Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Friends are Awesome: Jeremy...and Jeremy

Taking a brief break from the Zelazny blogging to type up the next installment of the my friends are awesome series.

Jeremy was pestering me the other day about when he would get the My Friends are Awesome treatment. I suppose today I'll finally get off my ass and type this up.

The problem is that I know two people named Jeremy, Frederick and the Lord, and I'm not sure who to cover first. This post will be about the Jeremy who used to play in a LARP where he wore an eyepatch. Oops, I mean the one who's unfailingly generous and kind to his pets. Oops, that's both of them again. The one who is always kind to Lily and shares my interest in geeky stuff.

...

Well, shit.

Despite the similarities above, the two Jeremys could not be more different. I suppose I'll cover them in alphabetical order.

Jeremy I: Frederick

I first met Jeremy when he worked at the local mall, and I, as a youth from suburban New Jersey, merely lived there. You know, I can't remember if he was the one chasing another dude and trying to stick something up his butt or if he was the one being chased. I want to say that he was the chaser, but the memory cheats.

All of my friends are pretty great, but Frederick stands out for his courtesy and unfailing generosity. He's always willing to go out of his way for coffee and snacks, and I've never ever seen him let his friends down.

Frederick is more prepared than anyone for the inevitable zombie uprising, and I can't think of anyone whose stout heart and lethal croquet mallet I'd rather have covering my back.

Jeremy II: The Lord

We met in a typing class in the second semester of our Freshman year of high school, where he was this shrimpy little kid, though I think by then he had already earned his black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

He shot up about eight inches during high school (I'm estimating. I mean, it's not like I took out a tape measure and etched pencil marks in the door frame), and if not for the Lord, those high school years, no picnic for a teenage nerd, would have been far more unpleasant.

The Lord is very direct. I always know where I stand with him. The phrase "Occasionally wrong, but never uncertain" springs to mind.

A lot of us dick around with creative projects, but he actually does them. He had the guts to leave everything he knew and pack up to New Orleans.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Sign of the Unicorn

I read Nine Princes in the school library, and I bought some of the other books and as well as an Amber Choose Your own Adventure book called The Black Road War at a local place that has since shut down. It was a hobby store called The Imagination Workshop, set in a strip mall between a Bagelsmith and a Chinese restaurant and it always smelled wonderful.

As always, here there be spoilers, so read on at your own peril.

I recall now that I must have read them in the order of 1,3, combat command, 4,5 and then 2 later on because I was wondering if I'd be able to follow the narrative after missing the second book. One of the first things Random says in Sign is. "You didn't even have to kill Eric to get what you wanted. That was a stroke of luck." I was like, hey, thanks for the exposition, dude.

The copyright notice at the beginning of the book says that it was originally serialized in three parts in a magazine, and I suspect that Zelazny had decided from the beginning of the book that Ganelon was Oberon in disguise. His comment about the Trumps being monitored came awfully early in the book.

We've had appearances by the other children of Oberon, but this is the first time we see all of them together. I love each and every member of the Royal Family, though for different reasons. I've heard the story that Zelazny based Corwin and his brothers and sisters on folks he knew from an SCA style club, but I'm not sure to what extent this is true. I've mostly heard it online and I've never encountered in an account by the author himself, so I'm not sure I buy into it all the way. (I haven't gotten around to reading the final two volumes of the Complete Roger Zelazny, so perhaps there is something there.)

Zelazny has said that his original plan for the series was to have later books recounting the events of Nine Princes from the perspective of the other princes. That would have been really cool, but the closest we get are the evolving account of the car accident and this chapter from Random's point of view, regarding his attempted rescue of Brand. Also on display is something I mentioned in an earlier post, Zelazny cleverly retrofits the narrative through this revision and recapping from a new point of view.


I know damn well that Gerard would have chosen that moment to attack. The big bastard would have strode forward with that monster blade of his and cut the thing in half. Then it probably would have fallen on him and writhed all over him, and he'd have come away with a few bruises. Maybe a bloody nose. Benedict would not have missed the eve. He would have had one in each pocket by then and be playing football with the head while composing a footnote to Clausewitz. But they are genuine hero types. Me, I just stood there holding the blade point upward, both hands on the hilt, my elbows on my hips, my head as far back out of the way as possible. I would much rather have run and called it a day. Only I knew that if I tried it, that head would drop down and smear me.


I think I find Random the least interesting of the Princes, just because he seems to exist primarily as a foil for Corwin up until the end. He does tell an interesting story here, though.

Other siblings. Flora and Gerard aren't idiots. They are not as nuanced as their brothers and sisters, and Gerard is certainly not as brilliant as, say, Brand, but look at his speech below. I wouldn't call him smart, but he's not a moron either.

The sunrise was lovely, but the angle was wrong. By about ninety degrees . . .

Suddenly I was assailed by vertigo. It canceled out the beginning awareness of a roadmap of pains that ran along my back and reached the big city somewhere in the vicinity of my chin.

I was hanging high in the air. By turning my head slightly I could see for a very great distance, down.

I felt a set of powerful clamps affixed to my body-shoulder and thigh. When I turned to look at them, I saw that they were hands. Twisting my neck even farther, I saw that they were Gerard's hands. He was holding me at full arm's length above his head. He stood at the very edge of the trail, and I could see Gamath and the terminus of the black road far below. If he let go, part of me might join the bird droppings that smeared the cliff face and the rest would come to resemble washed-up jellyfish I had known on beaches past.

"Yes. Look down, Corwin," he said, feeling me stir, glancing up, meeting my eyes. "All that I need to do is open my hands."

"I hear you," I said softly, trying to figure a way to drag him along with me if he decided to do it.

"I am not a clever man," he said. "But I had a thought-a terrible thought. This is the only way that I know to do something about it. My thought was that you had been away from Amber for an awfully long while. I have no way of knowing whether the story about your losing your memory is entirely true. You have come back and you have taken charge of things, but you do not yet truly rule here. I was troubled by the deaths of Benedict's servants, as I am troubled now by the death of Caine. But Eric has died recently also, and Benedict is maimed. It is not so easy to blame you for this part of things, but it has occurred to me that it might be possible-if it should be that you are secretly allied with our enemies of the black road."

"I am not," I said.

"It does not matter, for what I have to say," he said. "Just hear me out. Things will go the way that they will go. If, during your long absence, you arranged this state of affairs-possibly even removing Dad and Brand as part of your design-then I see you as out to destroy all family resistance to your usurpation."

"Would I have delivered myself to Eric to be blinded and imprisoned if this were the case?"

"Hear me out!" he repeated. "You could easily have made mistakes that led to that. It does not matter now. You may be as innocent as you say or as guilty as possible. Look down, Corwin. That is all. Look down at the black road. Death is the limit of the distance you travel if that is your doing. I have shown you my strength once again, lest you have forgotten. I can kill you, Corwin. Do not even be certain that your blade will protect you, if I can get my hands on you but once. And I will, to keep my promise. My promise is only that if you are guilty I will kill you the moment I learn of it. Know also that my life is insured, Corwin, for it is linked now to your own."

"What do you mean?"

"All of the others are with us at this moment, via my Trump, watching, listening. You cannot arrange my removal now without revealing your intentions to the entire family. That way, if I die forsworn, my promise can still be kept."

"I get the point," I said. "And if someone else kills you? They remove me, also. That leaves Julian, Benedict, Random, and the girls to man the barricades. Better and better-for whoever it is. Whose idea was this, really?"

"Mine! Mine alone!" he said, and I felt his grip tighten, his arms bend and grow tense.
"You are just trying to confuse things! Like you always do!" he groaned. "Things didn't go bad till you came back! Damn it, Corwin! I think it's your fault!"

Then he hurled me into the air.

That's really an excellent scene, for a number of reasons. First, Corwin is always playing to win ("I hear you," I said softly, trying to figure a way to drag him along with me if he decided to do it.)

Also, I like Gerard's rebuttal to Corwin. For some reason, characters in fiction and RPGs tend to think that the obviousness excuse is a slam dunk, that they win the argument by saying "Oh, if I really had done what you accused me of, I never would have left evidence. It's a frame up!" I think Gerard's answer to that is spot on.

Gerard and Benedict are the only decent members of the family and Zelazny does an excellent job as positioning them as adversaries to Corwin without needing to hand anyone the idiot ball.

Deirdre is kind of a non-entity here, (and for me to make that comment of a gathering with Llewella present, is saying something) though I do like this line: She held my Trump in her left hand. She smiled. The others glanced our way as she appeared and she hit them all with that smile, like the Mona Lisa with a machine gun, turning slowly.

I like Julian. He seems fundamentally immature, having neither "passion nor compassion", but also subject to the occasional emotional outburst, such as the story Flora recounts in Nine Princes, at losing at his favorite game and throwing a glass of wine at Corwin. It reminds of William H. Macy in Fargo, when his schemes are falling apart and he throws the tantrum in his office. I could see Julian doing something like that. He doesn't have the cold control over his emotions that Benedict does. He just smothers them and they still flare up occasionally, because he hasn't really mastered them. He's just buried them.

He's smart, but what kind of socially stunted introvert says the following in front of the girl he's trying to impress:

"Pity," he replied. "I was hoping you would suggest we go looking for Dad now in the same fashion. Then, if we are lucky, we find him and someone puts him out of the way with more certainty. After that, we could all play Russian roulette with those fine new weapons you've furnished-winner take all."

"Your words are ill-considered," I said.

"Not so. I considered every one of them," he answered. "We spend so much time lying to one another that I decided it might be amusing to say what I really felt. Just to see whether anyone noticed."

"Now you see that we have. We also notice that the real you is no improvement over the old one."

I mean, fuck, dude. You've had several hundred years to learn how people talk to each other and it's not like this.  The whole thing reminds me of the scene in Taxi Driver, where Bickle takes Betsy to the porn theater on their first date, having no awareness that it's a tremendously bad idea.

Also, this discussion of Julian wouldn't be complete without discussion of the object of his affection, Fiona. Talk about cold-blooded! She stabs the newly rescued Brand, then tries to pin it on Julian, who has this unrequited crush on her.

I'll go down the list, subjective, intuitive, and biased as it is. Benedict, in my opinion, is above suspicion. If he wanted the throne, he'd have it by now, by direct, military methods. With all the time he has had, he could have managed an attack that would have succeeded, even against Dad. He is that good, and we all know it. You, on the other hand, have made a number of blunders which you would not have made had you been in full possession of your faculties. That is why I believe your story, amnesia and all. No one gets himself blinded as a piece of strategy. Gerard is well on the way to establishing his own innocence. I almost think he is up there with Brand now more for that reason than from any desire to protect Brand. At any rate, we will know for sure before long-or else have some new suspicions. Random has simply been watched too closely these past years to have had the opportunity to engineer everything that has been happening. So he is out. Of us more delicate sorts. Flora hasn't the brains, Deirdre lacks the guts, Llewella hasn't the motivations, as she is happy elsewhere but never here, and I, of course, am innocent of all but malice. That leaves Julian. Is he capable? Yes. Does he want the throne? Of course. Has he had time and opportunity? Again, yes. He is your man."

"Would he have killed Caine?" I asked.

"They were buddies."

She curled her lip.

"Julian has no friends," she said. "That icy personality of his is thawed only by thoughts of himself. Oh, in recent years he seemed closer to Caine than to anyone else. But even that . . . even that could have been a part of it. Shamming a friendship long enough to make it seem believable, so that he would not be suspect at this time. I can believe Julian capable of that because I cannot believe him capable of strong emotional attachments."

I love how every every character has such a distinctive voice. Brand in particular is a joy to hear. Contrast his manner of speech with Corwin's.

Brand: "In its place, dear brother. In its place. Sequence and order, time and stress-they are most important in this matter. Allow me to savor the drama of the event in safe retrospect. I see me punctured and all of you gathered round. Ah! what would I not give to witness that tableau! Could you possibly describe for me the expression on each face?"
Corwin: "I'm afraid their faces were my least concern at the time."
And Later, also from Brand: "...Beginnings are always difficult. Wherever I begin, something preceded it..."

Other stuff. I enjoyed the little interlude with Bill Roth on Shadow Earth, and that gave us a little more exposition. Also, how can you not love Brand going under cover as Doctor Hillary B. Rand? Clearly, it's a foolhardy decision, but if you're going to be doing these things, you might as well do them with style.

Also, when asked his age by the doctor, Corwin answers thirty-six, with the aside to the audience, "that's always safe". I'm turning 36 this year, so I have mixed feelings about that.

The chapter in Tir-na Nog'th was nice, with the bittersweet reunion with Lorraine and the sword fight with the ghost.

Overall, another solid entry in the series. I think it suffers in my estimation by being surrounded by what I consider the two best books in the series, Avalon and Oberon. (That sounds like a good name for a duet, come to think of it. Set to the tune of the Ballad of the Water Crossers.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Ballerina Book

On Friday night, I saw some friends from high school that I hadn't seen since graduation. One of them was DJing at a local place, and he invited me on Facebook, and Jen and I thought it would be a neat thing to attend. So we got dressed up and went, and we met Brian and Sue there.

There was a giraffe near the door. I bet Karen's sorry she couldn't make it. (She loves giraffes.)

Brian did a pretty awesome job keeping the party going. It was nice to talk to Sue and her husband. He seems like a really genuinely nice guy. I have to wonder how he wound up with Sue... :-)

It was too loud to talk, so we said goodbye to Brian and the four of us grabbed something to eat at the Key City diner.

It's funny. I was 18 when I graduated high school, and it's literally been half a lifetime since I last saw these folks, and it's amazing that we can just pick up where we left off after all that time.

Lily's been doing pretty well with her potty training. She's been out of diapers during the day for almost two years, but she still wore trainers during the night. She's woken up dry several nights in a row and she's very proud of herself.

She was running around the room kind of kicking and flailing. I said "You know kung fu," in my Keanu Reeves voice and she starting some circular arm movements and concluded her demonstration with a Jet Li pose. I was rather surprised by all this, and when I asked her where she learned it, she was unable to explain other than to claim that she is a kung fu panda.

She was zipping around the house a little later and she got me right in the Xiphoid Process. I went down and said "Ah, my Xiphoid Process," and Lily said "Do I have a Xiphoid Process?" and I replied, "Yes, but yours hasn't ossified yet," and the vein in Jen's forehead started throbbing.

When recounting this story in the diner to Sue and Mister Sue, Jen said that Lily is going to wind up as the kid in her locker every day of her time in high school.

In less happy news, I thought that Lily was being mean to another kid, which is something that we absolutely will not tolerate. She said that she and some of the other kids stick their tongues out at someone named C.J. I decided to get a little more information about this in case I was misunderstanding what she was saying.

"What does C.J. say when you make raspberries at her?"

"Nothing. She just walks away."

Okay, this sounded bad. No parent wants his kid to be part of the mob, "When do you do this to C.J.?"

"During her feeding time."

*blink*

"And daddy, her name's not C.J.! It's Gigi!"

This is about when the Scott Pilgrim parking meter on my face went from "No clue" to "Gets it". "Is Gigi a pet?"

"Yes, she's a guinea pig."

And that's not great, but it's not on the same order as picking on another kid, and if the worst they are doing is sticking a tongue out at a guinea pig, I guess I can live with that.

She renamed her pet lamb. She used to be named Lamby, and over the weekend, Lily decided to call her Lambian (derived from her own full first name, Lillian, I would assume) but now she's called Lamby Lyn, after Jen's name. I thought that was pretty cute.

She also told us that "I can dance like a ballerina, because I was raised by ballerinas," which makes me think of some Bizarro World version of the Jungle Book for four-year old girls.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Completely annoying

I started the two Guns of Avalon posts at home (because I wanted to include images and my work computer is set up in such a way to prevent this) and concluded them at lunch at work. For some reason, blogger thinks the second post goes before the first and it's really completely annoying.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Guns of Avalon part II


Welcome to the second part of the Guns of Avalon review. The first post can be found here and an index of other Zelazny posts is here.

Be warned that this post also contains spoilers.

Benedict:

His Trump: Then there was Benedict, tall and dour, thin, thin of body, thin of face, wide of mind. He wore orange and yellow and brown and reminded me of haysticks and pumpkins and scarecrows and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He had a long strong jaw and hazel eyes and brown hair that never curled. He stood beside a tan horse and leaned upon a lance about which was twined a rope of flowers. He seldom laughed. I liked him.

Corwin, on Benedict: "You do not really understand who it was we talked with in the tent that night. He may have seemed an ordinary man to you-a handicapped one, at that. But this is not so. I fear Benedict. He is unlike any other being in Shadow or reality. He is the Master of Arms for Amber. Can you conceive of a millennium? A thousand years? Several of them? Can you understand a man who, for almost every day of a lifetime like that, has spent some time dwelling with weapons, tactics, strategies? Because you see him in a tiny kingdom, commanding a small militia, with a well-pruned orchard in his back yard, do not be deceived. All that there is of military science thunders in his head. He has often journeyed from shadow to shadow, witnessing variation after variation on the same battle, with but slightly altered circumstances, in order to test his theories of warfare. He has commanded armies so vast that you could watch them march by day after day and see no end to the columns. Although he is inconvenienced by the loss of his arm, I would not wish to fight with him either with weapons or barehanded. It is fortunate that he has no designs upon the throne, or he would be occupying it right now. If he were, I believe that I would give up at this moment and pay him homage. I fear Benedict."


When I was younger, I had a very protagonist-centered view of morality and Benedict was just this douchebag giving Corwin a hard time for no reason. (Okay, my understanding of the situation probably wasn't quite that facile, but bear with me.) Rereading Guns as an adult and a parent, I see Benedict as the elder brother, affectionate towards both Eric and Corwin, but long past exasperated with their bickering.


So, "You know what my plans are," I said.

"If you were to ask for my support," he said, "I would deny it. Amber is in bad enough shape without another power grab."

"Eric is a usurper."

"I choose to look upon him as regent only. At this time, any of us who claims the throne is guilty of usurpation."


I think that's a measured, reasonable response.

Also, in listening critically to the books, I see how shrewd Zelazny was with his retcons. Corwin occasionally recaps what has gone before, but it's always in the service of the narrative, and sometimes he offers commentary along the lines of "I thought this was the case at the time, but now I think this theory explains the situation better." in order to reframe something.


Dara

She stood about a dozen paces from me, a tail, slender girl with dark eyes and close-cropped brown hair. She wore a fencing jacket and held a rapier in her right hand, a mask in her left. She was looking at me and laughing. Her teeth were white, even and a trifle long; a band of freckles crossed her small nose and the upper portions of her well-tanned cheeks. There was that air of vitality about her which is attractive in ways different from mere comeliness. Especially, perhaps, when viewed from the vantage of many years.

I think of that last part when my daughter comes running up to me to show me something. The older and more cynical I get, the more I appreciate her boundless enthusiasm for things that seem entirely mundane.

Corwin to Dara.


"I am going to tell you something Benedict should have told you long ago," I said. "Never trust a relative. It is far worse than trusting strangers. With a stranger there is a possibility that you might be safe."

"You really mean that, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Yourself included?" I smiled.

"Of course it does not apply to me. I am the soul of honor, kindness, mercy, and goodness. Trust me in all things."


Phage Press used to offer the last line on a t-shirt.

As an aside, Erick Wujcik, who founded Phage, was a hell of nice guy. I remember when I sent away for the RPG. It was somewhere in the early 90s. I sent a personal check and I had the game in hand less than a week later, plus a personal response to my letter. I don't have the letter any more but I remember what it said, "Dear Josh, thanks for your interest. You mentioned that you liked Mandor and Dalt, so I've enclosed copies of the pictures we'll be using for them in the upcoming book. Also, you asked how Bleys is pronounced. It's blaze, like a fire."

Corwin versus Benedict

This fight has so many beautiful parts. Benedict is coming to kill Corwin. Corwin, who is "hard as stone, dark as soil, and mean as hell". Corwin who slew legions on his path up Kolvir, who fought his way up the into the heart of the Black Circle, who killed demons with his bare hands. And Corwin is scared shitless.

A few selections:

It might be smart as well as gentlemanly to sheathe Grayswandir. He might be willing to talk first-and this way I was asking for trouble. As the hoofbeats grew louder, though, I realized I was afraid to put it away...


...It was almost a mystical experience. I do not know how else to put it. My mind outran time as he neared, and it was as though I had an eternity to ponder the approach of this man who was my brother. His garments were filthy, his face blackened, the stump of his right arm raised, gesturing anywhere. The great beast that he rode was striped, black and red, with a wild red mane and tail. But it really was a horse, and its eyes rolled and there was foam at its mouth and its breathing was painful to hear. I saw then that he wore his blade slung across his back, for its haft protruded high above his right shoulder. Still slowing, eyes fixed upon me, he departed the road, bearing slightly toward my left, jerked the reins once and released them, keeping control of the horse with his knees. His left hand went up in a salute-like movement that passed above his head and seized the hilt of his weapon. It came free without a sound, describing a beautiful arc above him and coming to rest in a lethal position out from his left shoulder and slanting back, like a single wing of dull steel with a minuscule line of edge that gleamed like a filament of mirror. The picture he presented was burned into my mind with a kind of magnificence, a certain splendor that was strangely moving. The blade was a long, scythe like affair that I had seen him use before. Only then we had stood as allies against a mutual foe I had begun to believe unbeatable. Benedict had proved otherwise that night. Now that I saw it raised against me I was overwhelmed with a sense of my own mortality, which I had never experienced before in this fashion. It was as though a layer had been stripped from the world and I had a sudden, full understanding of death itself...


...I backed into the grove. I had stood there so that I could take advantage of the trees. I dropped back about twelve feet among them and took two steps to my left. The horse reared at the last possible moment and snorted and whinnied, moist nostrils flaring. It turned aside, tearing up turf. Benedict's arm moved with near-invisible speed, like the tongue of a toad, and his blade passed through a sapling I'd guess at three inches in diameter. The tree continued to stand upright for a moment, then slowly toppled...

...His boots struck the earth and he strode toward me. I had wanted the grove for this reason, also, to make him come to me in a place where a long blade would be hampered by branches and boles.
But as he advanced, he swung the weapon, almost casually, back and forth, and the trees fell about him as he passed. If only he were not so infernally competent. If only he were not Benedict. . . .


...But he seemed to be finished with talking. He pressed forward and I had to fall back once more. It was like trying to fence with a glacier. I became convinced then that he was out of his mind, not that that helped me any. With anybody else, an insane madness would cause the loss of some control in a fight. But Benedict had hammered out his reflexes over the centuries, and I seriously believed that the removal of his cerebral cortex would not have altered his movements from their state of perfection...


...He drove me steadily back, and I dodged among trees and he cut them down and kept coming. I made the mistake of attacking and barely stopped his counterthrusts inches from my breast...


A common argument that pops up with some regularity is that "If Benedict is so good, how come he get punked like he did?" This arises mostly in the context of the RPG, where there is a (very brief) reference to Benedict being capable of parrying an invisible attacker, because his understanding of tactics is such that he'd understand how an attacker would be positioned, and would thus anticipate where his blade would be.

Someone on a message board said "Benedict's going to get that little furrow in his brow (you know he has one! Who cares if it's never described in canon?) and say Something isn't right here ..." then he's going to hear a tiny little scratching sound, and throw the wine from his glass in that direction. Some poor assassin will be briefly outlined in dripping wine, and then much more visibly outlined in spurting blood.

And then Corwin will say to himself "Well, it's never come to a test, but after all these years ... I wonder whether Benedict could have taken him without the wine. Unlikely as it seems, there is little that I would put past him, when it comes to the blade," and that would be the end of it."

Personally, I could see Benedict in the novels developing strategies for dealing with an invisible opponent, like scattering stuff on the floor, fighting in such a way to minimize the advantage, turning out the lights, listening intently, whatever the circumstances require. Benedict is at least three millenia old, according to Corwin. Miyamoto Musashi lives what. 60-70 years, and he did some incredible things with a blade. I could readily believe Benedict defeating an invisible attacker. What I can't quite swallow is Benedict beating an invisible attacker without real effort, using the same strategies he would against a visible one.

Anyways, when I try to reconcile this, I usually go with a combination of Benedict in a homicidal rage and Corwin either grossly simplifying what he did (That is, he pulled something really clever, but it could be simplified to what occurred in the book) or outright lying to Merlin, whom he wasn't sure he could trust yet.

What follows is a brief interlude on Shadow Earth. Listening to a book is a different experience than reading one, and I enjoyed the nitty gritty details of acquiring the rifles.

Corwin is unsurprised to return to his house after an absence of several years to find his library largely intact, though the rest of his house had been looted, wryly observing, "Nobody steals books but your friends."

Corwin returns to Amber with the guns of avalon and the forces of Amber are victorious.

The way things were resolved seems inevitable now, but it surprised me the first time I read it, because it was such a subversion of every fantasy literature I read up to that point. There had to be an epic duel. That's just how you do things! (This may be why I imagine Chris Sarandon in his Prince Humperdink role as Eric, even though he lacks Eric's trademark beard. They each avoided a duel that I was expecting to be the decisive encounter with the hero.)



His eyes tightened, flickered, opened. His face remained without expression as his eyes focused on mine. I wondered whether he even recognized me.

But he said my name, and then, "I knew that it would be you." He paused for a couple of breaths and went on, "They saved you some trouble, didn't they?"

I did not reply. He already knew the answer.

"Your turn will come one day," he continued. "Then we will be peers." He chuckled and realized too late that he should not have. He went into an unpleasant spasm of moist coughing. When it passed, he glared at me.

"I could feel your curse," he said. "All around me. The whole time. You didn't even have to die to make it stick."

Then, as if reading my thoughts, he smiled faintly and said, "No I'm not going to give you my death curse. I've reserved that for the enemies of Amber-out there." He gestured with his eyes. He pronounced it then, in a whisper, and I shuddered to overhear it.


Even to alarmingly obtuse teen Josh, it was becoming clear that Eric was not the monster that Corwin claimed. They each used their curse, but Corwin pronounced his against Amber, and Eric, with his hated brother right next to him, saved his for the enemies of Amber. We get a more complete picture of him in the later books, but even here, he seems different than than the bully who terrorized Corwin in the first book.

Overall, still my favorite of the series. Erick Wujcik said that one of the things he loved about the Amber books is how the universe is expanded with each new installment. In the first book, we have shadow earth and Arden (and glimpses of Amber) and with the Guns of Avalon we see some of the most vividly imagined shadows, Avalon and Lorraine. Nine Princes in Amber was a great book, but it stood on its own. The Guns of Avalon feels like the first date you take with the love of your life. You don't know where the path will take you, only that it's going to be a wonderful journey.

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Guns of Avalon part I

On the off chance that you've stumbled upon an obscure website and you're now reading the fifth in a series of lengthy review of Roger Zelazny books, be aware that this particular book has significant spoilers for the entire series.

I'm going to split this review into several different parts, because it's looking to be a long one.

I've been listening to it at work when I don't need to be on the phone and it really adds an additional element. Ganelon says of the Wardens of the Circle: "Their voices lack the thrust and dip of men chewing over their words and tasting them." That's why I like Zelazny's reading of his own works so much. He's at his best when reading his own dialogue, which tends towards the deliberate. You can hear the dip and thrust as he chews over the words, understanding what each character is thinking as he speaks for them.

Two people who read the review of Nine Princes expressed polite disagreement with my opinions that the first book isn't as strongly rooted in the Amber universe as the others. I think we agree on the basic facts, but for them, this different tone is a feature and not a bug. And it really is a matter of personal preference. Guns of Avalon, for me, is where the series really found its groove. I like how concepts introduced in Nine Princes are expanded and explored. That's what science fiction should be about, in my opinion, and it's in the area of introducing factors that are not present in the real world and exploring them to their logical conclusions that I think Zelazny is strongest. In Nine Princes, he throws out a lot of concepts, and in The Guns of Avalon, he extrapolates where those concepts might lead.

I mentioned that I borrowed any number of elements from Zelazny to populate my Mazeworks game, but never more so than with GoA. I pretty much lifted the first third of the book wholesale as the first adventure. I stole large swaths of text and even minor characters like Ganelon's physician, Roderick. (I called it Avalon rather than Lorraine, because Lorraine is kind of a dumb name for a country.)

(As an aside, when the characters returned after toppling the Horned One, they encountered an Avatar of Nyarlathotep that I called the Opener of the Way)

He weeps blood from empty eye sockets. Lean, emaciated, clad in rags of black and silver, and wearing a black beard shot through with gray that speaks of long imprisonment and terrible deprivation, the man looks barely able to stand, but an inhuman power radiates off him like heat. The clasp that holds his cloak is a silver rose, so tarnished as to appear almost black.

I thought that was a kind of cool concept that came out reasonably well.

Anyway, enough about my game. On to the book!

Ganelon


He sat at a heavy wooden table near a wide window overlooking the courtyard. He wore a brown leather jacket over a black shirt, and his trousers were also black. They were bloused over the tops of his dark boots. He had about his waist a wide belt which held a hoof-hilted dagger. A short sword lay on the table before him. His hair and beard were red, with a sprinkling of white. His eyes were dark as ebony.

His background suggest that he is based on the traitorous knight in the Song of Roland to a certain extent. (I guess that would make Charlemagne a shadow of Corwin.) Zelazny has also stated that The Dark World by Henry Kuttner was an influence on Amber, and the main character there is named Ganelon.

To me, the interesting question is when Zelazny decided that Ganelon was really Oberon in disguise. I'd guess somewhere between Sign of the Unicorn and the Hand of Oberon. I have a vague recollection that the novels were first published as serials in the science fiction magazines, though I can't confirm that now and I may well be mistaken. If that's the case, I'd revise that back a little and say he knew it by the end of Sign.


Lorraine

I didn't like her much at first.

Her hair was rust-colored with a few strands of gray in it. I guessed she was under thirty, though. Eyes, very blue. Slightly pointed chin. Clean, even teeth inside a mouth that smiled at me a lot. Her voice was somewhat nasal, her hair was too long, her make-up laid on too heavily over too much tiredness, her complexion too freckled, her choice in clothing too bright and tight. But I liked her. I did not think I'd actually feel that way when I asked her out that night because, as I said, liking her was not what I had in mind.

I guess I felt she wasn't worthy of Corwin, which is such a fanboy thing to think. She was just some floozy shadow dweller to teenage Josh. She grew on me as I grew older, though I can't say exactly why.

Strygalldwir

When the demon Strygalldwir comes to find him, it leads to what I think of the definitive Corwin exchange.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"Strygalldwir is my name. Conjure with it and I will eat your heart and liver."

"Conjure with it? I can't even pronounce it," I said, "and my cirrhosis would give you indigestion. Go away."

"Who are you?" it repeated.

"Misli, gammi gra'dil, Strygalldwir," I said, and it jumped as if given a hotfoot.

"You seek to drive me forth with such a simple spell?" it asked when it settled again. "I am not one of the lesser ones."

"It seemed to make you a bit uncomfortable."

"Who are you?" it said again.

"None of your business, Charlie. Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home-"

"Four times must I ask you and four times be refused before I may enter and slay you. Who are you?"

"No," I said, standing. "Come on in and burn!"

q.v.
Earlier reference to Zelazny;s characteristic "laid-back, easy-going, wise-cracking, homicidal protagonist", cause, man, you get every one of those elements here.

It's pretty cool to hear Zelazny say "Misli, gammi gra'dil", which according to an article in the late, great Amberzine, (now available at obscene prices on Amazon. ) is actually a phrase in Shelta Thari meaning "Be off, and bad luck to you!" He delivers the whole phrase quite fluidly.

Kind of interesting link on the background: Shelta Thari

Also, I had the amusing thought where Strygalldwir goes to introduce himself to his new coworkers and he's like "Hey, I'm Strygalldwir. I'm starting in accounting," and they're like "Strygalldwir, huh? How's that spelled?" and he's all like "Jesus, dude, just like it sounds." (If you're curious, Zelazny pronounces it in three syllables, Strig-wall-dir, with slight stress on the first.)

The Greeks have a concept called Akrasia , which is basically choosing an action against one's own better judgment. I've occasionally referenced the fable about the fox and the scorpion. If you're not familiar with it, the scorpion is on the bank of a river and he asks the fox if he can ride on the fox's back. The fox says, "Well, okay, but if you sting me, we're both going to die." and the scorpion is like, "Naw, that would be stupid." So he climbs on board and half-way across the river, he stings the shit out of the scorpion, who's like "Dude, wtf?" and the scorpion just says, "It's my nature."

In Princes, the characters are more archetypal. I've heard them liked to the Gods of the Greeks. Hubristic. Larger than life. They are governed by their ruling passions, often unwise, abiding by a specific code of honor, and equally capable of dolling out lavish gifts or disproportionate revenge at the drop of a hat. But one thing they never are is small. While they are fallible, they are always majestic. That never leaves them, but they grow more nuanced as the series progresses.

Corwin must know that the smart thing to do is to move on right past Lorraine. But due to the guilt and sense of responsability that he feels over his actions, he stays and cleans up the mess. He calls the Horned One "My sin against a thing I loved."

All things considered, a very tight little adventure that open up the series to some elements that I feel really enrich it.

That's it for this installment. I'll be posting the second part shortly.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Memento Mori

My Grammy's sister-in-law, the woman I called Aunt Mickey, passed away at about 4:30 yesterday afternoon. We had visited her in the hospital on the 14th, and I'd been meaning to call about checking in on her, but there was always something to do, so I never got around to it. The nurse called my Grammy to say that Aunt Mickey was in bad shape, and then called again before Grammy could even leave for the hospital to tell her that Mickey was gone.

We don't know if there will be a service yet. She's being cremated and her family lives out in Texas. She was 94 years old and refused the surgery that would have prolonged her life, so this wasn't really unexpected, but the speed with which she went was surprising.

I'm sad that she's gone, but I think 94 years, that's a good run, right? And then I think of Neil Gaiman, "You get what anyone gets - you get a lifetime."

I feel sad for my Grammy. In the past forty years, she's seen her huge extended family dwindle away to nothing. I have an unusual last name and if you google it now, it seems all that you get are obits.

In the Farewell to Arms, Hemingway says, "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry." Grammy says that he's not going to let this get her down, but she been so strong for so long that I worry about how much more of this she can bear.

The other person about whom I have concerns is Lily. She gave her little stuffed Tigger to Mickey "So you can be happy after I leave." She doesn't think much about Mickey and would probably not bring her up unprompted, but when she was talking about sleeping over at Grammy's, she thought that they would need three beds, because she was under the impression that Mickey lived with Grammy. I don't want her thinking that a hospital is a place where people go to die.

I'm torn. On one hand, as an atheist, there are certain things I can't say to comfort her. But my father has already indoctrinated her with the idea of heaven where Jesus is up there playing with her dead hamster. I don't want to have an exchange where I say, "Lily, I have some sad news. Aunt Mickey has died." "Is she up in heaven with Jesus?" And then what? "No, she's just dead"? "This is the really real world and there ain't no coming back"?

So I'm tempted to just not bring up the topic. But then I think of A Minor Variation by Billy Joel, with its line, "No way to win when you've already been forgotten." I think of Roy Batty "All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain." I believe the best way to honor the dead is to remember them. I liked Aunt Mickey a lot, and it just seems a betrayal of that to forget about her just to make my life a little easier.

I'll remember her here for a little bit while I consider what to do.

Mickey was those people who reach equilibrium early, and looked much the same at 60 as she did at 90.

They would visit my grandparents right up until their various medical issues prevented it, and I was always knew when they were in town by the KEN - MIC vanity plates on the car parked outside the house.

I always loved looking at the black and white pictures of my Grammy and Pop and Kenny and Mickey from the 50s and 60s, looking young and slim and healthy, with all the Mad Men area accoutrements littering the photos, the fancy standing ashtrays and Kenny's thick rocket scientist glasses, the same ones he'd wear 50 years later.

I think, as a compromise, I will hang these few words here, and when Lily is old enough, she can return to them and remember.

The color of thunder

Lily was in a very poetic frame of mind when I put her to bed. I sat with her for a little while and held her hand while we listened to the rain, "The rain sounds like pebbles falling on the ocean floor." I wasn't expecting her language to be so metaphorical at her age.

The rain got heavier, and she was worried that it might storm. She said "Sometimes I think that thunder sounds like a dinosaur roaring up in the clouds and I get scared by that. I know it's not really a dinosaur, but I still get scared."

Hmmm...I think there's a haiku in there.

Sound of stones on the
sea floor. Ah! That dino scared
the shit out of me!

Ha! Lily's not the only poet in the family!

Later on I asked her what type of animal she would be if she could be any animal, she answered, "A butterfly. But an invisible butterfly, so birds won't eat me."

After she went to sleep, Jen and I watched Up in the Air. It starred George Clooney and Anna Kendrick, who plays Scott Pilgrim's sister. Clooney plays a motivational speaker and consultant who travels up and down in the world and to and fro, firing people in person for bosses who can't do it themselves. Anna Kendrick is a recent college grad who wants to fire people over the internet. Clooney doesn't like the idea, so Jason Bateman, their boss puts them both on the road together.

Clooney as Bingham reminded me of my old boss, the Autistic Robot, an impression that was reinforced when he gives his lecture on never checking baggage. I used to travel a bit and the Robot had been doing it for ages, and he was HUGE into never checking baggage if he could help it at all. I agreed with him, and this was actually something I had come up with on my own. I mean, it's not exactly rocket science. Checking your baggage is a hassle and it takes forever. I think it's sold as a bigger revelation than it is in the movie. This is something that never occurred to a 23-year-old rising star? Really?

J.K. Simmons was in it. I mean, it is a Jason Reitman film. I was hoping his part would be bigger. As I mentioned a couple months ago, I ran into his cousin when I was visiting Tim in New Hamster. I was going on about how much I enjoyed the soundtrack in Juno and she said, "Oh, my cousin's in that," and I was like "Really, which part?" and she said the dad, and I was like "J.K. Simmons?"

In Up in the Air, his character is getting fired and he he shows a photo of his two children to George Clooney, and I thought it might be the girl I met, but according the imdb, it's a photo of Simmons' own kids. He's still awesome, but the part is too small! When will American filmmakers learn that what every movie needs is more J.K. Simmons?!

The movie itself...I don't know if it's some kind of meta-textual commentary, but I just didn't feel the connection that I did with other movies. On an intellectual level, it's sad and horrible when it's discovered that the woman who committed suicide in exactly the way she said she would comes up and a.)The only reason Jason Bateman gives a shit is to protect the company from liability and b.)Clooney can't even remember her, but it didn't resonate emotionally with me.

On the other hand, that may have been the whole point of the scene, and the larger point of the movie, that this lifestyle will insulate you and leave you numb to the troubles of other human beings.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Nine princes stand before you (that's what I said now)




I'm going to keep reviewing/recapping Roger Zelazny's work in the order in which I read them. Up now is Nine Princes in Amber, first of the Amber books.

When I reviewed Star Wars a while back, I observed that it's the only movie that doesn't take place in the Star Wars universe, and I think the same deal applies to the first Amber book. Zelazny wrote the book in about a month and half and he threw out all these gonzo concepts without worrying about what they might mean. ("...and even now, as I stand contemplating the Courts of Chaos...")

I was first exposed to it at around the first time I saw Highlander and the two are commingled in my mind. (I blame Queen's "Princes of the Universe" for that.)

I was already familiar with Zelazny through Roadmarks and Creatures of Light and Darkness, so I just went to the end of the alphabet in my school library to see if they had anything by my new favorite author. They had the first Amber book, so I took it off the shelf and began reading it during my free period.

Honestly, I think it's the weakest of the five Corwin books. Sometimes I'll get on a Zelazny kick and I'll listen to all of the books one after the other but more and more often I'll sometimes just jump directly to Guns of Avalon. If you're wondering, for me I rank them

  1. The Guns of Avalon
  2. The Hand of Oberon
  3. Sign of the Unicorn
  4. The Courts of Chaos
  5. Nine Princes in Amber
though some days I might rank Princes above Courts. I'll get into why when I get to a review of each book.

Some thoughts. I forget where I first read the observation that Zelazny's books tended to feature very similar characters, the "laid-back, easy-going, wise-cracking, homicidal protagonist" and man, that's Corwin (and Sam, and Merlin and Red...)

I haven't read the books in quite a while, though I do listen to them. Somebody ripped a bunch of books for the blind to mp3 and I, uh, found them on the internet. Zelazny reads the Amber books and he has a very distinctive manner of doing so. Very reasoned and measured, but he parses the words strangely. He's awesome though. He mentioned a "Diplo Docus", and it took me a second to realize he was saying "diplodocus".

The Amber series is divided into two separate series. The first five books recount the adventures of Corwin, and the next five recount the adventures of his son, Merlin. The Merlin series is pants, though.

I don't own the Great Book of Amber, which collects all ten volumes, but I have two sets of the two volume collection of the first five books. (The hardcovers with the Vallejo painting.) I keep them around so that if I want to give them away, the recipient will only have the good Corwin books and not the shitty Merlin books too.

A few years after I first read the books, I came across an ad for the Amber Diceless RPG, which will probably merit its own post somewhere down the line, and Erick Wujcik's take on the Corwin books has really informed how I read them. He points out that Corwin is an unreliable narrator, telling a story to someone he's not certain he can trust, and that he was the only witness to many of the most controversial events. Wujcik had some interpretations of the chronicles that still cause debate even now (briefly, his portrayal of the Amberites is significantly more powerful than they are in the books, and there's a very brief reference to Benedict parrying invisible attackers that's kind of become a running joke.) This has become more of a tangent than I intended, but something Wujcik said is that he has a friend who says the series makes more sense if Corwin is treated as a biased but essentially reliable narrator, Caine is the villain and Brand is the hero. It's certainly an interesting take, and it's a credit to the series that there is enough ambiguity that such a reading is possible.

It opens with an amnesiac man waking in a hospital bed: "It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me." I wasn't yet familiar with Raymond Chandler, but the whole thing was very noir.

So our nameless hero wakes up in a hospital after a terrible car accident. The first fight in the series is him kneeing someone in the crotch ("It was a very foul blow, about four inches below the belt buckle, I'd say, and it left him on his knees.") and later throwing some bedding over the guy and clubbing him unconscious with a metal strut and it sets the tone for what kind of guy Nameless is.

Interestingly, the cursing was edited out of the book ("'____ ____!' he said, after a time"), but the audiobook has him saying "Damn you!", I suppose because times had changed enough for that to be acceptable.

Nameless bluffs his way out of the facility and into his sister's mansion, where he learns that he has a whole bunch of siblings and that his name is Corwin. He finds a pack of tarot cards, depicting himself, his brothers and his sisters. This was a neat way to do an infodump and I like that when a sibling appears later on, I can just flip back to the thumbnail sketch we go earlier.

I love the Trumps as a concept. I have a set of Amber Tarot cards and they're just neat to have. I see them going for a decent price on eBay every so often, and I suppose that I should get around to selling mine. But they are neat to have.

So, Corwin's brother Random (Alas, not Random Hajile, as cool as that would be) shows up and they defeat those agents pursuing him, then borrow sister Flora's Mercedes for a road trip. Corwin is still missing his memory, but he's able to fake it well enough that Random doesn't suspect anything. They travel through several different shadows on their way to Amber.

If you've read this far without actually knowing about the series, "shadows" are what the series calls parallel worlds. Amber is the one true world, and all the infinite shadows are just imperfect reflections. Zelazny plays with some of the themes he explored in Creatures of Light and Darkness. In that book, the Prince could teleport to any place he could imagine, and there was speculation if he was in effect creating a place by being the first to arrive at it. Corwin voices similar sentiments.

Anyway, Corwin are Random are set upon by their brother Julian and his horse Morgenstern.

And the horn sounded once again, almost next to us this time.

"What the hell is be riding, a locomotive?" I asked.

"I'd say he is riding the mighty Morgenstern, the fastest horse he has ever created."

I let that last word roIl around in my head for a while, wondering at it and wondering at it. Yes, it was true, some inner voice told me. He did create Morgenstern, out of Shadows, fusing into the beast the strength and speed of a hurricane and a pile driver.

I remembered that I had call to fear that animal, and then I saw him.
Morgenstern was six hands higher than any other horse I'd ever seen. and his eyes were the dead color of a Weimaraner dog's and his coat was a light gray and his hooves looked like polished steel. He raced along like the wind, pacing the car, and Julian was crouched in his saddle-the Julian of the playing card, long black hair and bright blue eyes. and he had on his scaled white armor.

Corwin kicks Julian's ass pretty handily and uses him as a hostage to buy his way through Julian's territory, the Forest of Arden. To return to Wujcik again, he speculates that Julian may have had a reason for losing to Corwin. I kind of like that explanation. Both Wujcik and Zelazny are good at having characters explain in the body of a work why seeming mistakes aren't mistakes.

So, the pair ditches Julian, rescues their sister, Deirdre, go to the mirror-Amber (Rebma, get it? Amber spelled backwards) beneath the waves, where Corwin walks the Pattern and thereby restores his memory. He uses it to transport himself to the library in Amber, where he gets into a sword fight with his brother Eric. Corwin has the upper hand, but will be unable to kill Eric before reinforcements arrive. I like that Eric picks up a chair and backs into a corner in order to wait it out when he sees that he's losing.

Corwin uses the power of the Trumps to contact Bleys, another brother. Bleys is readying an army to take Amber before Eric can crown himself. He and Corwin pool their resources and launch the assault.

The Eric/Corwin rivalry is what really drives the first book. They hate each other. They hate each other so much that they are willing to raise armies and storm the pillars of the world for no other reason than to spite the others.

Corwin and Bleys are demolished, their army killed to a man. Bleys possibly escapes, and Corwin, well, I'll let him tell it.
Let's be brief.

They killed everyone but me.

At me they threw nets and unleashed blunted arrows.

Finally, I fell and was clubbed and hog-tied, and then everything went away but a nightmare which attached itself and wouldn't let go, no matter what.

We had lost.

I awoke in a dungeon far below Amber, sorry that I had made it that far.
I like Zelazny's staccato prose there. When I read it for the very first time, I was disappointed. I was hoping a detailed accounting of a doomed last stand and all I got was "First it started to fall down. Then it fell down." But I love it. A Kurosawa-esque description would have been exactly wrong. Corwin was beaten, utterly and completely humbled by this man he loathed. He just wants to get this part of the story over with as fast as possible.

"Take it and give it to Eric," he repeated.

I tried to strike at him, but my chains were drawn tight. I was struck again.

I stared at the high sharp peaks.

"Very well," I finally said, and reached for it.

I held it in both hands for a moment then quickly placed it on my own head and declared, "I crown me, Corwin, king of Amber!"
I loved that part as a kid. Corwin's screwed no matter what he does, so he might as well put on as good a show as he can. "When the fall is all that's left," and all that.

So, he's locked away and forgotten in the dungeons beneath Amber. Also, just to make sure that he doesn't get any ideas about escaping, his eyes are burned from his head with hot pokers. They bring him out once a year, on the anniversary of Eric's coronation.

But, after several years, Corwin's eyes begin to grow back. He steals a spoon from an anniversary dinner and begins digging his way out. He eventually does escape, albeit in a manner different than he expected and that's where the first book ends.

The verdict? As a stand-alone work, it's great. As the first book of the series, it doesn't really fit with the larger Amber universe. I'm not sure if I'd want to read a revised and updated Nine Princes that cleans up some of these problems, but it's an interesting thought experiment.

I guess that it's for this slightly off feeling that I don't like the book as much as the rest of the series. Corwin believes Random is his full brother, but that's not the case. Zelazny rationalizes this later on, saying that it was just wishful thinking towards a sibling towards whom he was feeling fondly. Corwin's sword Greyswandir is never called by name. Shadow shifting seems to work differently. Obviously, these setting elements were not yet established, but their absence make it feel like the first book is set not in the One True World, but rather in a nearby shadow.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Quick weekend post

Lily is pretty funny. We were all eating dinner together and Jen said that we could go for a walk afterwards. Lily clapped her hands together and said "Can we go to the cemetery?!" The tone of voice she used, you'd think she was going to Disneyland.

Though when I asked her how she was, she said, "Great. Just great." I said that she sounded kind of angry when she said this, and she told me "That's just the way my voice sounds."

I think that she was referencing something I said earlier. She asked me if I was mad the other day and I said "No, that's just the way my face looks." Tim's ex-girlfriend used to think I was mad all the time, but I wasn't (I am merry 24 hours a day. That is a fact) It's really just the way my face looks. My neutral expression apparently looks kind of angry, but usually, I just don't give a shit.

I was playing a video game upstairs and Lily wandered up. She looked at the screen and said, "If I watch this game, it will make me mean." So, being a good daddy, I turned off the game and went downstairs with her.

We had a very nice visit with our friend Karen down in Philly this weekend. We dropped Lily off to a baby shower, and had a leisurely drive down 611. We just missed meeting her brother. I'm pretty sure we crossed in the parking lot in her building, but I didn't want to yell over to him in case I was wrong.

We got some lunch, saw Scott Pilgrim again, did some shopping and made a really kickass Mediterranean meal. Karen's a lot of fun. It was quite nice to see her. (She also impressed me by being to able to figure out an ad for Metroid based solely on the sight of the armor.) She was a good sport about seeing Scott Pilgrim, though it may just be because we bribed her with a stuffed giraffe. She's a sucker for giraffes.

Hey, neat! Geek Speak!

Geek Speak magazine was kind enough to publish a little essay I wrote about Roger Zelazny.

I only heard about the call for submissions ten days after the deadline, so I just dashed something off in hope they would take it anyway. I'm happy that they did take it, even if I'm not entirely thrilled with how it came out, but it's neat to featured next to actual writers like David Weber.

Anyway, it's a pretty cool magazine, so check it out.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Vegans & Dragons: Satan's Game

So I was sitting at the table (standing, really. I tend not to sit unless it I have to and it drives Jen batty) and I was dropping hints about Scott Pilgrim to gin up some interest in seeing it and I said "I'm going to go vegan so I can get super powers" and Lily said "Do vegans really have super powers?"

(Earlier I had asked my friend Karen if she thought being a vegan gave you super powers and she replied "Is iron deficiency a super power?" I wish we'd had this exchange before I wrote that post about how awesome she is, because that would have made this list.)

I said that they did, and Lily said "Vegans and Dragons and Superheroes all have powers." She started ticking off points on her fingers, "A dragon's powers are flying and breathing fire and being nice."

I'm not sure how she got being nice as a power (or even an attribute) of dragons. I figure that she's seen a TV show with friendly dragon or something along those lines.

The other possibility is that we were reading a book a while ago ("Come Rhyme with me") with 26 pages, with one rhyming couplet per letter (the final word being hidden behind a flap of page) and the accompanying illustration providing additional clues. I usually read everything but the last word and let Lily guess it (though I'm sure she has them all memorized by now).

D is for dragon, who is a skillful flyer
be careful when or you tickle him or he'll roast you with his ????

and I asked her if she knew what skillful meant. She answered "Ummm..I think it means 'scary'" and I explained that it meant being good at something.

I didn't think to ask her at the time, but I wonder if she thought that because skillful didn't mean scary as she originally thought, that the dragon was by definition, not scary and in fact, nice. I'm not sure how her mind works, but she proves an endless source of fascination for me.

For example, I lost my temper with her the other morning. It was time to get up, but she said she wanted to sleep a little more. I said that she could sleep for five more minutes, but then she had to get up. She said that she wanted eight minutes, and then talked about compromising, where each person gives up a little of what they so want so that each of them are happy.

So, I come back into the room five minutes later (because little kids can't tell time) and she doesn't want to get up. So I scooped her up out of the bed and was rather more abrupt with her than I usually am. She got very upset.

When we were talking about it later, she said that instead of getting mad, I could just pretend to be mad. I think that's really interesting, because the thing that upsets her is the fact that we're mad at her and not that she might be punished because of what she might have done. I think she's going to turn out to be okay.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review: Scott Pilgrim versus the World

I keep hearing how geeks are mainstream now. I don't know how to interpret Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, because it's geek and it's mainstream, but it's not mainstream geek. I thought it was downright hilarious. It made Superbad look like Firefly. But the jokes were so heavily entrenched in early 90s geek culture that I don't think it has much cachet outside of that subculture.

Don't get me wrong. It was brilliantly acted, expertly directed and fantastically choreographed. It has all the makings of a cult classic. But it's a video game movie/martial arts farce based on an Indie comic starring that kid from Arrested Development and framed in the context of twenty year old video game console. When you say to me, I say "Can I give you my money now?" When you say it to anyone else, they say "I'm going to see the Expendables."

Either you think that Sex Bob-omb is a hilarious name for a band or you just don't get the reference.

(The third possibility, that you get the reference, but don't find it funny, is just too ridiculous to contemplate.)

Personally, I was in love with this movie from the moment the Nintendo era Universal logo jumped up on the screen followed by the Zelda theme. You will not find a more receptive audience than me. For my fencing final, I choreographed a fight to the Zelda overworld theme. Most people don't have a video game playlist on their mp3 players because they don't have any tracks from video games on their mp3 players. I don't have a video game playlist on my mp3 player because I have too many tracks from video games and such a broad category would be meaningless. I mean you don't want to mix the Dragon Quest Symphonic tracks mixed in with the Lunar Boss theme. (Though it would probably segue nicely into the Actraiser tracks) Also, the Clash At Demonhead! (Yes, I am a geek. Thanks for asking!)

If 1990s Josh and Tim made a movie, it would be this movie. We made a comic series back in the day, Sci-Fi Dragon Ninja Karate Retroculture Sorcery Adventure Quest, or S.F.D.N.K.R.S.A.Q. for short or Sphdunkersack for extra short. It was full of the same self-referential humor and idiotic shout-outs, though more focused on anime than video games (though we did borrow from whatever element of geek culture would get a chuckle, so we were all over the map with our jokes). I was thinking of that when Scott and Knives were playing Ninja, Ninja Revolution. (Like Dance, Dance Revolution, but with Ninja kicks instead of dance moves) Our "Crow with Two Names" comic never got far off the ground, but my conception of the world was a lot like the one in Scott Pilgrim, one much like ours, but with the understanding that super-powered kung fu battles happen to break out from time to time and people just tried not to get too worked up about it.

I enjoyed the level of detail and random nerdery. When Scott was fighting the second evil ex, there were "2's" everywhere, and this theme continued through the movie. "Hey guys, check it out! I learned the bass line from Final Fantasy II!" While walking down the street, the caption read "About to E*X*P*L*O*D*E" for no other reason than random geeks in the audience would be amused by a reference to Akira.

I can't think of a single character I didn't like or a single actor who didn't give an outstanding performance. I like Michael Cera, but he was largely the straight man here. Alison Pill ("Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it." "Yeah...wait, what?") and Kieran Culkin were hilarious with almost everything they did.

I knew Mary Elizabeth Winstead from her role in Sky High. (She was Gwen.) Apparently she was choice for Ramona two years before filming began, because "she has a very sunny disposition as a person, so it was interesting to get her to play a version of herself that was broken inside." She was nicely understated. When casually informing Scott that he has a subspace highway running through his head, she adds, "Oh, I forgot you don't have them in Canada."

I thought all the Evil Exes were pretty great, except for the twins, who were just kind of there.

I loved Satya Bhabha as Michael Patel. I really like the way he says "MIS-TER PIL-GRIMM!" punctuated by the shoulder bobs. Plus, Bollywood dance routines make everything better. As do demon hipster chicks.

Chris Evans is a lot bigger than I remembered him. He really bulked up to play Captain America. Also: (After throwing Scott into a building) "Sup? How's life? He seems nice."

Brandon Routh as Todd encapsulates the movie. Either you can accept that a vegan lifestyle gives you psychic abilities powerful enough to punch the highlights out of a girl's hair or you can't. If you can't, then this is not the movie for you.

I like Mae Whitman. She's the voice of Tinkerbell in Lily's movies, Amber Holt in Parenthood and now she's in Scott Pilgrim as Roxy Richter. She has a refreshingly Rubenesque figure for a young woman in entertainment, but I think the real reason I like her is that Tinkerbell smiles exactly like Mae does. Also, "You punched me in the boob! Prepare to die obviously!" and Ramona to Scott: "I was just a little bi-curious!" Roxy: "I'm just a little bi-furious!"

The writer of the source comic gave a list of ten secrets about each of the characters to their respective actors. I like that. Since I tie everything back to Roger Zelazny sooner or later, it reminded me of something he did, where he would write a short story for characters in his novels, not for publication, but to give himself better understanding of them. I like that there is a larger world inhabited by fictional characters. We only see them for a brief time, but they seem more real if you can believe that they are out there doing something when we're not watching them

Jason Schwartzman as Gideon stood out even among these performers. He's such a talented actor. Looking at his filmography, I'm rather surprised to find that I've only seen two of his appearances. One of the secrets Bryan Lee O'Malley revealed to Schwartzman about the character was that "Gideon is very passive aggressive, and so he’s not overtly evil. He smiles a lot, just kind of “kill ‘em with kindness,” but you can feel that it’s not sincere almost instantly." Schwartzman also stated that he really liked learning about this aspect of the character. He really sold it. Also, "You made me swallow my gum! That's going to be in my digestive tract for seven years!"

.The things that I liked about it is that was that though Scott was a neurotic douchebag, he was still essentially a decent guy. I also like how the movie subverted the traditional Romantic Comedy tropes. I always feel bad for the staid but boring suitor originally engaged to the female lead, but replaced by the free-spirited male lead in the final act. (Often, the original suitor is revealed as a closet jerk to justify this, which drives me crazy!)

A digression. I had a friend whose job had taken him to the other side of the world. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for to cheat on his girlfriend, but he never did, though he did contemplate breaking up with her so he could begin dating. That's where so many Rom Coms get it wrong. If you're dating someone and you're more or less happy, and then one day you find your "soul mate" on the street, most romantic comedies suggest that the right thing to do is to "follow your heart".

To this, I say, "Bullshit." Love the one you're with. Scott is settling for Knives, but he "trades up" to Romona. To his credit and the movie's, he recognizes that he wronged both of them. When Romona asks "You were cheating on me with Knives?" and he says "No, I was cheating on Knives with you," and she asks, "Is there a difference?"

I think that's right. It's a betrayal to both of them. Another friend was seeing a girl for quite a while, but he broke it off, not because he wanted to trade up to somebody better, but because he realized that she wasn't the one, and he loved (and respected, which is an important part of love) her enough to tell her that. It couldn't have been easy, but it was the right thing to do. (And you know, for as much a socially-retarded narcissistic jerk as I am, I do have a fair number of really stand-up guys as friends.)

I loved the movie. I think it's the best geeky metaphor for growing up since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's surprisingly poignant in parts. It never felt like an adaptation. (I did enjoy the hipster in the movie who was saying "The comic book was better than the movie.") I'm not familiar with the source material, but from what I read, I thought Wright and O'Malley did a brilliant job of creating Scott Pilgrim movie. There was exactly one scene (where Scott picks up a cymbal) that looked like it came out of a comic book, but nothing else. Kevin Smith said " I would be hard pressed to say, 'he's bringing a comic book to life!' but he is bringing a comic book to life", but to me it felt more like he was bringing a video game to life, and it was only incidental that the story had begun life as a comic book.

I think it's great. It's certainly not a movie for everyone, or even for most geeks. To return to the topic at the beginning of the review, I think the best evidence of a geek Renaissance is that such a thoroughly unapologetic paean to geekery got such a wide release.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Creatures of Night, brought to light!

Today, I'll cover Creatures of Light & Darkness. But first, some reflections.

I'm not sure exactly what I should call these posts about Zelazny books. Reviews? Recaps? Random Observations? "What Roger Zelazny means to me"? The audience for this blog is largely composed of my friends and family, most of whom don't particularly care about sci-fi author who, while renowned within the field, is not particularly well-known outside and who died fifteen years ago. Blogging is a peculiar form of expression anyway, and these Zelazny posts are of little interest to those most likely to be reading them. (And they're so looooonnng, aren't they, mom?)

I drive my normally sanguine wife to distraction by referring to her journal as a "paper blog", but she thinks it strange that anyone would publish personal information where everyone can see it. (I figure this blog is pseudo-anonymous. I don't use my real name here, but I don't think it would take all that much digging to figure out who I am to someone so inclined.) I write what interests me. As it says at the top of the page, "Where there had been darkness, I had hung my worlds. They were my answer."

Along those lines, Creatures of Light and Darkness was originally something Zelazny wrote to amuse himself. He'd jot down a neat set piece on a couple pages then forget about it for a couple months. The whole thing was...I'm reluctant to call it experimental, because that implies a more specific goal than he had. He was just playing with whatever appealed to him at the time. It was written in the present tense, a lengthy chapter in the middle was a free verse infodump and the final chapter was written as a play.

If more people read my Zelazny posts, then that would be great, but I think that writing them is an end in itself.

Creatures of Light and Darkness was either the first or second Zelazny book I read. (See my Roadmarks post for more details.)

Perhaps I could keep track of which elements I stole from each book to populate my Mazeworks game. (Surely that has broad appeal!) (Also, plug! Join today! )

From Creatures of Light and Darkness, I stole comparatively little (but man, when I get to Jack of Shadows, the list of things I stole is going to be longer than the book itself): The concept of Skagganauk Abyss!, and assorted lines I liked

  • One snowflake drifting down a well, a well without waters, without walls, without bottom, without top. Now take away the snowflake and consider the drifting….
  • “...because it is not formed of matter, nor any other thing over which you may exercise control.”
  • Death is a black horse shadow without a horse to cast it,
  • Madrak's Possibly Proper Death Litany (aka the agnostic's prayer): "Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen"

The gist of the plot is that the Prince Who Was A Thousand (aka Thoth Hermes Trismegistus), used to rule over the known universe, the Middle Worlds. He had many lieutenants, "Angels" of various Stations or Houses to help him in this capacity. (I think that a House is just a powerful Station, but it's never spelled out.) He laid the entire universe within an energy field and gradually expanded it, bringing forth life where there had been darkness. (Hey, that's the name of this blog!)

In the process of his exploration, he rouses a world-devouring monster that had been lying quiescent, the Thing that Cries in the Night. His son/father (there's weird time travel stuff involved, called temporal fugue in the book) Set is the only one capable of destroying it, but at the moment of his victory, Osirus uses the Hammer that Smashes Suns, a device used to incite stars to explode to novae. Set was killed and the Thing was weakened but not destroyed, and Thoth had to abdicate in order to serve as warden to the Thing.

The Angels then fell upon each other until there were only two surviving Houses, Osiris, Angel of the House of Life and Anubis, Angel of the House of the Dead. The book begins with Anubis naming a man who had served him for one thousand years.

I read this book all the time. I think one summer, I read from it every day. I wanted to adapt it to its own RPG. It had 283 unique immortals.

"“By one means or another, certain individuals have achieved a kind of immortality. Perhaps they follow the currents of life and draw upon their force, and they flee from the waves of death. Perhaps they have adjusted their biochemistry, or they keep their bodies in constant repair, or they have many bodies and exchange them, or steal new ones. Perhaps they wear metal bodies, or no bodies at all. Whatever the means involved, you will hear talk of the Three Hundred Immortals when you enter the Middle Worlds. This is only an approximate figure, for few truly know much about them. There are two hundred eighty-three immortals, to be exact. They cheat on life, on death, as you can see, and their very existence upsets the balance, inspires others to strive to emulate their legends, causes others to think them gods. Some are harmless wanderers, others are not. All are powerful and subtle, all adept at continuing their existence. One is especially noxious, and I am sending you to destroy him.”

The immortals we meet are all affiliated with the former regime, so I'm inclined to think the majority are surviving Angels of various stations. I gave away my annotated copy, but I used to tear this book apart to try to figure out what the six races might be. (Was that dwarf in the House of the Dead a human of short stature or an actual dwarf?) I still think that it would make an incredibly fun game.

My favorite character is the Steel General.

He is the one who is called the Steel General. That is not a suit of armor that he is wearing; it is his body. He has turned off most of his humanity for the duration of the trip, and he stares now straight ahead past the scales like bronze oak leaves on the side of his mount’s neck. He holds four reins, each as thick as a strand of silk, on the fingertips of his left hand. He wears a ring of tanned human flesh on his little finger, because it would be senseless and noisy for him to wear metal jewelry. The flesh was once his; at least, it helped to surround him at one time long ago.

All know of the General, who ranges alone. Out of the pages of history come the thundering hoofbeats of his war horse Bronze. He flew with the Lafayette Escadrille. He fought in the delaying action at Jarama Valley. He helped to hold Stalingrad in the dead of winter. With a handful of friends, he tried to invade Cuba. On every battleground, he has left a portion of himself. He camped out in Washington when times were bad, until a greater General asked him to go away. He was beaten in Little Rock, had acid thrown in his face in Berkeley. He was put on the Attorney General’s list, because he had once been a member of the I.W.W. All the causes for which he has fought are now dead, but a part of him died also as each was born and carried to its fruition. He survived, somehow, his century, with artificial limbs and artificial heart and veins, with false teeth and a glass eye, with a plate in his skull and bones out of plastic, with pieces of wire and porcelain inside him—until finally science came to make these things better than those with which man is normally endowed. He was again replaced, piece by piece, until, in the following century, he was far superior to any man of flesh and blood. And so again he fought the rebel battle, being smashed over and over again in the wars the colonies fought against the mother planet, and in the wars the individual worlds fought against the Federation. He is always on some Attorney General's list and he plays his banjo and he does not care, for he has placed himself beyond the law by always obeying its spirit rather than its letter. He has had his metal replaced with flesh on many occasions and been a full man once more— but always he hearkens to some distant bugle and plays his banjo and follows—and then he loses his humanity again. He shot craps with Leon Trotsky, who taught him that writers are underpaid; he shared a boxcar with Woody Guthrie, who taught him his music and that singers are underpaid; he supported Fidel Castro for a time, and learned that lawyers are underpaid. He is almost invariably beaten and used and taken advantage of, and he does not care, for his ideals mean more to him than his flesh. Now, of course, the Prince Who Was A Thousand is an unpopular cause. I take it, from what you say, that those who would oppose the House of Life and the House of the Dead will be deemed supporters of the Prince, who has solicited no support—not that that matters. And I daresay you oppose the Prince, Wakim. I should also venture a guess that the General will support him, inasmuch as the Prince is a minority group all by himself. The General may be beaten, but he can never be destroyed, Wakim. Here he is now. Ask him yourself, if you'd like.”

On the persistence of the Steel General:

“Surely, if one were to number all his parts and destroy them, one by one, and scatter them across the entire cosmos, then would he cease to exist.”

“This thing has been done. And over the centuries have his followers collected him and assembled the engine again.

To digress for a moment, my first real exposure to Belle & Sebastian was their Dear Catastrophe Waitress Album. It was a marked departure from their earlier work, but to me that was the sound of Belle & Sebastian. When I went back to listen to their earlier, more highly regarded work, it didn't sound like Belle & Sebastian to me. Zelazny said that Creatures of Light & Darkness was "an unconscious self-parody" and as a kid, I read straight elements that were not intended that way. His prose has a very distinctive feel to it, and it's ramped up to eleven in Creatures, but since it was my first exposure, this exaggerated Zelazny served as my baseline.

It lacks the philosophy of his other books, and the characters at times seem less like gods and more like superheroes. Some elements are... corny? Absurd? Ridiculous? Sure, but I think if he had second guessed himself and removed those elements, it wouldn't be half the story it is now.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

An oxymoron: Josh's enjoyable weekend with his family

Lily was really surprisingly well-behaved this weekend. On Friday night she stayed over at my Grammy's house for the first time. We ate dinner at home and then headed to Grammy's and Jen and I lingered past sundown.

Grammy's house is in a corner lot, and her yard is very big for a city property. It was too late in the season to really see many fireflies as Lily had hoped, and I thought she might be a little disappointed but then the fire station across the street turned on its floodlights and everything changed.

We were playing "Who said that?" where Lily hangs on my back and then says something and I turn around and try to find her. The floods cast our shadows very vividly on the wall, and I wound up tickling Lily's shadow and she laughed like she never had before. She does have such a great laugh and it's wonderful to hear her so happy.

Jen and I went back home and Lily had a pretty nice stay. We picked her up at nine the next morning and took off for a Farmer's Market Jen had found online. When we tracked it down, we saw that it was just three people in a parking lot. We did have a nice walk in a nearby park and I snapped a picture of a really cool building, a bank that had been converted in to a liquor store.


We went to the hospital after that to visit Aunt Mickey. Lily continued her good streak. She picked out a stuffed animal to leave with Aunt Mickey "so she can be happy after I leave." Mickey had an oxygen tube in her nose, but Lily just quietly asked Jen what that was and then accepted the answer without commenting on it further.

We took an afternoon nap and I woke up around 5:30. I blearily looked at the clock, thought it was Monday morning and wondered where the weekend went, and was then overjoyed to find that it was in fact only Saturday afternoon.

Lily and I watched The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking. It was pretty terrible, but she enjoyed it.

Speaking of terrible movies that I'll probably enjoy, I caught the tail end of a review of The Expendables on NPR, where the critic observes that the by identifying the stars by their last names on movie poster, it makes them seem like a "high powered team of Urologists". What a bizarrely specific thing to say.

Lily's current favorite stuffed animal is Lamby. Lily carried her everywhere and she's already looking kind of raggedy. I dread the day when Lily will go to pick her up, only to tear the arm off instead. I asked Lily was handsome or beautiful. She stomped her foot and told me in a very strident voice that "Lamby is CUTE and ADORABLE," and her tone of voice suggested that she was going to shank me with something she made in the prison's metal shop.

We had our monthly family picnic up at my father's house on Sunday. It was also the annual picnic where my stepmother's side of the family came up too. It rained the whole time, but it was actually pretty okay though.

I made my father laugh. He had a little ceramic diorama depicting scenes from the gospels, but the Jesus figure at the top had been knocked over, and his head broke off. I picked him up and said, "I thought it was Jesus, but it must have been John the Baptist." I was surprised he found it amusing. I think he was just happy to hear anything about Jesus coming out of my mouth.