot of them that I'd been around for twenty years and was carrying the ball for them and that's the reason they were in business. I'm very cynical toward the underground press, of which you are one. I'll be here longer than you will, is my attitude. I will be very happy to have you make fun of me or do whatever you want, I really don't care.

"They have found now that there must be some semblance of order to stay alive. That's why FM underground freeform radio died. Because you can't turn seven freaky guys loose on the air to do whatever they wanta do whenever they wanta do it, play the same cut seventeen times or play some obtuse album, 'cause who cares?

"A lot of the whole world that kids don't understand is politics and money. When you learn politics, money, the advertising world, where the skeletons are buried, you have then matured enough to stay alive. It's part of the game. And a lot of kids don't learn until they're out wandering around saying, 'Hey, I wonder why the place I was working at went out of business.' They told too many people to shove it. That's what happened to the Smothers Brothers. What a wonderful tool they had, except they painted one of the three major networks into a corner and said, 'There's no way for you to get out and we'll win.' They're winning minor dollars, but it won't amount to much by the time they pay the lawyers. So one must learn to screw the system from within."

Okay, Dick, but just for the record, what did you do when you were a kid? "I was a student of the black arts. I was a hypnotist at thirteen. I lived all the way through that, my whole life I had bookshelves full of this stuff. And then when it got very big in the late sixties I said I better get out of this, I can't stand listening to all of this again. I was a big hit at all the parties, reading palms, putting people out...."

So now how do you see yourself, the adult Dick Clark? As a moral leader for youth?

"I'm just the storekeeper. The shelves are empty, I put the stock on. Make no comment pro or con. Irving Berlin said, 'Popular music is popular because a lot of people like it.' That doesn't mean it's good or bad – that's the equivalent of arguing the merits of hot dogs versus hamburgers. What the hell difference does it make?"

(From the collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, by Lester Bangs.)

A to Z: Planets

The Water Planet

Arrakis! Vulcan! Tatooine! Alderaan! Barsoom! Akir! Zeist! Veridian III! Hoth! Mustafar! Coruscant! Trantor! Krypton!

All hail the Planet!

Planets are everything. Without planets, we've got nothing, in SF. Without planets, we've got no place for stories to happen. Planets are where it's at. Without a nifty planet, your space story isn't going anywhere.

Some planets are Earthlike in most ways. Others are inhospitable almost to the point where humans can't live there...but only just. Some planets are gas giants, leaving us to hope for livable environments on the moons; other planets are tiny, cold, airless rocks.

Planets give rise to amazing life forms. There are enormous worms that slither through the sands of the worldwide desert, catching entire towns in their gaping maws. Or there are scavenging little dwarfs, who wander around picking up bits of technology to sell at the settlements. There are planets whose inhabitants are governed by their fiercest passions, and there are planets whose cultures are rigidly devoted to logic and reason. Planets, planets, planets. Planets everywhere.

I speak here more of fictional planets, but it's always worth remembering that planets are very real in our universe, and not just in our Solar System: planets are places, and reasoning out their motions is one of the greatest achievements of all time. Here's Carl Sagan on Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe:

It's interesting to note that for a time, in Carl Sagan's early years in the spotlight, planetary astronomy wasn't much of a going concern.

(I keep forgetting to include the A-to-Z graphic on these posts. Apologies to the event organizers!)

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

Who's your favorite teevee (or otherwise fictional) doctor?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A to Z: Old People of Wisdom

Gandalf. Loren Silvercloak. Mrs. Potts. Obi Wan Kenobi. Boothby the gardener. Sarek. T'Lar. Dumbledore and McGonagall. The Oracle. Jor-El. Maester Aemon. Mrs. Landingham. And, of course, Merlin.

What do all these folks have in common? They are Old People of Wisdom.

In the Campbellian Monomyth, the Old Person of Wisdom is the mentor-figure who provides the Hero with magical aid that he or she will need, going forward, to complete the adventure. It is also often the Old Person of Wisdom who provides the Hero with their initial 'Call to Adventure'. So this figure is often the catalyst for the story.

"If you're referring to the incident with the dragon, I was barely involved. All I did was give your Uncle a little nudge out the door." --Gandalf the Grey, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (film)

Of course, those familiar with 'the incident with the dragon' know that Gandalf did a lot more than that. Yes, he showed up on Bilbo's doorstep and introduced him to a bunch of dwarves who wanted to hire him to be their burglar, but how did it come to that? How did Gandalf settle on Bilbo, and not, say, some Bolger or Bracegirdle or Proudfoot? It's often the role of the Old Person of Wisdom to see something in the hero that they don't see in themselves. Gandalf sees in Bilbo a stalwart burglar. Obi Wan Kenobi sees in Luke Skywalker a future Jedi knight. (We'll learn, of course, that he has a lot of reasons for seeing that.) Loren Silvercloak sees in five young University of Toronto students qualities that will prove essential in the final war with the darkness of Rakoth Maugrim.

One of the interesting things about the Harry Potter books is the way that multiple characters fulfill the function of the Old Person of Wisdom. Albus Dumbledore is the key of them all, but he doesn't do it all. The Call to Adventure comes from Hagrid. Supernatural aid comes not just from Dumbledore but from McGonagall, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin...a whole host of people. Of course, JK Rowling didn't blaze this trail on her own; in the James Bond movies, what are M and Q but Old People of Wisdom?

Why does this trope have so much power? It seems pretty obvious to me. Age implies experience and wisdom. We look to the mothers and fathers of our communities for wisdom. And we know that eventually they move on, into death, and that eventually the story will be ours and ours alone...until we have to serve as Old People of Wisdom ourselves.

I'm reminded of the wonderful closing speech that Sir Anthony Hopkins delivers in the movie Amistad:

The other night I was talking with my friend, Cinque. [The African man who was kidnapped into slavery and who is suing for his freedom in the film.] He was over at my place, and we were out in the greenhouse together. And he was explaining to me how when a member of the Mende -- that's his people -- how when a member of the Mende encounters a situation where there appears no hope at all, he invokes his ancestors. It's a tradition. See, the Mende believe that if one can summon the spirits of one's ancestors, then they have never left, and the wisdom and strength they fathered and inspired will come to his aid.

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams: We've long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps we have feared in doing so we might acknowledge that our individuality which we so, so revere is not entirely our own. Perhaps we've feared an appeal to you might be taken for weakness. But, we've come to understand, finally, that this is not so. We understand now, we've been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding that who we are is who we were.

We desperately need your strength and wisdom to triumph over our fears, our prejudices, our-selves. Give us the courage to do what is right. And if it means civil war, then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.

What's wonderful about this particular cinematic moment is that in the film, Hopkins's John Quincy Adams is himself an Old Person of Wisdom...and yet here he is, citing the eternal need in our species for Old People of Wisdom. (You can watch the speech here.)

It's almost impossible, I think, to avoid the trope of the Old Person of Wisdom. It's not just ingrained in our storytelling. It's ingrained in us.

A nice photo


"Who are you?" "No one." "A lie."

God, what a slog.

I was really hoping that my original impression of this novel, way back when, wouldn't hold true this time around. When I first read Feast, it had been a few years since I'd read A Storm of Swords, so a lot of the finer points of the various plotlines were not at all fresh on my mind. I chalked up my impression partly to that...but now that I've read the entire series in the last few months, I still think this book is a giant slog. Parts of it are really good. Parts of it are duller than ditchwater. Too much of it is duller than ditchwater. My view of these books as a reasonably high-quality fantasy soap opera is more and more ingrained in my head. Here's how I described that, in the afore-linked post:

When I was a kid, I actually became for a time a huge fan of General Hospital. This was back when each summer would have a long and sometimes "action-packed" tale involving spies and espionage and intrigue of such nature, usually featuring characters like Robert Scorpio and his former wife Anna, who were both also former agents of the WSB (World Security Bureau), when they'd square off against the nefarious agents of the enemy DVX. As these storylines wended their way through the summer months, lots of other characters would see their own lives intersect with the "main summer storyline". This was all usually quite a bit of fun, but there were characters I didn't really care about, and thus their bits in the storyline tended to slide beneath my radar. And not all of the show's characters would be involved in the "main summer storyline", so once a week -- usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday -- there'd be an episode of GH that served only to catch us up on the characters who had nothing to do with the fun stuff. These episodes were largely boring as hell; I was watching the show for Robert Scorpio's heroics and whatnot, and I didn't really care one whit about Steve Hardy's son's relationship problems or the various infighting of the Quartermaine clan or the trials-and-tribulations of hooker-turned-straight Bobbi Whatshername. But that was the price to pay for the good stuff.

So GRRM's massive fantasy series is getting kind of like that. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, with that character being named in BIG LETTERS at the top of each chapter, so as soon as one chapter ends, you know just by looking at the next page where you're going next in the story. This is classic soap opera structure, and in the first two books it was extremely effective, but I'm finding that now as we're into our fourth book here, it's all starting to feel the same way it felt when I'd watch GH all those years ago. "Oh, cool! An Arya chapter! Her story's interesting!...Oh, bugger, another chapter about Sansa. Snore." If ASoIaF were to be filmed, I think it should be as a soap opera, titled Westeros!. And if they change actors, a voiceover guy could intone, "The part of Jaime Lannister will be played on this episode by...."

In Feast, George RR Martin found himself in a bit of a quandary. He was writing the fourth book in this series, with all the characters present, but it quickly became – surprise, surprise – too long. So he had to cut it in two. But that presented its own structural problem.

Consider, say, The Empire Strikes Back. Suppose, for whatever reason, that George Lucas and company had decided that the movie was too long and needed to be cut in half and released as two movies. Now, what you might suppose he would do is, well, pick a point halfway through and chop it in two right there: maybe just after Han and Leia and friends take up refuge in the asteroid and Luke meets Yoda.

But Martin didn't want to do this. He felt, as he indicates in his afterword, that he found it preferable to "tell all the story for some of the characters, instead of some of the story for all of the characters". So: imagine an Empire Strikes Back that follows Luke, and Luke exclusively, all the way to the end of the existing story...and then another one, a while later, that tells what Han and Leia and Chewie and C3PO were doing while Luke was doing all that other stuff. That's what Martin does here. Does it work? Well...meh.

The problem is, as I note in my soap-opera metaphor, that telling part of the story is only partly satisfying. Of the four best characters in this series – Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Arya Stark, and Daenerys Targaryen – only Arya appears in this one. Who is left to follow, then, over the course of almost 700 pages? Well, there's Jaime Lannister, who continues to be interesting, although he suffers from blockheaditis. There's Samwell Tarly, whose stock is rapidly rising in my estimation, although his story in this book largely consists of riding a boat and mooning over a girl. Cersei Lannister becomes a viewpoint character, but she does not become sympathetic at all, as Jaime did in the previous book. Sansa Stark is around, but her story doesn't really go anywhere of great interest. Brienne of Tarth is here, but her story is really problematic.

And then there's new stuff. Martin devotes a bunch of chapters to the royal succession of the Iron Islands, the seafaring, Viking-like society off the coast of Westeros. I remember this stuff being fairly interesting before, but this time it was just there. And there was a whole storyline involving Arianne, Princess of Dorne, that was...well, I guess I should just be blunt here. I didn't care about it at all.

Of the stories presented in Feast, the only one that really works is Arya's, and it suffers from feeling a bit shoe-horned in here. Martin's apparent focus here is in depicting the events in Westeros basically south of The Neck (a narrow area of the continent between the North and the South, not quite narrow enough to be an actual isthmus), and yet, we have Arya, who is in Braavos, the city across the sea. And her story ends over a hundred pages before the book does.

I think that points up my increasing problem with this series: it's becoming so big and epic that there is almost no sense of structure at this point. Aside from just a couple of points, there's just not that much evidence to be had that we're building toward anything. (Those two points? The fact that two of the factions in this book are apparently setting their eye on the dragons they've heard about in the East.) I don't feel like I'm reading a story; I'm reading, well, a soap opera, with the feeling that I could leave off for a year or two and just start watching again and there everyone will be, give or take a character or two.

Random notes:

:: I have to admit that part of my distaste for large parts of this book have to do with the constant drumbeat of sex. Sex, sex, sex, sexity sexy sex. And none of it is, well, good sex, either. It's all lust and rape and a bizarre fascination on Martin's part with the word "nipple". There's constant probing of "the secret sweetness", comment on how wet women are "down there", and...I'm sorry, maybe I'm a bit of a prude, but this book is loaded with passages like this, and I felt my eyes rolling each and every time. Cersei dabbles with lesbianism, just out of curiosity (and decides that she's grossed out by it, after). Samwell Tarly loses his virginity. Jaime constantly mopes over the fact that his sister hasn't been faithful to him. Littlefinger seems to be coming on to Sansa, who points out numerous times that she's a real maiden, flowered and all. Cersei sets a trap for a rival, which involves having the pious priests probe the girl's privates to see if her 'maidenhead' is intact. And don't get me started on Brienne, whose every interaction with another person must apparently begin with the other person telling her how ugly she is, and more than a few people telling her "What you need is a good raping!". (I am not making that up.)

I haven't much enjoyed the sexual parts of these books, but in Feast, it all becomes downright creepy. Maybe GRRM is exploring this all as a theme – how the lives of millions are affected by the sex lives of the few in power – and I believe firmly that depiction is not the same thing as approval. But, does there really have to be this much creepy sex? Really? None of it is even steamy sex – aside from Sam's drunken lovemaking with Gilly, all the sex in this book, and most of it in the entire series, is violent sex that sounds more painful than anything else.

:: I like Brienne of Tarth a lot as a character. But her story sucks. It's just her, wandering around, asking people if they've seen Sansa Stark, being told how ugly she is, and her pining for poor dead Renly Baratheon. Her final cliffhanger? That's as purely a soap-opera moment as I can think of. You can practically see the show freeze-framing on that moment.

:: One of the rules of soap operas is that if you didn't see the body, the person ain't dead. Therefore, I do not believe that either of the Cleganes has died. (And in the case of Sandor, that would be a shame, as I was finding him a highly compelling character.) We're also told that Davos Seaworth has been murdered, but I'm going to hold that in abeyance, as well.

:: Poor Theon Greyjoy. He was a viewpoint character in Book II, and now he hasn't been seen at all in Books III or IV.

:: If you've ever watched any soap opera for any length of time, you've seen an instance of the producers introducing a new location – a new place in town, for instance – where all the characters claim to have been going for years but which we've never seen before. I kind of felt like that with Dorne. Yes, there have been a few characters from that region in the first few books, but now, suddenly, we had to spend a lot of time there, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of.

:: I'm being pretty hard on this book, but I really did find it a slog and at times a not terribly interesting read. I've read that at one point, GRRM was planning to execute a 'time slip' in between Books Three and Four, which means that he was going to skip over all the stuff that's happening in this book (and in what has become the fifth book). Obviously, I won't know until much later on – if ever, as I'm still unconvinced that this series will ever be finished – but maybe it's the case that the conclusion of this saga makes the events in this book seem more important in retrospect. For now, it bothers me that for a great deal of A Feast for Crows...I found myself not caring.

Oh well. One book to go, and then I'm caught up. At least that one will be totally new to me.