Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Stainless Steel Leech

So the comment in my last post about Jen using a metal tent stake to kill a robot vampire made me think of this story. It's about a robot vampire. (Or a vampire robot, if you prefer)

"Ayiee! Daylight Savings Time already?!"

The most interesting thing to me about this story is the introduction Zelazny wrote:

There came a point when I was turning out lots of short stories, so many that Cele suggested running two per issue to use up my backlog, with a pen name on the second tale. She suggested Harrison Denmark as the nom de typewriter. I agreed and this, my first effort at something slightly humorous, appeared under that by-line. It never occurred to me that Harry Harrison, livingat the time in Snekkerson, Denmark and author of The Stainless Steel Rat might somehow be assumed to be the author. It occurred to Harry, however, and he published a letter disclaiming authorship. I was not certain he was convinced when I later told him that it had never occurred to me. But it had never occurred to me.

Zelazny has written elsewhere that he believes that a writer should know more about a story than is explicitly stated in the body of the text, and I could not agree more. That last line in that introduction is what sticks with me. Among fans of the Lord of the Rings, the meme has sprung up on the internet "Why didn't they have the Eagles fly the Ring into Mordor?" And the fans kick it over and go back and forth looking to explain it, but I've always been content with the explanation that it just never occurred to anybody to do it that way. Other genre authors tend to have characters that infallibly calculate the optimal course of action, but there is something in Zelazny's writing that lets me believe that his characters live in a real world, and things happened as they happened because his characters made the choices they did, and had they chosen differently, their stories would have unfolded in a complete different direction.

Every time I read the story, I think of Futurama. It's vintage Zelazny, a neat concept and some beautiful passages.

The neat concept:

I, the unjunked, am legend. Once out of a million assemblies a defective such as I might appear and go undetected, until too late.

At will, I could cut the circuit that connected me with Central Control, and be a free 'bot, and master of my own movements. I liked to visit the cemeteries, because they were quiet and different from the maddening stamp- stamp of the presses and the clanking of the crowds; I liked to look at the green and red and yellow and blue things that grew about the graves. And I did not fear these places, for that circuit, too, was defective. So when I was discovered they removed my vite-box and threw me on the junk heap.

But the next day I was gone, and their fear was great.

I no longer possess a self-contained power unit, but the freak coils within my chest act as storage batteries. They require frequent recharging, however, and there is only one way to do that.

The werebot is the most frightful legend whispered among the gleaming steel towers, when the night wind sighs with its burden of fears out of the past, from days when non-metal beings walked the earth. The half-lifes, the preyers upon order, still cry darkness within the vite-box of every 'bot.

That would have made it a good story. What makes it a great story is that the robot vampire is friends with the last human vampire.

The beautiful passages:

"... But only a stainless steel leech can get blood out of a stone—or a robot," he said last night. "It is a proud and lonely thing to be a stainless steel leech—you are possibly the only one of your kind in existence. Live up to your reputation! Hound them! Drain them! Leave your mark on a thousand steel throats! "


"I remember his frantic questing after the last few sprays of garlic and wolfsbane on earth, the crucifix assembly lines he kept in operation around the clock—irreligious soul that he was! I was genuinely sorry when he died, in peace. Not so much because I hadn't gotten to drain him properly, but because he was a worthy op- ponent and a suitable antagonist. What a game we played!"

His husky voice weakened.

"He sleeps a scant three hundred paces from here, bleaching and dry. His is the great marble tomb by the gate... Please gather roses tomorrow and place them upon it."


The roses live on the wall across the road. From great twisting tubes of vine, with heads brighter than any rust, they bum like danger lights on a control panel, but moistly.


In the final light of the sun I see them drive a stake through the Over's vite-box and bury him at the crossroads.

Then they hurry back toward their towers of steel, of plastic. I gather up what remains of Fritz and carry him down to his box. The bones are brittle and silent.

It's short even for a short story, and has no pretensions for being anything more than a really fun short story, but it's such a joy to read that I find myself returning to it again and again.

Monday, September 27, 2010

My weekend

So, despite the fact that our weekend had a funeral right in the middle of it, it was still pretty nice. On Friday, we had Dave and Karen and Sherman over, and we all played some "What were you thinking?". Oops, I mean "What were you thinking!!!!!111ONE". I knew that it was published by Wizards of the Coast, but I assumed that they did so before Magic really took off, but a little research tells me that it came out in 1998.

It's a fun little game. You get a question, say, "Name five things that are blue" and you get points based on the number of people who have the same answer. For instance, if you said "the sky", and 5 other people also gave that answer, each person would get six points for it. If you said "the sea" and only three other people agreed with you, you'd get four points.

It's kind of neat, because there are True or False questions. "True or False, The Amazon is the longest river in the world?" and it doesn't matter if you get the question right or wrong, only that you're in the majority. In that sense, it's kind of like American politics.

We were playing with Sherman who is color blind, so when we got the the question "Name five things that are yellow," his list read like, the sky, oranges, the color red, pickles and Michael Jackson.

I put together a playlist of random stuff on the computer. I think I have must have introduced more than five songs with the line, "This is the best song ever! I heard it on public radio!" Jen's eyes were getting a considerable workout.

Jen's sister showed up on Thursday afternoon, and we had a pretty good time. They staged this elaborate Cinderalla role-playing thing, where Lily was Cinderella and I was the prince and Jen and her sister were the wicked stepsisters. Lily really enjoyed it.

Earlier that day, the little girl next door saw Jen and Lily when they were coming into the house. She kept saying "Hi, Lily! Hi, Lily!" and Lily turned to Jen and said, "She's kinda freakin' me out." It turns out that Lily was making a Kim Possible reference, which makes that line even more awesome.

On Saturday, we had my aunt's funeral. It was held in a small Catholic cemetery that seems to be the final resting place of just about every relative I've ever had. The service was fine. The pastor made some noises about Mickey coming back to the church, but I don't know what was going on there. Perhaps she had to be a member of the faith to be eligible to be buried there.

We looked at my grandfather's grave for a while and I noticed that my Grammy's name was already inscribed on the headstone. And I guess that's somewhat convenient for whatever party has to do the engraving, but I don't think that offsets how fucking terrifying it must be to look at a tombstone and see your own name.

On Sunday, we went to the Celtic Classic. I drove up with Dave and we met Jen and Lily and Sherman and Karen up there. It's a shame that we didn't think to invite the Lord until we were already up there. It was neat getting together with friends, but Dave pointed out that that when you get down to brass tacks, the Celtic Classic doesn't really have a huge amount of appeal. You can overpay for beer or fried X on a stick, but mostly it's just huge crowds and dudes in kilts and too much noise to hold a conversation. Dave and I parked at Martin Tower where I used to work, and walked the mile and a half there. We both commented that we had more fun on the walk than at the festival. Not that we had a bad time while we were there, mind you. We just had a better time shooting the breeze on our walk. For instance, I was telling him about the time Jen picked about a metal tent stake and we both had the same thought, that it would be ideal if she needed to kill a robot vampire.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: He Who Shapes

Wow, this almost wound up as a proper review, rather than the "Hey, a Roger Zelazny story! I liked/didn't like it! Here are some quotes I thought were neat!" format that my reviews tend to take.

I mentioned in my Inception review that, while there are certain parallels between the two works, such as time dilation and the implanting of an idea, that's only because they deal with similar subject matter. They didn't have nearly in much as common as I was suspecting.

I can't decide if I like He Who Shapes better than the Dream Master. In his introduction to the short story, Zelazny writes:

The novel contains some material which I am very happy to have written, but reflecting upon things after the passage of all this time I find that I prefer this, the shorter version. It is more streamlined and as such comes closer to the quasi-Classical notions I had in mind, in terms of economy and directness, in describing a great man with a flaw.

Part of what I admired about Zelazny's works is how short they each tend to be. I'm sure part of that is due to the era when he produced the bulk of it, as books were just shorter then. As much as I like his novels, I think his short stories are where he produced his best material. (In general. Lord of Light is probably the best thing he wrote, and the among the best genre works anybody wrote. I also like Donnerjack quite a bit, though I'm not sure that counts, because it was created by mashing up three books originally intended as a trilogy.) That's why I'll be looking at He Who Shapes rather than The Dream Master. Also, in rereading both in preparation for this, the parts I like most were already present in He Who Shapes, so no point in going for the longer one.

Charles Render is a neuroparticipant therapist, a "Shaper", which is a kind of therapist who guides the dreams of his subjects and provides analysis in this fashion. He's also kind of an asshole. I could see George Clooney as Render, just playing his character from Up in the Air.

The other main character is Elaine Shallot, "somewhere in the vicinity of her early thirties with low bronze bangs." Hmmm...since I'm casting people in this review, who would I like to see in the part? That's a tough one. It seems like so many actresses are too young or too ephemeral for the part. Err...Let's just go with Felicity Huffman, because I can't think of anyone better off the top of my head. Elaine is okay, but the character I like is her seeing eye dog, Sigmund.

Sigmund a mutie Shepherd (though I always imagine him as a Saint Bernard, for some reason), a genetically altered dog with the intelligence of a chimp and a vocabulary of about four hundred words. I'm not a dog person, but I like Sigmund and his loyalty to his mistress.

He stared in at Render in a very un-doglike way and made a growling noise which sounded too much like, "Hello, doctor," to have been an accident.

Render nodded and stood.

"Hello, Sigmund," he said. "Come in."

The dog turned his head, sniffing the air of the room— as though deciding whether or not to trust his ward within its confines. Then he returned his stare to Render, dipped his head in an affirmative, and shouldered the door open. Perhaps the entire encounter had taken only one disconcerting second.

Eileen followed him, holding lightly to the double- leashed harness. The dog padded soundlessly across the thick rug—head low, as though he were stalking some- thing. His eyes never left Render's.

I like Sigmund. Render and Elaine are interesting characters, but each of them so intense (Render is a "granite-willed,ultra-stable outsider—tough enough to weather the basilisk gaze of a fixation, walk unscathed amidst the chimarae of perversions, force dark Mother Medusa to close her eyes before the caduceus of his art" and Elaine "has a will of ten-point steel and the emotional control of an ascetic as well—") that like I can't really bring myself to like them.

"I can't restore her sight," he explained. "I'm just going to transfer her some sight-abstractions—sort of lend her my eyes for a short time. Savvy?"

"No," said the dog. "Take mine."

I've mentioned my friend Greg, the professor of Mordred Studies if he thought Elaine Shallot might be a reference to Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott."

I forget exactly what he said, but his answer amounted to "Well, obviously. What's your next epiphany, that her dog was named after Freud?"

I quite like the poem, by the way. Loreena McKennitt set it to music, and sometimes I'll listen to it if I have a free half-hour. The Lady of Shallot is based on the legend of Elaine of Astolat so the aptronym of Elaine Shallot is a rather uncharacteristic bit of prophetic naming.

Jill DeVille is an interesting character with a great name. She's a lot smarter than she lets on, as evinced by her conversation with Bartelmetz.

"Have you seen Charles today?"

"Alas, I have not," he gestured, open-handed, "and I wanted to continue our discussion while his mind was still in the early stages of wakefulness and somewhat malleable. Unfortunately," he took a sip of coffee, "he who sleeps well enters the day somewhere in the middle of its second act."

"Myself, I usually come in around intermission and ask someone for a synopsis," she explained. "So why not continue the discussion with me?—I'm always malleable and my skandhas are in good shape."

Their eyes met, and he took a bite of toast. "Aye," he said, at length, "I had guessed as much. Well—good. What do you know of Render's work?" She adjusted herself in the chair.

"Mm. He being a special specialist in a highly specialized area, I find it difficult to appreciate the few things he does say about it.

Casting her, I want to go with Lauren Graham, though I think she's just slightly too old. Maybe Zooey Deschanel. But I like Jill. She's smart enough, but she lacks the specialized training that would allow her to converse with Render about his work in any meaningful way.

There is the persistent theme of suicide to escape this society of strangers and maybe that's where Zelazny critics get the idea that his works often contain the theme of suicide. I can almost see that here, because it is made so explicit, but I think that Render's final act is, like so many of Zelazny's heroes, one of self-destuction, rather than of suicide. With suicide, the death of the self is the goal. With self-destruction, it is an inevitable, but incidental consequence. I think it's an important distinction

Okay, this wouldn't be a Josh review without me saying, "Hey! Here are some quotes I thought were neat!" In that spirit:
  • "The universe did not invent justice. Man did. Unfortunately, man must reside in the universe."
  • "—And if something that strong should break, in a timeless moment of anxiety." smiled Barlelmetz sadly, "may the shades of Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung walk by your side in the valley of darkness.
Final word? It's wonderful. I never get tired of the Greek hero, the noble man doomed by his single, defining flaw. It is Render's nature to be what he is. And I don't like the tautology contained in that statement, but it's true. He is Render, the Shaper. To think of himself as something else is to become that thing.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Of Princesses and Parties

Zelazny blogging will return shortly, but I did promise my friend Eric a post about his party, so here it is. While we were there, Eric asked me if I was going to blog about it. Duh. I blog about everything. Ever since I moved to a pseudonymous open blog, I talk about certain things in less detail, but yeah, I still blog about everything.

On Monday night, I took Lily to a party while Jen made falafels for her luncheon. The party was for Eric's son and Batman-themed. They had Batman water, Batman plates, Batman napkins and they even had a Batcave, though I docked them significant points for the absence of a giant penny.

Lily was wearing her Princess costume and asked me to put a set of fairy wings on her. She stressed to people that she wasn't actually a fairy princess; she was just dressed as one. Though apparently she was still magical since she turned me into a jellybean at one point.

Lily was afraid of the Joker on the napkins. (Though I don't know why. The Joker is a tool.)

Lily: Daddy, this witch is scary.
Me: Okay, I'll get you a new napkin. (Turns around, flips napkin upside down so that she'd just see the bats against a skyline)
Lily: (Peers critically at me) You didn't get me a new napkin. You just flipped that one over.

Now there's no way she could have seen that, so I assume she deduced it. That kid is too sharp.

But it was a pretty great party. Gift bags had candy and comic books (ours was an issue of Tiny Titans) Lily wanted to play with me and Eric more than she did with the other kids, which is not a trait I'm sure I want to encourage or not, but we did have fun. Eric pushed her on the swing and then I would bend over to pick something up and then she'd stick out her legs and kick me in the heinie. She would laugh and laugh, and she does have such a wonderful laugh when she's happy.

When she was telling Jen about that later that night, she was laughing so much that she could barely get the story out. After she finished, she said to me, "That story cracked me up. That means it made me laugh really hard!"

Tuesday was pretty quiet and then for the next day we watched Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue and again, our Wacky Wednesday movie was pretty good, particularly with the animation and the water effects. I'm kind of pleased they didn't half-ass it, and they certainly could have gotten away with it, because if Lily is any indication of the target audience, they'll watch anything with fairies in it, no matter how lousy it is.

It was about a little girl who catches Tinkerbell and becomes her friend. I asked Lily what she would do if she caught a fairy, but the fairy wanted to go home. She said, "I'd be sad, but I would give her my princess shoe so she'd have a home and then she would remember me."

Lily didn't want to join us on the couch because she was wearing her wings again, but we had a good time regardless. Also, I happen to like Mae Whitman and Kristin Chenoweth (and I do spend an inordinate amount of time blogging about women with funny voices but that's neither here nor there.)

The movie is about a little nine-year old girl whose scientist father is so focused on his work that he doesn't have time for her. When she meets Tinkerbell, she befriends her and Tink helps her put together a scientific journal about faeries. There's some kid-level of tension, but nothing serious and daddy and daughter are nicely reconciled at the end. I'm a sucker for movies that have good dads.

When we were done, Lily threw her arms around my neck and said "Oh, I love happy endings!"

She was kind of naughty during bed time, and when I picked her up off the bed in the room adjacent to hers our we're using as a guest bed, she got really upset. She said that she just wanted to tire herself out, but I thought that it would only serve to get her more wound up, so I grabbed her and shut the door. Things went downhill from there, and she got more upset than I've ever seen her.

She threw herself on the bed and covered up with her blanket and hugged her lamb and kept crying and saying things like "I'm going right to bed. No stories, no kiss goodnight, no holding hands. I was bad all day. I broke my own heart!"

She felt so guilty. I felt terrible. After a good forty minutes, I calmed her down, and convinced her that she was only a little bad at the end of the day. She was happy then, so I asked her how she had felt earlier. I was expecting something like sad, or perhaps "really sad". Instead she said "I felt like I was alone in the playground without mommy and daddy, and it was dark and cold and scary and and there were birds flying overhead and there are spiders and spiderwebs, and I'm all by myself."

I thought she was going to start quoting Return of the King. "No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades."

She's going to be a poet or a drama queen, or maybe both.

I asked her how she felt now that she was happier. She smiled her wonderful smile and said "Now it's sunny and mommy and daddy are with me, we're in a field where we can pick any flowers we want and Lamby is here and she is so happy that she turned into a real lamb!"

That's more like it. We may not win all our fights, but we win the ones that matter.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I'd like to buy a Vowell

My friend Jen is going to love this blog. Not only does it have a clip of her doppelganger Caroline Dhavernas, but it's also all about Sarah Vowell!

I finished my The Partly Cloudy Patriot this afternoon and I was sad to hear it end. Sarah Vowell is wonderful. I love her voice, in both senses of the word. Her stylistic voice is a really entertaining combination of idealism and blistering sarcasm. She was the voice of Violet in the Incredibles and reads her own works for the audio versions and she has a funny voice.

I use words to describe her that I wouldn't use to describe anyone else. The one that springs to mind is "firecracker" and the other one is "saucebox". The only time I've heard that one used is on the Worm with Flippers scene in Wonderfalls.

I uploaded a video I made of the scene, but that might not show up for the people reading this on the Facebook feed, so here's a transcript (or you can always read my stuff directly on my blog)

Where is she?

Mind your own business, saucebox.

Did you eat all those muffins?

Sure did. (eyes her with disdain) I said I wasn’t ready. I said I needed to lose 12 more pounds. But you wouldn’t listen.

Where’s Mrs. Beattle?

(Fat Pat nods toward a closed partition.) She’s back there.

Mrs. Beattle?

(No response. Jaye eyes Fat Pat.)

Know what happens when you rip a caterpillar from its cocoon before it becomes a butterfly?

Isn’t it like a worm with flippers?

Yeah, smartass. I’m like a worm with flippers. Thanks a lot. You are just so vile.

Also, I'm going to answer any question I get at work like that from now on. "Josh, do you have those figures ready for me yet?" "You should mind your own business, saucebox."

Okay, that part didn't really have anything to do with Sarah Vowell, except that it's pretty awesome and so is she.

She's unapologetic about who she is and what she is. She's a geek, and she talks about the topic in Patriot.

Geeks tend to be focused on very narrow fields of endeavor. The modern geek has been generally dismissed by society because their passions are viewed as trivial by those people who ‘see the big picture.’ Geeks understand that the big picture is pixilated and their high level of contribution in small areas grows the picture. They don’t need to see what everyone else is doing to make their part better. Being a nerd, which is to say going to far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friends I know. For me, the spark that turns an acquaintance into a friend has usually been kindled by some shared enthusiasm like detective novels or Ulysses S. Grant.

If something is ridiculous, she ridicules it. If she thinks something is awesome, she'll gush about it so enthusiastically and articulately that I understand what she sees and become enthusiastic myself!

I agree with almost everything she says in the book except where she takes privileged white people to task for comparing their personal inconveniences to epic struggles in history. Specifically she was criticizing Michael Moore for exhorting a stadium full of well fed well meaning white kids to stand up to power by being like Rosa Parks, by which he meant voting for Ralph Nader. But then she redeemed herself by quoting Robert Guillaume on Sports Night saying to a young Newscaster "No rich young white guy has ever gotten anywhere comparing himself to Rosa Parks." (I'm sure Sarah will be overjoyed to know we're reconciled)

But where I disagree with her is that I think that many people can make small sacrifices, and perform small acts of kindness and decency into the name of a person without diminishing the great deeds of that person. I think someone can be inspired by a great person and perform small acts that of which he or she would have approved without besmirching the legacy.

That was on my mind, because though I lack Vowell's eye or ear or wit, I try to emulate her style. I like to think that I can sometimes write engagingly enough about topics that interest me to entertain or inform people who would not otherwise care, and that I aim my sarcasm and reserve my praise for the right targets.

Anyway Tim also had some requests for my usual shticks, so "Karen loves giraffes!" "House is stupid!" "Firefly was a crummy show!"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Last Defender of Camelot

The latest in the my series of Roger Zelazny book reviews!

I'm trying to alternate reviews of stuff I liked with stuff I didn't. (There's the family stuff too, but the people who read that tend to do so when the blog feeds into Facebook.) Since my Lord Demon review was rather harsh, today I'm covering one of my favorites.

Even compared to by my rather intense devotion to Roger Zelazny's work, I just love the Last Defender of Camelot. It's a wonderful short little story that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.

Interestingly, there were two anthologies named after the story, one in 1980 and another in 2002.. Hard to say which one I prefer. Both lineups are pretty strong and they each have "For a Breath I Tarry". If I really had to pick, I think I'd go with the second collection. It's got "24 Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai" and "Home is the Hangman."

Hey, now that I think of it, 24 Views has a female protagonist. I take back what I said earlier about Zelazny never featuring women.

I also like the introduction:

I wrote this one for The Saturday Evening Post and they asked me to cut it to 4500 words. It is 9000 words in length. Crossing out every other word made it sound funny, so I didn't.

Weird that the Post would have commissioned this story though. I think of them and picture the Norman Rockwell covers, and I can't reconcile the two. Rereading it for this review made me marvel how perfectly every element comes together. Every description, every line of dialogue is absolutely pitch perfect. I probably it consider the best of Zelazny's shorter works. I've always liked Arthurian stories (though I don't like them quite as much as my friend Greg, who will soon earn his PhD in Mordred Studies!) ever since I appeared in a grade school production of Camelot.

The hero of the story is Lancelot Du Lac, mysteriously immortal and working as an appraiser in hopes of finding the Holy Grail.

He encounters Morgan La Fay who is passing the time as a fortune teller.

"Is it that you do not believe in such things?" she asked, her eyes scrutinizing his face.

"No, quite the contrary," he replied. "I am willing to believe in magic, divination and all manner of spells and sendings, angelic and demonic. But—"

"But not from someone in a dump like this?"

He smiled.

"No offense," he said.

Lance has his own theory about his immortality: I really like Lance's voice. He's no longer an idealist, but nor is he jaded. I'm reluctant to call him a realist, though either. I think Zelazny does an excellent job of portraying a straightforward thinker who has had many years to think on complex issues, and has arrived at his conclusion through constant ruminations. It makes me think of the constant pressures of erosion wearing a stone to smoothness.

"I decided that it was—my sin," he said. "with...the Queen."

"I don't understand."

"I betrayed my Liege, who was also my friend, in the one thing which must have hurt him most. The love I felt was stronger than loyalty or friendship—and even today, to this day, it still is. I cannot repent, and so I cannot be forgiven. Those were strange and magical times. We lived in a land destined to become myth. Powers walked the realm in those days, forces which are now gone from the earth. How or why, I cannot say. But you know that it is true. I am somehow of a piece with those gone things, and the laws that rule my existence are not normal laws of the natural world. I believe that I cannot die; that it has fallen my lot, as punishment, to wander the world till I have completed the Quest. I believe I will only know rest the day I find the Holy Grail. Giuseppe Balsamo, before he became known as Cagliostro, somehow saw this and said it to me just as I had thought it, though I never said a word of it to him. And so I have traveled the world, searching. I go no more as knight, or soldier, but as an appraiser. I have been in nearly every museum on Earth, viewed ail the great private collections. So far, it has eluded me."

Morgan corrects him:

Your story is fascinating and your theory novel," she began, "but Cagliostro was a total charlatan. Something must have betrayed your thoughts, and he made a shrewd guess. But he was wrong. I say that you will never find it, not because you are unworthy or unforgiven. No, never that. A more loyal subject than yourself never drew breath. Don't you know that Arthur forgave you? It was an arranged marriage. The same thing happened constantly elsewhere, as you must know. You gave her something he could not. There was only tenderness there. He understood. The only forgiveness you require is that which has been withheld all these long years—your own.

She later tells him of Merlin:

"He is mad, Launcelot. Many of us felt a great relief at his passing. If the realm had not been sundered finally by strife it would probably have been broken by his hand, anyway."

"That I find difficult to believe. He was always a strange man—for who can fully understand a sorcerer?— and in his later years he did seem at least partly daft. But he never struck me as evil."

"Nor was he. His was the most dangerous morality of all. He was a misguided idealist. In a more primitive time and place and with a willing tool like Arthur, he was able to create a legend. Today, in an age of monstrous weapons, with the right leader as his catspaw, he could unleash something totally devastating. He would see a wrong and force his man to try righting it. He would do it in the name of the same high ideal he always served, but he would not appreciate the results until it was too late. How could he—even if he were sane? He has no conception of modem international relations."

Merlin, like another who shares the name, is a bit of a douche.

"The complete restoration of my powers and their increase will require a sacrifice in this place."

"Then you planned this for me all along!"

"No. It was not to have been you. Lance. Anyone would have served, though you will serve superbly well. It need not have been so, had you elected to assist me. You could still change your mind."

"Would you want someone who did that at your side?"

"You have a point there."

"Then why ask—save as a petty cruelty?"

"It is just that, for you have annoyed me."

Great ending too.

It passed slowly before him in a halo of white light. He removed his sticky fingers from his side and rose to his feet to follow it. Solid, glowing, glorious and pure, not at all like the image in the chamber, it led him on out across the moonlit plain, from dimness to brightness to dimness, until the mists enfolded him as he reached at last to embrace it.



Monday, September 20, 2010

I see dead farmers

I usually damn with faint praise the movies we watch on Wacky Wednesday with "not as terrible as I would have expected" but Barbie as Rapunzel was almost...good. The production values were pretty decent, plus it had Angelica Huston as the wicked stepmother. (Naturally) She had really long hair and while she was imprisoned in a tower, she didn't let down her hair to let anyone climb up.

I was kind of hanging out downstairs and Lily held up one of her Little People toys and said, "Daddy, let's pretend that the farmer's dead."


I just kind of mumbled something along the lines of "Oh, pretending that would make me sad," but man, dude.

Other than that, she's been very sweet lately. We had a nice time breaking out the Halloween decorations and Lily helped out by holding the chair whenever we were standing on it and giving us helpful advice like telling us to make the house, "Scary, but not TOO scary, because little kids might be trick or treating and we don't want to scare them."

I was talking to Jen about how I'll spend much more effort on blog posts where I'm reviewing something I don't like and she interrupted me to say "Do you think that makes you unusual?"

Well, kinda.

I asked Lily if I was unusual and she said "No, mommy's unusual!" because she's in that contrarian phase.

I happened to see Ted Allen on TV, and I spent fifteen minutes bitching about how I wanted to stab him as we were taking the air conditioner out of the window for the season.

Jen: Stop talking about stabbing Tim Allen.
Me: Ted Allen!
Jen: Whatever. Just stab him and pretend he's the other guy.
Me: No, you know why?
Jen: *sigh* Why?
Me: Because the time I'm spending stabbing Tim Allen, I could be using to stab Ted Allen! (Pause. Wave to elderly neighbor.) Oh, here there neighbor. Didn't see you standing there.

I'm trying to be the person who spends more time talking about things that I like than bitching about things I don't. And I was noticing that my reviews about the books I liked were longer, but the ones I wrote about books I didn't especially like were shorter but took me longer to write. I'm not sure what it says about me.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Lord Demon

Welcome to the latest in my ongoing Roger Zelazny book reviews, where I will eventually hope to review every major work by my favorite author. As always, these aren't reviews in the traditional sense, but rather commentary that assumes a thorough knowledge of the material being discussed.

Today I'll be looking at Lord Demon, which was, to put it kindly, kind of crappy.

Lord Demon is the tale by Roger Zelazny of a shapeshifting sorcerer manipulated by his mother figure. He overcomes her magical compulsions and then defeats her in a sorcerous duel at the end of the book. The setup seemed vaguely familiar, but I could never quite put my finger on it.

Oh. Right.

The sad part is that the Merlin books were the better take on this.

And I hated Merlin, but I just don't care about Kai Wren. He's just so...generic.

The book was completed by Jane Lindskold, but it still feels unfinished. Now mind you, I don't mean to knock Doctor Lindskold. Her style doesn't really appeal to me, but hey, she's published like 15 books to, so she must be doing something right. Also, just about anyone is going to come up short when compared to Roger Zelazny, so I won't judge her too harshly.

The book itself: I've got it in hardcover. I probably grabbed it in about 2000 or so, back when we were still living up in New Hamster. We were with our friends Steve and Jen at the Holyoke Mall. I remember buying the book and then trying to hide it from Jen because she's strongly religious and I didn't want to give a long explanation about a book called Lord Demon. She actually wound up being pretty cool with it, though. That's what I like about her. She has her faith but she doesn't try to force it on her friends.

I still have that hardcover with the $4.99 budget table sticker. And sadly, I find that boring little vignette about how I found the book to be more interesting than the story contained in it.

It's not all bad, and even in Zelany's worst books, he offers up something novel. Take this passage. It's vintage Zelazny, a brief explanation of an internally consistent magical system fully realized.

"It is not the material of the device, but the intention that matters. Do you follow me?"
"Perhaps," he said. "Continue."
"When you have established this resonance and your intent is made known, then you receive your information."
"Why," Li Piao queried, "then, do things like the dragon bowl work so much better for the task?"
"Because the maker of the tool"--I bowed slightly-- "has created a partial circuit for that intent. If you were to use a soup bowl and a bit of water from a puddle, you could still scry, but the chi inherent in the device would be unfocused, thus you would need to use more of your will to force it to do the required task.
"With the dragon bowl," I continued, warming to my subject, "any marginally talented individual could scry. A master like yourself not only sees images but the dragon also 'talks' to him--clarifying the message,"
Plum was nodding as if she followed this--which, given her profession and her grandfather's opinion of her skills, I had every reason to believe she did.
"This door of yours, then," she asked, "is set to be opened by someone who is in resonance with the particular wavelength of its chi?"
"Precisely," I said. "Since I believed it would be needed only by me, I am the only one who knows the pattern."

It has more than a few memorable lines:

"Is your granddaughter, Plum, a serious practitioner of feng shui, or is she just an interior decorator with an Oriental twist?"

Also, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention this one:

Something like this had happened to a fellow in a novel I read once. His enemies stashed him in a private sanitorium and authorized its staff to dope him to the gills. He, however, turned out to have superhuman strength and recuperative powers, and had busted his way out. I wasn't so well equipped.

Sure it's kind of obvious, but I still LOL'd. However, a good rule of thumb is that if you're half-assing your novel, you probably don't want to include a shout out to a much better earlier work.

That's it for the good parts. As for the bad...well...

It's got some neat concepts, but they're a mess. It's lazy. The principle conflict is resolved through use of a wishing bottle. As in, you rub it and it grants you whatever you wish for. Good thing he had that thing just lying around! I mean there is deus ex machina and then there are dei ex machina and this wishing bottle is about a pantheon's worth.

Kai Wren buys his pizza from Pizza Heaven, which is a placeholder name if I've ever heard one. Ditto Oliver O'Keefe for the name of his sidekick. Really? Was Angus McHaggis taken?

It also hasn't aged well. At the time it was written, "oriental" in reference to a person had not yet fallen out of mainstream use, but now it just sounds anachronistic and offensive. It's not easy writing in the voice of an actual cultural group from outside that group, and unfortunately, I don't think the authors were up to the task.

"A wise old fellow--Sun-Tzu--was fond of saying that when the last trick fails, the fox goes to earth, grants concessions to the enemy, and lives to return another day," said Po Shiang.
"I'm not certain that Sun-Tzu put it quite that way," Viss said pleasantly.

And a little bit later...

"I allied myself with Fu Xian," he said smoothly. "My association with Po Shiang was incidental. As Confucius said: 'The oak does not choose to harbor the mistletoe.' "
Tuvoon snorted. "I don't think Confucius ever said such a thing."
"So sue me," Ken Zhao shot back.

I have a couple Asian friends and sometimes we manage to hold entire conversations without mentioning Sun-Tzu or Confucius at all!

And the hangers. Jesus, the fucking hangers.

"The legend," repeated the Walker, glancing at me. "The legend that missing socks turn into wire clothes hangers--this is the reason why you always have too many hangers and too few socks. For that to be true, there had to be some continuity between the planes. Everyone knows that drawers and cabinets often have access to other dimensions."

I mean, What. The. Fuck? Was there no editor at all involved on this project?

Kai Wren is trying to understand the hu-mans and this "love" we feel.

Will he chose the Spilling Moonbeams, the demoness of good breeding over Plum, the plucky human geomancer? Will Josh manage to give even the tiniest of shits over this trite and boring subplot? By staggering coincidence, both questions have the same answer.

Overall, really pretty weak. The one thing for which I am grateful is that it lowered my expectations for Donnerjack, also coauthored by Jane Lindskold, which was absolutely spectacular and vies for Lord of Light as my favorite work.

But that's a story for another post.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Doorways in the Sand

Here we go. The latest in Josh's Roger Zelazny book review series:

I've got a zillion Zelazny books in a billion different formats. Mostly paperbacks, some hardcovers and assorted digital and audio files. When I went to grab Doorways in the Sand for reference in preparation to writing this post, I couldn't find a copy. It wasn't on my Zelazny shelf (I'm such a nerd) nor was it it on any of the other bookshelves in the house.

It might have been buried in a closet or something, but I probably just gave it away to someone. I'm like a lot of Zelazny fans in that I'm something of a evangelist. When visiting a used book store, I'll pick up a paperback copy of a book I already own so that I can give it away. I never kept close track of Doorways, because it seems to be the one book that's always in a used book store no matter where you go. That and Blood of Amber.

It's vintage Zelazny and there's nothing I don't love about it. It's less than 200 pages and has absolutely no padding at all, and Fred is more likable than Corwin or Sam.

Fred Cassidy's uncle set aside a generous stipend for his nephew for as a long as he was a full time undergraduate working towards a degree. Fred likes the setup and becomes an eternal undergrad. I think he's been in school for thirteen years at the beginning of the book. He occasionally has to switch majors with some regularity because his requirements are starting to overlap.

This is near and dear to my heart for a number of reasons. Part of the plot hinges on stereoisomers, and I'm actually a chemist by training, though I did get there in a rather roundabout way. The other is that I started my college career later than most, so I understand what it's like to be an older undergrad. (Also, like Fred, I passed through several disciplines in the process, so I know what that's like too.) Finally, Fred is just fun to read. I occasionally trot out the claim made elsewhere that Zelazny only really writes one character (The laid-back, easy-going, wise-cracking, homicidal protagonist), but Fred breaks that mold. I played a character modeled on him for an RPG a while.

Stylistically, it's pretty neat too. Not quite as experimental as Roadmarks or Creatures of Light and Darkness, but each chapter opens with a dangerous situation not hinted at with the conclusion of the previous chapter, and then we quickly flash back to see how we got there.

I read this a long time before I ever saw Lilo and Stitch, but they're linked together in my mind because Doorways has a bunch of aliens disguising themselves as Australian animals.

My favorite part of the book has to be after Fred passes through the Rhennius machine and he's just working out what it means for him.

This bit always makes me chuckle too:

"We are trying to recover it," he said. "Did you go through the center part of that machine?"

"No," I said. "A bill blew past it, though, and I chased it."

"It looked like you went through the center unit."

"He went around behind it," said one of the men I had told that to, as neatly timed as if he had been sitting on my knee with a monocle in one eye, bless him.

I like Fred in ways I don't like Zelazny's other protagonists. He's smart, he doesn't have anything in particular driving him, and I do feel a certain kinship in that the processes he uses in reasoning out his new situation more or less parallel what mine would be.
A few moments later, though, a half- formed thought caused me to call the bartender back again and have him pour me a shot of bourbon. It had a rich, smoky taste, unlike anything I had ever had out of a bottle bearing that label. Or any other label, for that matter.

Then some recollections from Organic Chem I and II were suddenly with me. All of my amino acids, with the exception of glycine, had been left-handed, accounting for the handedness of my protein helices. Ditto for the nucleotides, giving that twisting to the coils of nucleic acid. But that was before my reversal. I thought madly about stereoisomers and nutrition. It seemed that the body sometimes accepted substances of one handedness and rejected the reversed version of the same thing. Then, in other cases it would accept both, though digestion would take longer in the one case than the other. I tried to recall specific cases. My beer and the shot contained ethyl alcohol, C2H5OH . . . Okay. It was symmetrical, with the two hydrogen atoms coming off the central carbon atom that way. Reversed or unreversed, then, I would get just as stoned on it. Then why did it taste different? The congeners, yes. They were asymmetrical esters and they tickled my taste buds in a different way. My olfactory apparatus had to be playing backward games with the cigarette smoke also. I realized that I would have to look some things up in a hurry when I got home. Since I did not know how long I would be a Spiegelmensch, I wanted to provide against malnutrition, if this were a real danger.
I don't know if it's idiosyncrasy of Zelazny or the language of the era, but this passage is the second time he's used "stoned" where I would have used "drunk".

Overall, it's a wonderful book. It's really short by modern standards (which is true of almost everything Zelazny has written), but there is no dead space at all. It lacks the philosophical overtones of Amber or Lord of Life, but it makes up for that by brimming over with adventure and mystery and yes, just plain fun on every page.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Isle of the Dead

Continuing the series of Zelazny reviews, I suppose it's about time to take a look at Isle of the Dead. After all, it gave this blog its name.

The feeling that had filled me with the creation of each of them came over me then. I had hurled something into the pit. Where there had been darkness, I had hung my worlds. They were my answer. When I finally, walked that Valley, they would remain after me. Whatever the Bay claimed, I had made some replacements, to thumb my nose at it. I had done something, and I knew how to do more.

I misread that the first time around as "Where there had been darkness, I had hung my words."

Sandow's not like the rest of Zelazny's other characters. Another Zelazny fan called him "half-god, half-scaredy cat", and I think that's a really good way to think of him. He reminds me a bit of Random from the Amber novels, when Random rather reluctantly went to rescue Brand.

This is the point where my personal Zelazny chronology gets fuzzy. I know I had read it by 1995, because I was working overnight shifts at the time and I would often reflect on Sandow's observation that:

Of all the things a man may do, sleep probably contributes most to keeping him sane. It puts brackets about each day. If you do something foolish or painful today, you get irritated if somebody mentions it, today. If it happened yesterday, though, you can nod or chuckle, as the case may be. You've crossed through nothingness or dream to another island in Time...sleep gives memory a chance to rev its engine and hand me back my head each day.

Working the graveyard shift will screw you up, because there is no clearly delineated transitioned between days. Go in on Monday, get out on Tuesday. I would lose track of what day it was.

I thought of Martin Bremen when my daughter first started talking, because she would pronounce "just" as "chust" exactly like he did.

"Good evening, Martin. How go things with you?"
"Chust fine, Mister Sandow. And yourself?"

Zelazny never got into intelligent aliens as much as other authors. Pei'ans and the Vegans from This Immortal are the only ones that spring to mind at the moment. Oh, and I guess the Martians from A Rose for Ecclesiastes, but they always struck me as green humans. In light of that, I'll reproduce the full description here, since it is such a rarity.

Pei'ans are about seven feet tall and green as grass. Their heads look like funnels, flat on top, their necks like the necks of funnels. Their eyes are enormous and liquid green or yellow. Their noses are flat upon their faces--wrinkles parenthesizing nostrils the size of quarters. They have no hair whatsoever. Their mouths are wide and they don't really have any teeth in them, per se. Like, I guess the best example is an elasmobranch. They are constantly swallowing their skins. They lack lips, but their dermis bunches and hardens once it goes internal and gives them horny ridges with which to chew. After that, they digest it, as it moves on and is replaced by fresh matter. However this may sound to someone who has never met a Pei'an, they are lovely to look at, more graceful than cats, older than mankind, and wise, very. Other than this, they are bilaterally symmetrical and possess two arms and two legs, five digits per. Both sexes wear jackets and skirts and sandaIs, generally dark in color. The women are shorter, thinner, larger about the hips and chests than the men-- although the women have no breasts, for their young do not nurse, but digest great layers of fat for the first several weeks of their lives, and then begin to digest their skins. After a time, they eat food, pulpy mashes and seastuff mainly. That's Pei'ans.

Their language is difficult. I speak it. Their philosophies are complex. I know some of them. Many of them are telepaths, and some have other unusual abilities. Me, too.

I liked the bit with Bayner on Driscoll. The whole thing on the planet, really. Nice to see some mundane detective work.

Later on Zelazny gets in a couple jabs at civil servants, whose ranks he had recently departed.

For there comes a time in the history of all bureaucracies when they must inevitably parody their own functions. Look what the breakup of the big Austro-Hungarian machine did to poor Kafka, or the Russian one to Gogol. It drove them out of their cotton-picking minds, poor bastards, and now I was looking at a man who had survived an infinitely more inscrutable one until the end of his days was in sight. This indicated to me that he was slightly below average intelligence, emotionally handicapped, insecure, or morally suspect; or else he was an iron-willed masochist. For these neuter machines, combining as they do the worst of both father-image and mother-image--i.e., the security of the womb and the authority of an omniscient leader--always manage to attract the nebbish. And this is why, Mother Earth, I wept inwardly for thee at that moment of the immense parade called Time: the clowns were passing,


The bit below always reminds me of the the Krikketers from Life, the Universe and Everything.

There is a place. It is a place where broken rocks ring a red sun. Several centuries ago, we discovered a race of arthropod-like creatures called Whilles, with whom we could not deal. They rejected friendly overtures on the parts of every known intelligent race. Also, they slew our emissaries and sent their remains back to us, missing a few pieces here and there. When first we contacted them, they possessed vehicles for travel within their own solar system. Shortly thereafter, they developed interstellar travel. Wherever they went, they killed and they stole and then beat it back home. Perhaps they didn't realize the size of the interstellar community at that time, or perhaps they didn't care. They guessed right if they thought it would take an awfully long time to reach an accord when it came to declaring war on them. There is actually very little precedent for interstellar war. The Pei'ans are about the only ones who remember any.. So the attacks failed, what remained of our forces were withdrawn, and we began to bombard the planet. The Whilles were, however, further along technologically than we'd initially thought. They had a near-perfect defense system against missiles. So we withdrew and tried to contain them. They didn't stop their raids, though. Then the Names were contacted, and three worldscapers, Sang-ring of Greldei, Karth'ting of Mordei and I, were chosen by lot to use our abilities in reverse. Later, within the system of the Whilles, beyond the orbit of their home world, a belt of asteroids began to collapse upon itself, forming a planetoid. Rock by rock, it grew, and slowly it altered its course. We sat, with our machinery, beyond the orbit of the farthest planet, directing the new world's growth and its slow spiral inward. When the Whilles realized what was happening, they tried to destroy it. But it was too late. They never asked for mercy, and none of them tried to flee. They waited, and the day came. The orbits of the two worlds intersected, and now it is a place where broken rocks ring a red sun. I stayed drunk for a week after that.

I like that he's willing to buy Shandon off.

"I am. I've decided to do it the easy way."

"What do you mean?"

"How much do you want?"

"Money? You scared of me, Frank?"

"I came here to kill you, but I won't do it if Kathy loves you. She says she does. Okay. If you've got to go on living, then I want you off my back. How much will it take for you to pick up your marbles and go away?"

"What are marbles?"

"Forget it. How much?"

"I hadn't thought you would offer, so I never thought about it. A lot, though. I'd want a guaranteed income for life, a large one. Then some really large purchases in my name--I'd have to make a list. --You really do mean it? This isn't a trick?"

"We're both telepaths. I propose we drop our screens. In fact, I'd insist on it as a condition."

"Kathy has been asking me not to kill you," he said, "and she would probably hold it against me if I did. Okay. She means more to me. I'll take your money and your wife and go away."

You know, I didn't realize it right now, but it seems like none of Zelazny's vengeance driven characters really get their revenge in the manner they expect. Shadowjack does, but Corwin, Dilvish, Sandow, something prevents it for each of them. It seems a more mature route to take and it reminds me of a Lincoln quote I like: "Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?" Off the top of my head, I can't think of any of his characters who get the decisive on-screen confrontation that they've been expecting.

Ultimately, it's pretty decent. I even like the sequel To Die in Italbar, and I know a lot of Zelazny fans don't care for that one.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Water Lily

We had a very nice weekend. We got the worst of it out of the way early. We got a phone call at eleven PM Friday night. Late night phone calls are always a cause for concern, but this one was relatively benign. My stepmother was calling because she lost her entire PowerPoint presentation and she wanted my help getting it back. Explaining Powerpoint over the phone is a pain, but I eventually figured out that she hadn't lost it; she had merely advanced to an empty slide. Man, I know my family is technically challenged, but sheesh!

Jen took Lily to a water park on Saturday and the pair of them had a wonderful time. I got together with Dave, but later than I expected and I wound up spending most of the morning playing City of Heroes. I've been playing it on and off since launch in 2004, and I don't think I've ever had a more enjoyable time than I did that morning.

Jen and Lily got back earlier than I expected and Dave got there later, but again, this is something that unexpectedly worked out. We watched a Scooby Doo movie on Netflix and Dave and I are pleased to report that the usual Scooby Doo strategy of guessing the least obvious suspect still works fine after all these years. (It's bullshit if they expect us to believe that a griffin puppet suspended from a blimp is going to fool anybody though.)

On Sunday morning, I went with Jen and Lily to church. Jen had a meeting before the service, so I wound watching with Lily and another two girls. One of them was about her age, the other was about six. The conversation turned to pets.

Lily: I had a pet hamster named Rosie, but she died.
Other girl: (Shifts uncomfortably)
Lily: She's up in heaven.
Other girl: (Shifts uncomfortably)
Lily: She's God's hamster now.

I changed the conversation when I saw that she wasn't going to get off the topic, but I'm pretty sure that she was going to start quoting from the Dead Parrot Sketch if the conversation went on much further.

("He's kicked the bucket, he's shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!")

Lily once again stole the show at "big church". The minister has a little children's sermon and since it was the church's annual water communion, the topic was water.

The pastor was talking about how the water could flow through rivers and trickle down streams, but it couldn't get across the desert.

Pastor: And so the water-
Lily: You could use a bucket.
Pastor: We don't have a bucket. And so-
Lily: You could bring one.

We went to the Plymouth Meeting Mall and met Tom and Jen and Karen. During the drive down, we were listening to NPR and caught a great episode of This American Life. Later on I said to Jen, "That was a pretty intense episode of 'This American Life', and then it occurred to me that when conservatives imagine straw man liberals, these hypothetical liberals are saying things like "That was a pretty intense episode of 'This American Life"

Tom may be the only person quieter than I am, but he's awesome! Tom actually clicks on my links! Go Tom! I was a little bit tongue in cheek with that "Tom is Awesome" post, but now I mean every word. He not only clicked on my link to watch the well-lensed video, but he even subscribed to their newsletter!

Anyways, we ate lunch at a Chipotle's. I had a huge burrito which served me for lunch and dinner. Then we walked around the mall. Lily was enchanted with the escalators. After that we spent a while in Dave & Busters. Lily played some skee-ball, but we had to stop her after she threw the ball in her neighbor's lane for the third time.

We went to Riverbend where Jen used to work and walked around the trails for a while. When we were well underway, Lily said "I have to go to the bathroom. Can I pee by a tree?" Jen asked if she could hold and Lily said she could, but then she asked again about a minute later, and then without waiting for an answer, pulled her pants down in the middle of the trail and shuffled over to a nearby tree, to Jen's mortification.

Lily was perched on a trail. Tom offered her a hand to get off and I said "Be careful. Mister Tom has Firefly cooties." Lily said "Gross!" and I was forced to agree. I don't want to touch a Firefly fan either!

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I'm experimenting with shorter, more frequent posts here. Zelazny book review blogging will return in another day or two, but right now I'll be writing about family stuff.

Lily came downstairs with her hair combed over her eye and asked me who she looked like. I said "Uh, Violet from the Incredibles?"

She said "No! I look like a girlie-girl!" I can't hear the phrase "Girlie-girl" without thinking of the skeleton from Army of Darkness saying to his captive "We've got plans for you, girlie-girl!"

Sadly, Violet was my second thought. I'm such a nerd that my first thought was Viper from Marvel Comics.

It's funny. People will make a casual observation to her and she'll incorporate that into her worldview. If she uses a new phrase or a word, sometimes I'll ask her to define it, to make sure she's not completely off base with it. I told her that the "definition" of a word is explaining what a word means. She's usually pretty good. The day after I told her about this, she said "Definition is explaining what a word means. That's the definition of a definition!" She was very proud of her joke.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: ...such have but a shadow's bliss.

The second part of a review of Jack of Shadows. The first can be found at this link and other Zelazny book reviews are at this one.

Be aware that these reviews have spoilers galore and are less reviews and more observations and commentary on the works of my favorite author.

To continue where we left off, I very much like the exchange between Jack and Evene, his former betrothed, shortly after Jack has taken High Dudgeon:
What power is it that you have?" she asked. "You could never do things like that when I- when I knew you."

"I hold The Key That Was Lost," he said, "Kolwynia."

"How did you come by it?"

"It does not matter. What does matter is that I can make the mountains walk and the ground burst open; I can call down bolts of lightning and summon spirits to aid me. I can destroy a Lord in his place of power. I have become the mightiest thing in the dark hemisphere."

"Yes," she said. "You have named yourself; you have become a thing."

Good God, I adore that last line. If I had to sum up the book in one sentence, that's the one I'd use.

Shortly after that, Evene asks for mercy for the inhabitants of the castle. This parallels Jack's own plea for mercy at the beginning of the book. He refuses, as he was refused by Benoni,

"If you will grant mercy to all who remain here," she finally said, "I will do whatever you say."

With his free hand, he reached out as if to touch her. He paused when he heard the scream from beyond the window. Smiling, he let his hand fall. The taste is too sweet, he decided.

I've read some essays on Zelazny that claim that suicide is often a secondary theme to his works, but I'm not convinced of this. I would say that his characters, Jack and Corwin leap immediately to mind, often rush towards their own destruction, but I would interpret this as desiring something (vengeance, here) more than the preservation of one's own life.

I mentioned the Borshin briefly in the first post, and it really is a fascinating thing, Jack's Jungian shadow, perhaps, an absolutely unrelenting nemesis that ensures that he can never rest easily:

It looked like something that had started out to be a man but had never quite made it. It had been stepped on, twisted, had holes poked into the sickly dough of its head-bulge. Bones showed through the transparent flesh of its torso and its short legs were thick as trees, terminating in disk-shaped pads from which dozens of long toes hung like roots or worms. Its arms were longer than its entire body. It was a crushed slug, a thing that had been frozen and thawed before it was fully baked.

It was-"It is the Borshin," said the Lord of Bats

and near the end:

Through the dust, the noise, the chill, it followed the trail. The flaring lights, the trembling land, the stalking storm meant nothing to it, for it had never known fear. It glided down hills like a ghost and slithered among rocks like a reptile. It leaped chasms, dodged falling stones, was singed once by lightning. It was a blob of protoplasm on a stick; it was a scarred hulk, and there was no real reason why it should be living and moving about. But perhaps it did not truly live-at least, not as other creatures, even dark-side creatures, lived. It had no name, only an appellation. Its mentality, presumably, was not great. It was a bundle of instincts and reflexes, some of them innate. It was lacking in emotions, save for one. It was incredibly strong, and capable of enduring extreme privation, great amounts of pain and excessive bodily damage. It spoke no language, and all creatures it encountered fled from it.

While the ground shook and the rocks rattled about it, it began its descent of the mountain-which-once-had-moved, currents of blazing cloud dropping fires along its way.

The landslide did not stop it any more than the tempest could.

It picked its way among the strewn boulders at the mountain's base and for a moment regarded the final ascent.

There led the trail; there must it follow.

High, high-set, walled and well guarded ...

But in addition to its strength it possessed a certain cunning.

...And its one emotion.

Below is another scene I like, where Jack goes seeking Rosalie at the tavern called The Sign of the Burning Pestle, which lay upon a coach road near the ocean.

Knowing Zelazny, it's probably named after an obscure 17th century play called the Knight of the Burning Pestle.

"My name is Jack, and I've traveled far to reach this place, Haric," he replied. "I seek an old woman who was coming here to spend her final days. Her name is Rosalie. Tell me what you know of her."

Haric creased his brow, lowered his head and squinted.

"Bide a moment," he said. "There was an old hag . . . Yes. She died some time ago."

"Oh," said Jack. "Tell me then where she is buried, that I might visit her grave."

Haric snorted and quaffed his wine. He then he began to laugh. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, then raised it to wipe his eyes with his sleeve.

"Buried?" he said. "She was worthless. We only kept her here for charity's sake, and because she knew somewhat of healing."

Tiny bulges of muscle appeared at the hinges of Jack's jaws.

"Then what did you do with her?" he inquired.

"Why we threw her carcass into the ocean.- Small pickings there for fishes, though."

Jack left the Sign of the Burning Pestle burning at his back, there on the coach road by the ocean.

It's such a small thing, but I love that Zelazny refers back to the throwaway detail in the first chapter. Shortly before Jack was beheaded, he saw a bat that had come to observe his execution: "When he saw it, he lowered his head and the muscles at the hinges of his jaws tightened."

It's just something that adds more verisimilitude to the book. If you catch it, great. And if not, that's fine too.

I mentioned Morningstar briefly in the first post. He's the Promethean/Luciferian figure chained to the peak of Panicus

Indeed, he was more than half of stone, his cat-like torso a solid thing joined with the ridge. His wings lay folded flat upon his back, and Jack knew-though he approached him from the rear-that his arms would still be crossed upon his breast, left over right, that the breezes had not disturbed his wire-like hair and beard, that his lidless eyes would still be fixed upon the eastern horizon.

The impression I get is that he was so bound for giving mortals the gift of consciousness, so that each may understand the truth that underlies the world in his or her individual fashion.

Why is it," [Jack] asked, "that the Fallen Star who brought us knowledge of the Art, did not extend it to the daysiders as well?"

"Perhaps," said Morningstar, "the more theologically inclined among the lightlanders ask why he did not grant the boon of science to the darksiders. What difference does it make? I have heard the story that neither was the gift of the Fallen One, but both the inventions of man; that his gift, rather, was that of consciousness, which creates its own systems."

If you'll excuse a brief digression that ties into my larger point...

I played a lot of video games as a kid, and Phantasy Star II was my favorite, in no small part to how it ends. (I'm now a little embarrassed to say I liked it enough to write my college entrance essay about it.) If you're not familiar with the game, at the end you overthrow the malevolent supercomputer controlling the entire star system, and then learn that the people who built it are still on board the space station that housed it. There are hundred of them against the handful of you and when you confront them, they matter of factly tell you that they're going to kill you, and then build another computer.

The boss battle music (Called "Death Place" and really quite kickass) starts playing and the game cuts to images of the surviving characters one after one, each of them raging defiance in their own distinctive way, and then to the curve of the planet hanging in space with the cryptic statement, "I wonder what the people will see in the final days."

I could almost hear the music playing at the end of Jack of Shadows.

Falling, he saw a dark figure in the sky that grew even as his eyes passed over it.

Of course, he thought, he has finally looked upon the sunrise and been freed . . .

Wings folded, his great, horned countenance impassive, Morningstar dropped like a black meteor. As he drew near, he extended his arms full length and opened his massive hands.

Jack wondered whether he would arrive in time.

The ambiguity and the use of "wonder" made me think back to Phantasy Star, so the scene had special resonance for me then, and I still think it's a wonderful way to end a great story.

Tall Poppies

Lily was sad earlier in the week because she overheard one little boy inviting another to his birthday party and he told her that she wasn't invited. And then on the playground, three little girls didn't want to play with her so she sat by herself and cried.

I don't know. She reacted exactly like I would have at that age, by going off by herself and sitting down and crying. I feel just horrible for her.

I don't think the boy in the first example was trying to be mean. I think she just overheard and assumed everyone was coming and he told her very bluntly that she wasn't invited. I wouldn't be surprised if he just invited the boys in his class.

With the second example, who knows? Kids are kids. Maybe they were being mean, maybe she was misinterpreting things. I'd like to protect her from all the pain that goes along with life, but sometimes the best thing I can do is comfort her.

Smart kids have this problem. Hell, smart adults do too, but they have considerably more latitude in selecting their cohorts.

I had come across the concept of the Tall Poppy Syndrome. I had heard it expressed as "The nail that sticks up is hammered down", but the gist is the same, that children who excel other than in the narrowly defined arenas society deems acceptable will face considerable pressure to conform.

Everybody wants to fit in. I'm a bad fit for my current office culture. I get along fine with the people here, but we're just not interested in the same things. I usually get invited to lunch outings, but since I so consistently decline it generally takes the form of "We're going to Applebee's. You don't want to come, do you?" "No thanks." "Didn't think so." I still like being asked, though.

Me: (Looking out the window) They didn't invite me

Colleague: Why don't you ask them?

Me: Because then I'll look like a jerk when I say no.

There was a stupid general knowledge trivia test floating around work. Everybody took it and I got the highest score by a ridiculous margin. I got a 28. I think the average score was 14, and the second highest score was 19. And while trivia contests are just a measure of random junk that an individual happens to know, people do tend to treat them as a measure of intelligence. Nobody likes feeling foolish or inferior, and the test is not a measure of anything meaningful, so the best thing to do is to quickly acknowledge it and downplay its significance.

It took me a while to figure this out and while we can point Lily in the right direction, I think it's a lesson she'll have to learn on her own. You may be familiar with the Dunning–Kruger effect , which explains that stupid people overestimate their intelligence, but are so stupid, they think they're smart. (Ick, I'm looking at you.) The flip side of this is that legitimately smart people tend to overestimate the competence of their peers, reasoning that if a task is simple for them, it must be the case for everyone else. This can lead to a smart kid calling something easy to a slightly slower child, thereby insulting that kid when he or she has difficulty with the task.

Lily is a smart kid with a really clear memory. She's great at working new concepts into her existing paradigm. Lily will hear something and try to explain it with the all the enthusiasm only an almost-four-year-old can muster, and she doesn't make a distinction between the explanation she offers to a two-year-old and an adult. She's proud about all the things she knows and can do and wants to share them with everyone she knows.

I understand that impulse! When I find something neat, I want to show you guys my NEW FAVORITE SONG! (Even if you people never click on my links. Grrrr...) It may be a function of her age or perhaps a trait she inherited from me, but when Lily discovers something new, it's suddenly THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD!! and she bubbles over with enthusiasm for it.

But when you tell your preschool classmate how you can tie your shoes, she's not happy for you. She's sad that she can't and mad at you.

This isn't going to go away. Everybody wants to fit in. Lily's not quite four, but she wants everything her classmates have and she wants to do everything they do. Soon, we'll get to a point where they're exerting more influence on her choices than Jen and I will (if we're not already at that point). She'll be the sum of her experiences, just like everyone else. She won't turn out exactly as I hope she will, but I hope I can guide her to a point where she'll be happy with the person she becomes.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Some there be that shadows kiss...

This is the latest in a series of reviews of Roger Zelazny books.

I'm not sure that "review" is exactly right for what these are, but I don't think they're sufficiently scholarly to call them critiques or deconstructions. I jokingly referred to them as "What Roger Zelazny means to me" and I'm not sure that's far off the mark, as peppered as they are with so many personal anecdotes. I mostly write them for myself, because I enjoy the process of rereading something I enjoy and reflecting on it, and for the handful of friends of like-minded friends who read them. So, while "review" is not the ideal word, it's the best one I've got, so I'll stick with that.

As an aside, most of the people who read this do so on my Facebook page, where it is mirrored, but if you like it, hate it, disagree with it or want to discuss it, I'd welcome the exchange.

I wanted to talk about something I really enjoyed, because my coverage of the cruddy Merlin series has just left a bad taste in my mouth. I first read Jack of Shadows shortly after the Amber books. I had become a fan at about the time I entered high school and he remains my favorite author to this day. During the summer, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, and they had a wonderful hobby store within walking distance. I had a part time job and disposable income for the first time, so one of the first things I did that summer was walk to the Imagination Workshop and buy up every Roger Zelazny book they had. Good God, I devoured them.

I sometimes say that Lord of Light is Zelazny's best work, Roadmarks his most cinematic and A Night in the Lonesome October the most fun. Along these lines, I think Jack of Shadows is the most immersive.

Even when compared against the work of an author distinguished by brilliant details, Jack of Shadows is remarkable. The writing is so profoundly evocative with the world it spins. If I had used every vivid description or clever piece of dialogue I found when flipping through the first chapter, I would have wound up reproducing it in its entirety.

I'm not into revenge porn but there is something about Jack of Shadow's disproportionate vengeance that makes it appealing. The introduction describes him as "a wrongfully punished man whose character was twisted by the act." Zelazny has has spoken eloquently of "A hate so big it would burn the innocent to reach the guilty" and it is that such a force that moves our Jack.

In the first part of my Guns of Avalon review, I spoke of Akrasia, the act of choosing an action against one's own better judgment. Rosalie warns him against seeking such power: "Do not let your hatred lead you to the machine that thinks like a man, only faster. There is too much power involved, and such power and hatred would not go well together." But his hatred and his pride are too strong for it to be otherwise.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I tend to borrow liberally (shamelessly) from Zelazny to populate my role-playing games. The main villain of our campaign is the Lord of Bats, as he was for Jack.

Zelazny describes him thusly:

[Jack] occasionally caught a glimpse of that dark, handsome face, half-touched by starlight, half-hidden by the high, curved collar of the cloak he wore; the eyes within it were like the pools that form about the wicks of black candles: hot, dark and liquid. Bats kept dropping from out of the sky and vanishing within his cloak.
I always imagined him as looking like Antonio Banderas with the voice of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. His place of power is the keep of High Dudgeon, a phrase I had never heard before reading it in the book, and which I half wondered if it was not a typo for "High Dungeon".

I like the Lord of Bats a lot. He's ruthless to his enemies and he has cause to hate Jack, but he seems like an okay guy for a darksider. He's kind to Evene, seems like a decent boss to his minions. His vengeance against Jack is out of proportion to the slight that prompted it, but that's the theme of the work, isn't it? It's just quicker to destroy him than Jack's quest is.

In the Dung Pits:

The cloven hooves of the seven black riders struck sparks from the stones. Their eyes, high above the ground, were like a handful of glowing embers buried in his direction. Wisps of smoke emerged from their nostrils, and occasionally they emitted high-pitched whistling sounds. A silent, wolf-like creature ran with them, head near the ground, tail streaming. It changed direction at every point where Jack had turned while approaching the stone.

What a facinating little detail to include.

I also like Morningstar.

"Then tell me some things. I have heard daysiders say that the core of the world is a molten demon, that the temperature increases as one descends toward it, that if the crust of the world be pierced then fires leap forth and melted minerals build volcanoes. Yet I know that volcanoes are the doings of fire elementals who, if disturbed, melt the ground about them and hurl it upward. They exist in small pockets. One may descend far past them without the temperature increasing. Traveling far enough, one comes to the center of the world, which is not molten- which contains the Machine, with great springs, as in a clock, and gears and pulleys and counterbalances. I know this to be true, for I have journeyed that way and been near to the Machine itself. Still, the daysiders have ways of demonstrating that their view is the correct one. I was almost convinced by the way one man explained it, though I knew better. How can this be?"

"You were both correct," said Morningstar. "It is the same thing that you both describe, although neither of you sees it as it really is. Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it. For if it is uncontrollable, you fear it. Sometimes then, you color it incomprehensible. In your case, a machine; in theirs, a demon."

"The stars I know to be the houses of spirits and deities-some friendly, some unfriendly and many not caring. All are near at hand and can be reached. They will respond when properly invoked. Yet the daysiders say that they are vast distances away and that there is no intelligence there. Again...?"

"It is again but two ways of regarding reality, both of them correct."

"If there can be two ways, may there not be a third? Or a fourth? Or as many as there are people, for that matter?"

"Yes," said Morningstar.

"Then which one is correct?"

"They all are."

"But to see it as it is, beneath it all! Is this possible?"

Morningstar did not reply.

Looking back and rereading these books as adult, I find it pretty amazing to see how much they shaped my way of perceiving the world. I had never encountered this idea put this way previously, but it dovetailed with concepts on which I was then ruminating. I suppose they had their genesis with Heretics of Dune, which had the claim: "Forces that we cannot understand permeate our universe. We see the shadows of those forces when they are projected upon a screen available to our senses, but understand them we do not."

This is getting long enough to justify a two-part post (the second part is here), so I'll leave you with the signature quote of the work.
"I am Jack of Shadows!" he cried out. "Lord of Shadow Guard! I am Shadowjack, the thief who walks in silence and in shadows! I was beheaded in Igles and rose again from the Dung Pits of Glyve. I drank the blood of a vampire and ate a stone. I am the breaker of the Compact. I am he who forged a name in the Red Book of Ells. I am the prisoner in the jewel. I duped the Lord of High Dudgeon once, and I will return for vengeance upon him. I am the enemy of my enemies. Come take me, filth, if you love the Lord of Bats or despise me, for I have named myself Jack of Shadows!"

Quilian's face showed puzzlement at this outburst, and though he opened his mouth and tried to speak, his words were drowned out by the other's cries.

Then the window shattered, the candle died, and the Borshin sprang into the room.