Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Flare




You know, I knew this would happen. I had resolved to review all of Roger Zelazny's major works and I did make a conscious decision to pace myself, and not frontload the process with the ones I liked, leaving nothing but the weak stuff at the end.

But here we are, 70 reviews later, with Flare and the Mask of Loki still to go.

Flare.

Fucking Flare, man.

Don't want to slag off on Thomas T. Thomas. From his website, he seems to be a nice person, his writing has improved substantially, and if nothing else, it shows that Roger Zelazny was a stand up guy by collaborating with a less established author. But, ugh. Flare.  I don't even know why I'm still hanging on to my copy.

I had sarcastically suggested in my Forever After review that Zelazny's contribution to Flare was saying to Thomas T. Thomas, "Hey, write a book about a solar flare," but then Chris Kovacs stepped in and corrected me, saying that if anything, I was overstating his influence in the project. Apparently, it was more like  TTT: "I want to write a book about a solar flare." RZ:"Whatever, here's some poetry.")

I was going to do an elaborate  April Fool's Day post about Flare. It was going to be ten paragraphs long and the first letter of each paragraph would spell out "FLARE SUCKS". But Jesus, that's a lot of work for a novel that I don't really like.

Kelvin scale. The first chapter goes into exhaustive (and exhausting) detail about the elements that go into producing a solar flare. Except, they talk about degrees Kelvin. The degree is not the unit of measure on the Kelvin scale. (If you're not familiar, the Kelvin scale is the same magnitude of is the Celsius scale, but shifted, with 0 K being −273.15 °C, or absolute zero.)

And you're like, "Who gives a shit Josh?" and I'm like "I do, to the extent that I give a shit about Flare at all." I used to be a chemist and in the rare instance when we were talking about the Kelvin scale, we usually said degree rather than Kelvin unit, because it was pretty much a Degree C, just shifted by a value 273 and scientists are people just like anyone else, and they knew I meant unit K if I said degree.

Anybody who reads this blog knows that I'm as big a slob as anyone. That said, if I were submitting a paper for publication, I'd be certain to use the proper nomenclature. And if you're going to spend the entire first chapter establishing your scientific bona fides, don't fuck up by talking about Kelvin degrees in the first paragraph! (Also, when you're talking about the fifteen million degree temperatures on the surface of the sun, the difference between the Kelvin and the Celsius scale is pretty academic.)

I don't remember when I first read Flare, but it was very different from what I was expecting. I went back a couple years later and tried to enjoy it for what it was, but I still couldn't get into it. There are many different threads and they never come together in any meaningful way. As a result, even though I was able to accept that it wasn't going to be a usual Zelazny book, I couldn't enjoy it because I wasn't invested in any of the situations.  Mind you, I don't hate it like I do the Merlin books. I just find it hard to have any kind of opinion about it at all.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Legion of Super Heroes: The Substitutes

Okay, another Legion of Superheroes post. Since we're at four posts and counting, I guess I'll give Legion episode reviews their own tag. The Substitutes was the best episode yet! It was time for open auditions and everybody around the galaxy was invited to show off his or her powers and get a shot to join the Legion. I like that Superman and Brainiac 5 are unfailingly polite to these painfully earnest second-stringers and that Bouncing Boy is genuinely supportive. Also, Continuity porn with Lightning Lad greeting Matter Eater Lad (they met in the Champions episode)!

Most of the auditions go disastrously, and afterward, we see all the subs outside, talking about why they were rejected, and Color Kid was like, "Stupid! I turned Superman Lime Green! That was dumb! If I had made him Forest Green, I *know* I would have gotten in!" Lily said she'd rather be Color Kid than Triplicate Girl and I'm not sure I disagree.

Like a couple other characters Color Kid got a subtle redesign from his look in the comics.  Specifically, his rainbow insignia is reminiscent of the LGBT Rainbow flag. Coupled with some outrageously camp delivery of certain lines, ("Hellllo, you still need to get past me!"), I have to assume that's a deliberate choice, and after watching the episode several times, I can't decide if I'm pleased by the positive portrayal of a gay superhero on a kid's show or disappointed that that the portrayal is so stereotypical.



Later on, the Legion gets stuck out in space fighting off the monsters eating the ionosphere, so it's left to the subs to protect the planet. They encounter this "villain" named Starfinger, whose power is to create little teddy bear things that go out and fetch him stuff. He wears a pair of mechanical gloves that have a different power in each finger, and at one point he makes a reference to his "Ten finger salute" in his ridiculous Christopher-Lambert-in-Highlander accent. I love Starfinger.

Starfinger also loves Starfinger

He throws one of his furries at Color Kid, who tries to stop it by changing it different colors as it flies towards him. "Some chartreuse should stop you!" "No? How 'bout magenta!" *Gulp * "Taupe?" *panicked* "Lavender?!" the thing bops him on the nose and bounces off with a silly sound. I swear, I'm enjoying this show more than Lily is.


Starfinger is dismissive of the subs.  Brainiac 5 calls him a "third-rate nuisance" (A nice moment: The subs call in requesting help.

Calling the Legion

Brainy: "What's the emergency?" The Subs: "Starfinger is on a crime spree in New Metrpolis!" Brainy: "I repeat, what's the emergency?")

Stuck in the phone booth


All of the characters are pretty fun. The episode was really deeply silly, but when our group watched it last night, our ages ranged from 4 to 39 and we each found something to enjoy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Itself Surprised




Alternate Title: My love for you is like a truck: Berserker! Or it's a goodlife if you don't weaken.

(I'll say it because no one else will. That's an awesome title, Josh. Two obscure jokes for the price of one.*)

Itself Surprised another "Come play in my sandbox" story not unlike Mana from Heaven, where an author invited some colleagues to write a story in his established series. In this case it was Fred Saberhagen and his Berserker universe. I first encountered it in the Frost and Fire collection as a standalone story, but it's apparently part of a collaborative novel between Zelazny and several other authors.

While I didn't like Mana from Heaven at all, I enjoyed Itself quite a bit. But I was already a fan of the Berserker stories by then, so that may have had an influence.

If you're not familiar with the series for some reason, the Berserkers are self-replicating machines unleashed as a doomsday weapon against the enemies of their creators. Somewhere along the line, their imperatives got generalized as destruction of all organic life. Saberhagen wrote Berserker stories from 1963 right up to 2005. (He died in 2007 and a short story was completed posthumously by Jane Lindskold.)

A series that has gone on for so long has time to cover a lot of territory, so the theme can be very different from book to book. Sometimes they kind of remind me of zombie movies, where the monsters (zombies/berserkers) are an environmental threat and they'll only get you when you are screwed by your fellow humans. Other times the stories read like military sci-fi. Wikipedia characterizes military science fiction as a subset of space opera, but I don't think that's accurate. I like military SF. Another author I like, David Drake, was in the service in Vietnam and he writes in the genre. Wikipedia describes his view as:

David Drake has often written of the horrors and futility of war. He has said, in the afterwords of several of his Hammer's Slammers books (1979 and later), that one of his reasons for writing is to educate those people who have not experienced war, but who might have to make the decision to start or support a war (as policy makers or as voters) about what war is really like, and what the powers and limits of the military as a tool of policy are.
While the science in Zelazny's SF stories is generally plausible, the stories aren't really about the science. I think actually like Saberhagen more for straight up science fiction (though I certainly prefer Zelazny's fantasy). One thing that Saberhagen was very good about getting across was that in space, scale is enormous. Ships are spheres the size of asteroids. a soldier considers a ship 100 kilometers away to be "right on top of him".
 
He's probably not the very first author to introduce self-replicating robots, but he certainly popularized the concept. I like how the scope of the series expanded and how he had time to expand on the mythology and look at the ramifications of the technology. Faced with infantry battles against machines that could move faster than humans ever could, humans developed "blink triggers" (guns triggered when the controller blinked) and when these proved too slow, they developed "alpha" triggers which allow a user to fire merely by consciously altering their alpha brain waves. We've got hyperspace (called "flightspace" in the argot of the series) technology? Somewhere along the line, some body decides to see if we can weaponize it, which leads to the development of the C-plus Cannon, which fires a slug at faster than lightspeed through flightspace.

I also like how he explored the idea of how constant warfare would warp human society. For instance, many berserkers are shaped like humans in order to operate captured machinery, but influenced human society to the extent that humans no longer build human shaped robots.

Or in explaining how humans could outthink machines that calculated thousands of times faster than any organic brain he says, Berserkers never blundered but sometimes had to make decisions based on inadequate data and sometimes randomized tactics and made decisions that could be as bad as blunders

Okay, I suppose that's really more than enough background information on Berserkers. Here's some commentary on the actual story.

It was said that a berserker could if required assume even a pleasing shape. But there was no such requirement here. Flashing through the billion-starred silence, it was massive and dark and purely functional in design. It was a planet-buster of a machine headed for the world called Corlano to pound its cities to rubble, to eradicate its entire biosphere. It possessed the ability to do this without exceptional difficulty, so that no subtlety, no guile, no reliance on fallible goodlife were required. It had its directive, it had its weapons.

It never wondered why this should be the way of its kind. It never questioned the directive. It never speculated whether it might be, in its own fashion, itself a lifeform, albeit artificial. It was a single-minded killing machine, and if purpose may be considered a virtue it was to this extent virtuous.

I like that little preamble a lot. It's a pretty simple story. Wade Kelman is on a smuggling run when his crew salvages at what first appears to be a damaged berserker while he's asleep. Their cargo happens to be a robotics expert named Dr. Juna Bayel, and she decides that the thing is not exactly a berserker. They're still trying to decide what to do with it when a huge planet smasher that is in fact actually a berserker comes up and demands the thing.


The brain's power unit was an extremely simple affair, seemingly designed to function on any radioactive material placed within its small chamber. This chamber contained only heavy, inert elements now.

I thought that was a neat way to imply a vastly ancient machine without coming out and saying it.
I'm actually not certain if Zelazny was the one who first came up with the concept of the Qwib-qwib or if he borrowed something already established, but according to the Wikipedia entry to which I linked early in this piece, both the concept and the name are part of the official Berserker canon.

The lock began cycling closed and Dorphy was already raising the torch to burn through the welds.

"My vocabulary is still incomplete. What does 'qwibbian' mean in your language?"

The cycling lock struck the cable and severed it as she spoke, so she did not know whether it heard her say the word "berserker."

I always thought that exchange above would make a great scene in a movie.

"I got the story from Qwib-qwib in pieces," she began. "I had to fill in some gaps with conjectures, but they seemed to follow. Ages ago, the Builders apparently fought a war with the Red Race, who proved tougher than they thought. So they hit them with their ultimate weapon—the self-replicating killing machines we call berserkers."

"That seems the standard story," Wade said.

"The Red Race went under," she continued. "They were totally destroyed—but only after a terrific struggle. In the final days of the war they tried all sorts of things, but by then it was a case of too little too late. They were overwhelmed. They actually even tried something I had always wondered about—something no Earth-descended world would now dare to attempt, with ail the restrictions on research along those lines, with all the paranoia…
"

It's really pretty neat. It reads like both a Berserker story and a Zelazny story. Also, I really love the title. There's a certain poetry in those two words.

*An explanation of the title.

"My love for you is like a truck: Berserker!" is a line from the song Jay's Russian cousin sings in Clerks. "Goodlife" is what the berserkers call collaborators. It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken  is a comic by a friend of Joe Matt's, where he searches for a fictional cartoonist and visits numerous Canadian landmarks. (It's a Good Life is also the title of the cool Twilight Zone episode where Billy Mumy has godlike powers, which, while a coincidence, adds another layer of geekery to the post.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Home again, home again, jiggety jig

So, we're home from our vacation. It was pretty decent, though like any vacation, it ended too soon.
We had a window of nice weather on Thursday morning, so we went out and went into the surf. Jen's sister and her sister's boyfriend showed up pretty early in the morning, but they were tuckered out from the trip down so they spent a decent amount of the first day just catching up on their sleep.

The weather turned bad so we watched some Muppet Show. Kris Kristofferson & Rita Coolidge were the guests. Kristofferson looked about seventeen years old.

I mentioned that Coolidge had long hair (it was the late 70s, everybody had long hair), and Lily said that she was pretty and I said that she had a very nice voice. Lily got very serious and said "Don't tell my mommy that. It would hurt her feelings."

I walked around town and Jen and Lily went on a short birding cruise. That was pretty neat. Cape May has only one kind of crappy bookstore, so that aspect was a little disappointing, but stomping around a town on foot is one of the little pleasures I really enjoy.



We had vacationed in Cape May three years ago and this building always reminds me of Sunday Morning Comin' Down for some reason.

Lily discovered the sound recorder feature that comes standard as part of Windows and she was using that to record short little messages to friends and family. When playing one of them back she furrowed her brow and said, "I don't know what those vibrations were in the background," which is such an odd thing for a four-year-old to say.We went to Sunset Beach for the second time, and for the second time, sudden clouds obscured the setting sun. Jen suggested I take a picture of the stoplight and pass that off as the sun. Here you go!

One of nature's miracles

On Friday, we went to the boardwalk and amusement park in Wildwood.

It's not called "Bat-parking". I'm just sayin'

We had checked out Dragon's Lair mini golf online prior to our departure, so Lily was really psyched to play. It was kitschy, but fun, though Lily got a little scared by the talking dragon.





Dude, your cousin's van called. It needs its dragon back.

We checked online and saw that the amusement pier was opening for business at noon, so that's when we aimed to arrive. Unfortunately, while they were technically open for business due to a scout jamboree, only a very limited selection of rides were running. Lily's only about 40 inches tall and that further limited which rides she could ride, and she understandably was getting a little frustrated. Fortunately we made found a magical fortune telling machine and made a wish to be "big" and was transformed into Tom Hanks.

We hung around a bit, but the weather turned yucky, so we headed back to the house for an afternoon map. We returned at six o'clock, when more of the rides were open. That actually worked out really well. Jen and Lily each got wristbands so they did most of the riding together, though there were some where a parent could ride with a kid without needing a ticket.

She went on her first roller coaster ride, which she described as "Scary, but really, really fun, tried little kid bumper cars for the first time and generally had a ball. I'm really glad that we went back.

Bonus! A picture of some giraffes for Karen!



Friday, May 20, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Curiously Canadian Combat Command: Black Road War



This post isn't exactly a Roger Zelazny book review, though it is an Amber book review. It's about Neil Randall's The Black Road War (with "in the world of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber"  emblazoned in much bigger letters on the top of the cover).  I like it, though it has some significant problems. One of them is the introduction by Zelazny, where he gives the mother and the colors for the children of Oberon. Oh, and he casually reveals the Ganelon is really Oberon in disguise. That's not a big deal for anyone but me, but I bought a bunch of Zelazny one summer and after I read Sign of the Unicorn for the very first time, I decided I wanted a break from fiction, so I cracked open Black Road War, and there was the unnessary spoiler, right there. It was kind of stupid reading it before I had finished the series, but that does nothing to diminish my annoyance.

Another problem, well...let me tell you a story. Once I was camping in upstate New York, and Jen and I decided to hit the rest facilities before we turned in for the night. I finished first and I was waiting outside for her when a fellow camper struck up a conversation with me in the thickest McKenzie brother accent imaginable.

Him: "Where you from, eh?"
Me: *blink* "Uh, Pennsylvania."
Him: "I'm from Canada, eh?"
Me: "No shit."

(Maybe I just thought that last part.)

 Until I read the first segment of Black Road War, that was the most gratuitously Canadian encounter I'd ever had.  The first part of BRW, for lack of a better word, aggressively Canadian. In the fair city of Toronto, Derek, former Canadian army officer and Troy university alum is listening to the Blue Jays game on the CBC, waiting for his team which includes a hockey player and a french-speaker named Jacques. I'm pretty sure Derek has a Maple Leaf tattoo.   I expected the strains of "O, Canada" to float out of the book every time I opened it.

"Corwin killed my dad, eh?"
And I like Canada. I've only been there a few times, and the most recent visits were business trips, so I didn't see much more than the airport and office buildings, which pretty much the same no matter where you go, but I enjoyed my time there and I'd like to go back. But as the famous Groucho Marx quote that never happened says, "I love my cigar, but I take it out once in a while." (And I see by his CV that Neil Randall's thesis was on The Techniques and Effects of Humour in Six Canadian Novels. I begin to understand.) Also, the Canada stuff tapers off once Derek starts off for Amber, but it's pretty intrusive in the beginning.

Black Road War a choose your own adventure book. The reader guides Derek, son of Eric, from Toronto to Amber, "that incredible, beautiful, terrifying world where Random rules as king and Corwin the murderer wanders free."  You're probably familiar with the concept, but if not, it's a story where the reader influences the action at critical points. If Derek turns west towards Amber, turns to page 43. If he heads to Chaos, turn to page 78. That kind of thing. Additionally, it has a random element not often found in these kind of books, where the player rolls some dice and compares them against a chart in order to determine the outcome. Some of the fights were extremely difficult, (particularly the last one) and it pissed me off to do everything right and lose at the end through no fault of my own. (I think that was an element already present in the Combat Command series, though, so I'm not going to be too harsh about it.)

Also, at crucial points, the reader would have to identify a character from the Chronicles to proceed. You added up all the letters in the name, with A being 1, B being 2, etc, and turned to the appropriate page. That's find if you're trying to identify, say Dalt, but at one point you have to name Dierdre and I knew what her name was, I just couldn't spell it. Also, it's a pain in the ass to put the book down and find a pen and paper to add up the numbers.

However, I think the biggest problem is that Zelazny's introduction invalidates the premise of the book. Derek is trying to find out what really happened to his father, and when he meets various Amberites, he's told that Corwin's account cannot be wrong, because Corwin re-created the Pattern and all of reality reflects his deed. Anything he says, is ipso facto true.  However, in Zelazny's introduction, he's like, "You know how Corwin thought Random was his full brother at first? Well, he was wrong and that was just wishful thinking. Merlin was right to wonder how edited his father's account was."

Despite all that, I like it. The story is engaging and Randall does a solid job of imitating Zelazny's style. It reminded me of early Brust. No one would ever mistake it for a story by Roger Zelazny, but it's reminiscent enough not to pull the reader out of the story.

There's not a lot of point in recapping the plot, because it will be different each time. But, as they say, all roads lead to Amber, and assuming you last long enough, you'll have the same beginning and same end-game each time. The thing I like best is that Derek can only win by turning back, by abandoning his quest for revenge. When he left for Amber, the Blue Jays were at bat with a full count in a crucial game. Most endings lead to Derek dying in some way, but if he makes it to the end, there are two possible outcomes. In the good one, the Blue Jays win, the stock market improves, and things are a little brighter all over. If he has the bad ending, then they lose and things are little darker.

Conclusion: No point in giving this my usual letter grade, because that's a scale comparing a given work against all of Zelazny's books. It's an interesting novelty, and it did nothing to diminish the goodwill I feel towards Neil Randall for his work on the Visual Guide.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Days Three and Four of our Vacation

Day Three:

Weather: Surprisingly nice during parts of the day.

We went to Sunset Beach on Sunday night, but a cloud obscured the sun just as it was setting.

There's an old shipwreck just off shore there and Lily observed, “Ariel would love this place!” We had promised Lily some ice cream, but we're still in the off season, so a lot of the local places are still closed.

We wound up going to Wawa where Lily got an orange push-up. Then we came home and watched Iron Chef. Lily is a big fan of Bobby Flay!

On Monday we went to the Cape May Zoo. I took a bunch of pictures of the giraffes, because I know my friend Karen really likes them. Here you are, Karen. Giraffes, just for you!






Lily fed some goats and really enjoyed it. I imagine they did too. Lily proclaimed it “the best, best BEST vacation ever!”


We're trying to teach Lily the value of money, so we've been putting aside any cash she received in cards for Easter and such. We thought we were doing pretty well explaining that it's a limited resource and she can get what she wants, but if she spends it now, then she won't have it to spend later. Jen got out the little wallet she was using to carry Lily's money and Lily yoinked it, Jane Jetson-like right out her hand and ran over to the soda machine we had just passed.

This put in a bind, because we just told her that she could spend it how she wanted, but we didn't mean that to supersede our prohibition on soda. Fortunately the soda in the machine was $2.50 (!!) and she hadn't put in enough, so we told her one of those lies to which parents are entitled, that the machine was out of soda, but, hey, she could press this button to get her money back as quarters.

We had another meltdown on the way out, and went from the best, best, best vacation to the worst vacation. (She sometimes says that it's a “forgetting” vacation and when I asked her what that meant, she told me that the vacation is so bad that she wants to forget it.) I think she's going to start oscillating between the two states so rapidly that we'll be able to harness her as a power source.

We got back from the zoo and we all had a nice nap. Lily woke later than we did and walked into the room when Iron Chef was on and said, “So, what's the secret ingredient?”

Day Four

Weather: Misleading.

Lily was late to bed last night and frightfully early to rise to rise in the morning. We worked on some projects, and when I told Lily that she was doing a nice job coloring like a big kid, she replied, “Thanks daddy, I appreciate the compliment that I'm coloring it nicely like a big kid.”

This is a sentence from a child who missed the cutoff date by three days and who is going to have to wait another year to go into kindergarten. Le Sigh.

We kind of dicked around all day, because the weather kept calling for these horrific thunderstorms that never came. I walked around town and got lost. I think everyone interested in reading this has already seen the weather report I posted on Facebook.

Rotten Liars!

Jen took some time and went birding. I suppose the biggest news of the day was that Lily got a decent amount of time to practice riding her bike. That was nice. It's a big milestone for a little kid.





Legion of Super Heroes: Fear Factory

While I've mentioned the Legion of Super Heroes series here and there, this represents my first post dedicated to a review of a single episode! Honestly, I'm not really sure who this post is for. There are people who are interested in the Zelazny book reviews at the blog itself, and there are people who like the Lily is cute stories on the Facebook feed but this is a platypus of a post that doesn't belong in either category. And there are people on the internet who find this blog through random searches, but I don't see a lot of people doing searches for an obscure show that came and went three years ago. (Also, another blog covered this Legion stuff much better and in a much more timely manner). Bah! I don't care! Writing is its own good!

I was initially going to pass on Fear Factory for Lily. I read the synopsis, did a quick preview and decided that it was too scary. But we were on vacation and had a limited selection and I was reading through the episodes and when I skipped it, she asked, “What's this one?” and I said, “Oh, no, that one's too scary.” “That's okay. I like scary things.”

So, with the eyes of my wife upon us, we began watching. The episode opens with a scene that's darn close to a shot-for-shot homage to the scene in Alien where Ripley goes to retrieve Jonesey the cat, which is of course awesome.

Seriously, I hope Sigourney Weaver got royalties for this

 In Fear Factory, they find an ancient space station at the center of an unnatural storm. The place is full of ghoulish inhabitants and odd happenings, and soon after they arrive, the docking bridge goes out and they have to...(dun dun dun!) spend the night!

Each Legionnaire is confronted with his or her deepest fear. I think that any genre show that runs long enough has some variation on this story. It's not the most original plot, but it's good for establishing character and backstory, and this particular outing has enough original touches that it stands out. For Lightning Lad, for instance, his greatest fear is the monster that he imagined lived under his bed as a kid.

Clowns? That's not so scar-JESUS FUCK, WHAT IS THAT?!

"We all float down here, Lightning Lad."

(Also, Saturn Girl regularly faces threats capable of destroying planets and her greatest fear is...roller coasters? Weak.)

I thought Bouncing Boy's sequence was especially well done. He's the horror movie aficionado and he recognizes the tropes of the genre long before the rest of the team.

His particular fear revolves around the movies he loves. While looking for the missing cat, he wanders into one horror movie after another, growing increasingly frantic at each. “A Nightmare on Zombie Planet, part IV!”, “Mars Needs Mummies, Part VI!!”, “Vampire Empire, Part XIII!!!”, The Fiendish Plot of Doctor Derangeo, the prequel...” Doctor Derangeo throws a test tube full of some purple liquid at Bouncing BoyIn 3-D!!!!

He finally finds Whiskers, only to realize too late that he ignored the advice he gave Ripley at the beginning of the episode.

I went back for the cat.
When they succumb, the ship imprisons them in a painting on its walls, frozen in a moment of absolute terror, somehow drawing energy from their fear. The representations were actually rather unnerving for a kid's show.



Superman: “What's going on here?”

Brainy: “Fear. The ship knows what scares us. Bouncing Boy's movies, Lightning Lad's...doll." I like his pause there. It feels like what Brainy is actually saying is “Lightning Lad's,” whateverthefuckthatwas “...doll.”

After they've figuring out what's going on, Brainiac 5 says “Let's take the ghost out of the machine,” which was a turn of phrase that made me smile.

Superman really tries to save everybody. He grabs Saturn Girl away from the vortex, but it still sucks her in.



What really scares him? That he can't save someone. It's hard to write Superman well, but I think this episode nails it.

I think the thing I like best about LSH is that the characters act like the players in a good gaming group. It struck me as a really great Halloween session in someone's superhero campaign. The heroes may not make the best decisions, but they rarely make bone-headed ones that serve only to drive the plot. For instance, Superman never forgets he has X-Ray vision, the group sticks together after they lose their first member, and when in doubt their strategy is to kick down the door and blast the monster with heat vision. I mean, at one point, they plan to blast through the hull of the ghost ship and bypass the docking bridge entirely by taking a shortcut through the vacuum in order to rearm at their own ship. That's a gamer's plan if I've ever heard one!

Overall, the episode had some great atmosphere and some legitimately creepy details like the eyeball soup and the pustules on the butler which opened into eyeballs. I also dug that when the Coluans were falling apart you could see robot skull for just a moment.

This was not an easy screen shot to take.

The architecture of the ship, with the teeth motif for all of the doors was very good too.

For a series that only got two seasons (and only one good season), Legions of Superheroes has an astonishing number of top notch episodes. If you only watch one show about superheroes for eight-year-olds, make it this one!

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Graveyard Heart

Okay, I need a good story to get the taste of the Merlin books out of my mouth, and they don't come much better than The Graveyard Heart. It's quite unlike any other Roger Zelazny story and particularly unlike any early Zelazny story.

Like a lot of Zelazny fans, I own a bunch of his stories scattered around any number of collections. Chris Kovacs has mentioned that some people have bitched about the footnotes in The Collected Stories. But, of course, they're not footnotes. I'm not sure that they're even endnotes, as there is no inline representation. When I need to talk about them, I usually call them annotations, which is probably correct, but also probably overbroad. Whatever they are, they're informative and unobtrusive.

As I've mentioned before, I happen to like them a lot. I think they're a great feature, more valuable even than having all the short works in one place, and they made the decision to to buy a collection that contained works that I mostly already owned an easy one. Also, they substantially, substantially enrich an allusion-heavy piece like The Graveyard Heart.

I don't pretend to be a scholar, but nor am I, occasional self-disparaging comments to the contrary, an idiot, and when I encounter gaps in my education I work hard to fill them, a task that is easier now than in any time in human history. And yet, when I read the annotations at the end of the story, I was shocked to find how much I had overlooked, misinterpreted or just plain missed.

Backing up a bit, I'm pretty sure that I first read Graveyard Heart in the Four for Tomorrow collection, as I had already read the other stories and I would have had no other reason to pick it up. (Lord knows I didn't need another copy of The Furies)

They were dancing,

-- at the party of the century, the party of the millennium, and the Party of Parties,

-- really, as well as calendar-wise,

The Graveyard Heart opens on New Years Eve 1999, in Times Square, just as the ball is dropping. It is the follows the infatuation of engineer Alvin Moore with Leota Lilith/Lorelei/Lachelis/Mathilde/ Mason (The Collected Stories has a truly comprehensive breakdown of these references, and while I find it unlikely in the extreme that someone might be reading the 68th installment in a series of Roger Zelazny reviews without owning them, I really feel they're worth another plug) of the graygreen eyes.  Leota is a member of the Set, a select group of super-celebrities whose member live only to be seen at the most exclusive parties on the planet. While not reveling there, they sleep in suspended animation until the next one is ready.

Alvin encounters Leota and becomes instantly enchanted, but he realizes that he will have to become a member of the Set to have any chance at all to be with her. So he reinvents himself as she sleeps, gaining the resources and sophistication necessary to meet with the Mary Maude Mullen, the Doyenne, a holdover from the final years of Queen Victoria's reign (the story was published in 1964, so it was plausible then) and “the immortal arbiter of trans-society”. I love the Doyenne. I can't think of anyone comparable in all of Zelazny's work. She could teach Dara lessons in ruthlessness.

"Hers is the quality of exclusiveness which keeps the Set the Set," she went on. "Imitators will always fail because they lack her discrimination. They'll take in any boorish body who'll pay. That is the reason that People Who Count," (she pronounced the capitals), "will neither attend nor sponsor any but Set functions. All exclusiveness would vanish from the Earth if the Set lowered its standards."

"Money is money," said Moore. "If others paid the same for their parties . . ."

". . . Then the People who take their money would cease to Count. The Set would boycott them. They would lose their elan, be looked upon as hucksters."

"It sounds like a rather vicious moebius."

"It is a caste system with checks and balances. Nobody really wants it to break down."

"Even those who wash out?"

"Silly! They'd be the last. There's nothing to stop them from buying their own bunkers, if they can afford it, and waiting another five years to try again. They'd be wealthier anyhow for the wait, if they invest properly. Some have waited decades, and are still waiting. Some have made it after years of persisting. It makes the game more interesting, the achievement more satisfying. In a world of physical ease, brutal social equality, and reasonable economic equality, exclusiveness in frivolity becomes the most sought-after of all distinctions."

There's something different about this story, and I really feel it's the Doyenne. As Corwin says of Benedict, “He is unlike any other being in Shadow or reality”, and I found her every bit as impressive as as those in the story do. Trot her out the next time someone says the Zelazny doesn't write women well. Even Leota, while unquestionably vain, is both intelligent and strong.

Moore eventually wins acceptance to the Set, and things are happy for a time. He has a complicated relationship with the poet Wayne Unger, another Setman. (Interestingly, Unger's collection of poetry, Chisel in the Sky, is largely drawn from Zelazny's unpublished collection of the same name. The Collected Stories has some interesting commentary on Zelazny's early tendency to pillage his stores of poems.)

Moore grunted. A gust of wind lashed a fiery rain of loose tobacco upon his cheek. He smoked on, hands in the pockets of his jacket, collar raised. The poet clapped him on the shoulder.

"Come with me into the town," he suggested. "It's only over the hill. We can walk it."

"No," said Moore, through his teeth.

They strode on, and as they neared the garage Unger grew uneasy.

"I'd rather someone were with me tonight," he said abruptly. "I feel strange, as though I'd drunk the draught of the centuries and suddenly am wise in a time when wisdom is unnecessary. I -- I'm afraid."

The story reminded me of themes explored in This Moment of the Storm, where society moves on while the protagonists are sleeping. I bitch about the punchcard computers in the Legion stories, but aside from that, I think Zelazny was pretty good about anticipating new technologies and extrapolating the kind of societal changes they would bring. I like the scene where the Doyenne is telling Leota that she will have to leave the Set.


"You silly little dollface!" The acetylene blazed forth. "Your glimpses of the outside have been fragmentary and extremely selective -- for at least sixty years. Every news medium in the world watches almost every move every Setman makes, from the time he sits up in his bunker until he retires, exhausted, after the latest Party. Snoopers and newshounds today have more gimmicks and gadgets in their arsenals than your head has colorful hairs. We can't hide your daughter all her life, so we won't even try. We'd have trouble enough concealing matters if you decided not to have her -- but I think we could outbribe and outdrug our own employees.

Mary Maude Mullen rules! Also, when Leota announces that she is pregnant, the Doyenne asks scathingly, if the child's father will “compose her a sonnet sequence, or design her mechanical toys?” all but coming out and saying that Moore was cuckolded by Unger, whom Leota purported to hate.

It's slow and cerebral. The only action, such as it, is when Unger drives a stake through Leota's heart while she is in the cold sleep.

Cast of white Parian she lay, deep within the coils of the bunker. The canopy had been raised high overhead. Her flesh was already firm as stone -- because there was no blood on her breast where the stake had been driven in. Only cracks and fissures, as in stone.

I like the visual on that, even if it is probably ridiculous from a biological point of view. Moore attacks Unger, and undergoes a symbolic execution, a gesture that makes no sense to his by-now antiquated sense of justice. The story ends with the Doyenne reflecting on what this means for the Set.

"An ethical question has been put before the Set – that is to say, myself," said Mary Maude. "Unfortunately, it was posed by government attorneys, so it cannot be treated as most ethical questions are to be treated. It requires an answer."

Heh. Theodore Sturgeon described this as a “If this goes on” story, and I think that's apt. It concludes much as Storm does, with Moore entering the cold sleep and dreaming of wakening into a better world.

It was three days before Moore had recovered sufficiently to enter the sleep again. As the prep-injection dulled his senses and his eyes closed, he wondered what alien judgment day would confront him when he awakened. He knew, though, that whatever else the new year brought, his credit would be good.

He slept, and the world passed by.


I loved this story. I'm not sure if I'm disappointed or relieved that it's the only one of its kind, because another fable along these lines would surely invite comparisons, and I don't know if even Roger Zelazny could have topped this.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Days One and Two of our Vacation!

Day One: 

Weather: Overcast

Lily's Aunt Lori was good enough to watch her on Friday night, which gave Jen and me extra time to pack. We picked her up on around 9:30 and were on the road by 10:00.

Lily was good for the trip, mostly. No four-year-old is going to be well-behaved for the entire duration of a four hour car trip unless she's a saint, which ours certainly is not. I gave her a comic book to stop her from complaining, which my parents had done to me. (Click here for details!)

Aw Yeah Titans!

We discussed the difference between real and pretend. Lily told me “Batman's not real, Superman's not real, but I kind of believe in mermaids because I met Ariel and she used to be a mermaid.” Heh.

Speaking of mermaids, she and I told this long, interactive story. She's incredibly good at building on what I said. I was particularly impressed with that, because a lot of little kids (and a fair amount of adults) don't really listen all that well; they're just waiting for you to stop talking so they can talk about what they want to discuss.

She really got into it and came up with the characters, Daisy the mermaid, her friend Squeaky the dolphin. They met an octopus who only had seven drumsticks for his eight drums, so Daisy and Squeaky and their whale friend Jupiter all go off to the trench to confront the evil shark who stole it, as well as his whale friend and his hook-handed turtle underling. The good whale smashes them all flat and they go to a vet to get unflattened. She tries to blow them up with a bicycle pump, which seems to work, but when she takes out the hose, the air comes out and they fly around the rooms like deflating balloons. They she searches online for a cure, but she finds bad medical advice online (shocker!) and the pharmaceuticals she orders are not as advertised, and only make the villains flatter! Despite this, the shark keeps drinking it “Because it tasted so good!” Lily went on at considerable length finding objects which the shark was now flatter than. Finally, the doctor realized that the cure was to be found in the haunted basin, in the form of a magical anemone. Daisy and Squeaky went out to find it.

I was surprised at how elaborate it got. After a while, we got into a rhythm, with me playing the heroes and Lily voicing the villains and providing most of the plot points. GMing at four, and already better at it than the Lord!

I'm afraid that the weather is going to echo our experiences of three years ago, when it was all midnights dreary and unseasonable coldness. It's going to be warm(ish), but rainy. It had been overcast all day and it started raining, literally the same minute we entered the town.

When we got to the beach house, Lily proclaimed it “The best vacation ever!” We're only a couple blocks to the beach, so after we settled in, we walked on down. It was too cold to go swimming, but Jen cuffed up Lily's pants and she dodged the waves with the untrammeled joy usually only observed in other people's kids. I had left the camera at the house, so I ran up to get, but when I stopped to empty some sand out of my sneakers, I heard Jen calling my name, so I ran back. Poor Lily had turfed it, and tumbled face first into an oncoming wave. So, with Lily full of sand and out of joy, we bundled her up and took her back to the house for a bath.

This had gone from the best vacation ever to the worst one, according to Lily. Her mood slowly improved until she asked, completely unprompted “Why is the house baby blue? People will think a baby lives here.”

Jen went out with a friend who happened to be in town for the World Series of bird nerdery and Lily and I watched some cartoons until she got back.

Day Two: 

Weather: Thunderstorms

Rainy again, with actual thunder and lightning. Lily woke up in a good mood and the pendulum had swung back to “best vacation ever” at this point. We waited for the cruddy weather to subside, and then went down to the boardwalk to roller skate. 




We returned, had lunch, and I took a nap, as I hadn't slept well the night before. Jen and Lily went down to the beach and Lily conquered her fear of the waves. She and Jen practically had the ocean to themselves as Lily dodged in and out again. It was probably fortunate that they were mostly alone, as the clasp on her swimsuit top suffered something of a catastrophic wardrobe malfunction.

After their return, we all went to the Cape May Lighthouse. 

"Hey Beavis, does that remind you of something?"


Lily counted all 199 steps as we went and got a total of 193, which isn't bad at all. She recalled something trivial we had only mentioned once, and I asked if her super power was “super memory” because she is astonishingly good at recalling specifics. (She recited an entire book from memory for her class after hearing it once, and she remembers exactly how things unfold in her cartoons.) I suggested that she could join the Legion of Super Heroes, because, hey, if Triplicate Girl could get in, she'd be a lock.

But she was appalled by the suggestion. “No! If I became a super hero, I
  • wouldn't live with mommy and daddy any more!”
  • wouldn't get to do my favorite things!”
  • would never see Baby Bear!”
  • wouldn't get to go on vacation with my mommy and daddy!”
  • would never get to go to school!”
  • would never see my friends again!”
  • would have to live in outer space!”
  • couldn't climb the lighthouse!”
  • would never see Grammy Kathy again!”
  • wouldn't ever be able wear dress up clothes!”
  • would have to be a teenager, and I'm not old enough, anyway!

And more I'm sure I'm forgetting. We'd try to interrupt with, “That's a good reason,” or “Then, you don't have to be a superhero,” which quiet her down, but then she'd pipe up again with another couple reasons she didn't want to be a superhero.

She conked out on the ride home, we had dinner (I had this crock pot General Tso's chicken and it was pretty delicious) and then, just as it looked like we were primed to go back to the beach, Lily balked at having her hair combed. Sometimes she's amazingly obstinate about the stupidest things. She likes having wavy hair, but since both of her parents have just about the straightest hair on the planet, she does too. The only time it has any waves at all is if Jen sets it into a tight little bun when it's still wet the night before, so she's extremely averse to anything that will take out her waves. We harangued and pleaded with her to just let mommy comb her hair until Jen suggested, “The sea air will probably make your hair even wavier,” and she was like, “Oh, okay.”

So, on we went. It was pretty blustery and I mentioned that my “World's Greatest Dad” cap might blow away, and how would people know that was me if I wasn't wearing it, and Lily answers, “You could tell them,” and I think that's what I'm going to do. So I went up to Jen and started to talk and Lily tugged at my sleeve and said, “No, say 'My name is Josh and I'm Lily's dad and she thinks I'm the world's greatest dad, and I think I am too.'” Funny kid.

The kite went up high. And then the kite went up super-high, because the already gusty winds had picked up even further. I started the walk as the only one dressed appropriately. I did not end it that way.



Such is the plight of the world's greatest dad guy named Josh who is Lily's dad and whose daughter thinks is pretty great, most of the time.

Repost: The Collected Works a Finalist for the Locus Awards

Several days ago, blogger had a glitch and about twenty hours worth of posts and comments were lost across all sites using the service. Blogger has restored the missing posts, but it seems they were unable to restore the comments. This is a shame, because Chris Kovacs, who sometimes comments here, had a big announcement. I didn't want it get lost in the Genesis Scramble, but I also wouldn't want it to appear that I'm speaking for him, so I'll paraphrase it, rather than repost it verbatim.

Volume 5 of the Collected Stories (NINE BLACK DOVES) is one of the finalists for the Locus Award for Best Collection. The awards will be announced at the banquet on June 25 in Seattle. Last year the six volumes of Collected Stories were considered as one entity in the Locus poll and finished #2.

So, good news for Zelazny fans in general and Chris in particular! Congratulations!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Hey, I finally used my square egg machine!

About twelve years ago or so, I made the best purchase of my life.



About seven years or so, Jen threatened to throw it out, "You've never used it, you don't like eggs, and I'm reasonably sure you don't even know where it is."

Since then, we've had a daughter who actually likes eggs, so about one night or so, we finally used it!

Here are some pictures of the process:




The actual square egg machine
 

Behold! The square egg!

That regular egg is jealous!

Princesses insist on square eggs


Cute things Lily does

She sometimes is so sweet. She told us that a little boy was her boyfriend, but she hasn't told him or anyone else in her class because she doesn't want anyone to be jealous.

We've been playing a lot of superheroes in the morning. On Tuesday, we played out a scenario where Wonder Princess (played by Lily) had breakfast with her mommy, and Wonder Princess was just so gracious and thankful for the meal. “Oh, thank you for the cereal.” “Here, let me throw out that apple core.” And I was thinking, She’s nicer to her doll family than she is to us at mealtimes.

That same play session, I observed that she was also very keen on safety gear. Wonder Princess’s mommy reminded her to put on a helmet, which was fortunate, because she was attacked by a football field sized monster from one of the cartoons. But it was just bouncing off of her because she was wearing her helmet and kneepads. Another superhero showed up and the monster jumped on her and it flattened her, and Wonder Princess was saying, “I bet you wish your wore your kneepads and helmet!”

She had another doll playing a superhero of her own creation,"Throwing Dirty Diapers Girl", whose power is exactly what it sounds like, and who somehow ascended to a leadership position in Lily's superhero organization. (She's still a better superhero than Triplicate Girl.)

Lily was using a bunch of Wizard of Oz dolls, and there was one I just couldn't figure out what character it was supposed to be.  It was like a grey cat in an old-fashioned dress. I asked her "Who is this?" and she raised her hands in exasperation and said in an extremely patronizing voice, "It's the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood. You remember the story of Little Red Riding Hood, don't you?" and I was like "Jeebus, dude. Do you talk to your classmates like that? Because if so, get used to living inside your locker."

I had picked up a couple Legion of Superhero happy meal toys cheap online the other week. I gave her the heroes right away, but I held off giving her the villains, because I didn't think she would like them. I couldn't have been more wrong. Normal kids do not say "Oh, boy! You got me some SUPERVILLIANS!"

And just so you don't think it's all superheroes all the time, as Lily was walking up the stairs for bedtime, she said," I love you and mommy one hundred million and Baby Bear one hundred sixty." Pause. "A hundred million is more than a hundred sixty, right? I didn't want you to think that I loved a stuffed animal more than I loved you."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Q&A about the Merlin books

I'm sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I think I'll make this an actual post, rather than reply in the comments section, because it did wind up being pretty lengthy.

Chris DeVito :Having finally read all the Merlin books, I have to admit to continued bemusement at your relentless antipathy for Merlin, Josh. Yes, he's young, overconfident, and cloddishly earnest.

The short version is that there's a very wide gulf between Merlin as we're told and Merlin as we're shown and I think they're irreconcilable. (The even shorter version is that this is the Internet and I think it's more fun to write a post full of outrageous hyperbole than it is to state, "I found Merlin a less compelling character than Corwin.")

We're *told* that he's this charming and brilliant polymath who mastered the Logrus, Logrus sorcery, the Pattern, Pattern sorcery,  Trump artistry, and computer programming to the extent that he could build his own AI demigod, all before his 30th birthday. Also, he's an Olympic caliber athlete, a brilliant fencer, and irresistible to women. I can accept that. There are incredibly talented people out there and he does come from a race of superhumans with almost endless resources to call upon, so I'm willing to give that a pass.

But when he has to demonstrate that brilliance, he's really painfully slow. Bill Roth is attorney, and probably a good one, but like I said, he's got to hold Merlin's hand through the painfully obvious. And, yeah, smart doesn't mean sensible, and yes, Bill is largely there to provide exposition for the reader but Jesus, for someone who is paranoid and ostensibly brilliant, Merlin is consistently slow on the uptake.

We're never shown why he's so great; we're only shown by the reactions of established characters. The core of my dislike of Merlin is that the story is that his presence warps the characterization of characters from the fist book. Gerard was the rock of Amber. He was above the squabbles of the others, and he loved his family, with all their faults, and he loved Amber. Now he has to stand to with his brothers and sisters to curry favor with Merlin.

With the first series, I always felt that Corwin only barely triumphed through desperate cunning and Herculean effort. But this never reflected poorly on him. Quite the opposite. It elevated his adversaries and therefore it elevated him. Merlin never has to exert himself, coasting to victory after victory by dumb luck, powerful patrons or straight up incompetence on the part of his opponents (And after all that he went through, didn't you feel a little sorry for poor Jurt?)

Chris DeVito:  I hate to say it, but that's the kind of sloppiness typical of (a) lazy writers, (b) hack writers, or (c) writers who just don't give a damn. Obviously the first two don't apply to Zelazny; but I have to wonder if, at that point, he'd just had enough of the Amber books and cranked out the last couple as quickly and easily as possible, without much concern for things like continuity and loose ends.

That's the impression I get too. I do like the short stories that followed the Merlin books. It feels like they were leading up to something, rather than just trying to end something that had already gone on too long. (Then again, it may be a matter of personal preference, because I think I prefer Zelazny's short works over his longer ones.)