Friday, January 28, 2011

Superman and the better angels of our nature

Superman gets no respect. Nolan's Batman movies are all kinds of awesome (and the Tim Burton ones are great too) but Superman hasn't had a decent movie in 30 years. The most recent one, Superman Returns has been unkindly but accurately described as "Superman lifts successively heavier things". Also the Superman as Jesus metaphors were about on par with the Narnia books for their subtlety. And this is coming from somebody who liked it.

I was trying to decide if I wanted to wanted to blog about how great Superman or how great Batman is not. Superman being great won out, partly because of a conversation I had with a friend and partly because of a point/counterpoint essay in online magazine Geek Speak. I like Geek Speak. I contributed a segment for their Zelazny Zealotry piece a while back, though mine was kind of crappy. (I only learned about the call for contributions after the submission deadline and I whipped something out in literally twenty minutes). I think they dropped the ball on the Superman issue, though. Even the person they got to represent the Pro-Superman side doesn't seem to like him very much.

Links: (Pro-Superman/Anti-Superman)

My friend mentioned that she thought that Superman was too powerful to be easily challenged, and therefore boring. There is certainly more than a little merit to that point of view (Pre-Crisis Superman, I'm looking at you. You're welcome to address these complaints here if you're not too busy pushing around suns and beating up God), but I think the best Superman stories don't ask if he can do something, but if he should.

I've noticed that a lot of casual fans like Superman, though self-identified geeks tend not to.You probably wouldn't peg me as a Superman fan. I'm a geek, a cynic and also kind of an asshole too. But I love Superman.

I was looking into information on Alfred Bester for one of my Zelazny reviews (he completed Psychoshop when Bester passed away with it uncompleted) and apparently Bester was considered to write the screenplay for the 1978 Superman movie. He wanted to focus the story on Clark Kent as the real hero, while Superman was only "his gun." (Which, of course, makes me think of The Iron Giant.)

I like that turn of phrase, though I doubt I would have said it that way myself. But my favorite interpretation of Superman is the super-powered Kansas farm boy who never wants to see anyone hurt or scared or hungry.

My favorite Superman story is Kingdom Come, though my favorite Superman moment is from the Dark Knight Returns when he intercepts the Soviet super-nuke. He knows that he's probably going to die in the process, and even if he survives, he's got the fight of his life ahead of him, but never once does he hesitate. One moment, Clark Kent is there, and the next only his empty clothes remain, with Superman high in the skies above.  I can almost hear the faint strains of John Williams' Superman theme when I'm reading these panels.

"Twenty Million die by fire if I am weak"

Kingdom Come is another comic that gets him right. It's one of the most beautiful comic books ever made. It's set in the near future, about ten years after the Joker killed everyone at the Daily Planet. He's eventually arrested and a superhero named Magog blasts him down like a dog in the street as he was being brought in for trial. Superman then hauls Magog into trial himself for the murder. Magog is acquitted, Superman retires, and Magog's brand of anti-hero runs wild across the globe in the absence of any forces that might temper them.

The event that brings Superman back into the world is that Magog and his gang were curb-stomping this terrified villain. The villain realized that they were going to kill him, so in desperation, he broke open a nuclear-powered hero and the resulting explosion killed most of the population of Kansas.

Superman realizes that this kind of thing has to stop, so he comes back and he inspires the traditional heroes to return from their own exiles and they start cleaning things up (thought it's not as easy as they'd been expecting). I love the scene when they finally track down Magog. He's in Kansas, and he's trying to rebuild it one house at a time. Superman and his group fly down to confront him. They start talking about the events that led up to this.

Magog: How many did he take out just that last time? Ninety-two men...?

Superman: And one woman.

That's the quintessential Superman moment right there. His wife and almost everyone he ever loved were murdered in the most horrific way possible, and not only does he not take revenge, but he steps in to see that justice is done.

Just before it looks like they're going to have a super-powered brawl, Magog breaks down.

Superman and the rest of the returned heroes round up the rampaging superhumans, but they encounter significant trouble in figuring out what to do with them. They eventually build a giant prison, but it reaches critical mass and a riot breaks out. Superman flies in to intervene, but he's intercepted by Captain Marvel. 

If you're not familiar with the character, I always think of Captain Marvel as a "magical" Superman. By speaking the word "Shazam!" he calls down a bolt of magical lightning and transforms from a normal guy, Billy Batson, to the super-powered Captain Marvel. If he says it when he's Captain Marvel, then it hits him and it changes him into Billy Batson again.

On the off chance my father is reading this review, here's a passage from Revelation: "And When He Cried, Seven Thunders Uttered Their Voices."

Superman is vulnerable to magic. At the conclusion of Kingdom Come, the brainwashed Captain Marvel intercepts Superman and keeps yelling Shazam!, dodging the lightning bolt, smiting Superman with it over and over again.

Finally, when Captain Marvel is going to blast him again, Superman pulls himself off the ground and dashes forward at an incredible speed to clamp his hand around Billy's mouth, allowing the lightning to hit and revert him in his non-powered form.

Superman sees that there is a nuclear bomb coming towards them, and it's going to kill everyone unless he can sacrifice himself to stop it.

So what does he do to Billy? Break his jaw? Knock him out? No. He talks to him. Reasons with him. Appeals to his better nature. Inspires him. Superman says to him "So, listen to me, Billy.  Listen harder than you ever have before.  There’s a bomb falling.  Either it kills us, or we run rampant across the globe...You can let me go.  Or, with a word, you can stop me…  Decide the world."  Superman lets him go and flies in to the air to stop the bomb (and I don't know why so many of my favorite Superman moments involve him intercepting bombs, but as Freud said, sometimes a warhead is just a warhead). Billy watches him and then cries, "Shazam!" and takes off after Superman, hurling him to the ground and dying in his place so that others might live.

This is Superman

My daughter was saying some prayers the other night, "I hope that everyone can be their best selves in the world. And not litter."

In his inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln concluded with this statement.

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The emphasis is mine. While I'm sure Superman is against littering, the important part of that is that he inspires people to be their best selves. It goes back to to that Bester quote. Clark Kent is the real hero, because he sees those better angels with those X-ray eyes of his and and he'll move mountains to help them grow to their potential.

Another Superman story that gets it right is Superman: Peace on Earth. It's an oversized book by Paul Dini of the Animated Series, with Alex Ross providing beautiful painted art.

The gist of the story is that Superman comes across a starving teenage runaway when decorating the Christmas Tree in Metropolis. He resolves to do something about world hunger. He's going to spend one day feeding as many people as he can, not because he thinks the effort itself will solve the problem, but because it will show people that it can be done, and that it is worth doing.

He spends several days gathering the grain and then begins delivering it in one marathon day. He encounters early success, but the tide shifts when he tries to deliver food to an oppressive regime. He knows the corrupt leader will seize it as soon as he leaves, to hoard it or to sell it, and he can't overthrow the regime without making things worse. Plus, he threatens to shoot a group of hostages if Superman dares drop off the food.

That part goes about like you'd expect. Superman drops off the food and the bad guys open fire, but Superman interposes himself and then heat visions the rifles from their hands. And still he doesn't win, because the dictator tells him that he's going to seize the food the moment he turns his back. He can be anywhere, he can't be everywhere. Knowing that he's lost, Superman flies away.

He gives food to refugees and when a little boy without a home asks if he's going to be back with more food tomorrow, Superman has to look away.

He encounters further resistance and by the end of the day he is disillusioned and wondering if his acts have made any difference at all. At the end of the day, Clark Kent is the hero again, writing an interview with Superman, allowing him to explain what he was trying to do. He ends with:

There's an old saying: "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime." That simple message asks humankind to nurture with knowledge, to reach out to those in need and inspire others to do the same. That is life's greatest necessity and it's most precious gift.

I ask everyone to share what they have with those who need it. Their knowledge. Their time. Their generosity.

Especially with the young, for on them rests our future...

And all hope of a true peace on Earth.

I read it to Lily as a bedtime story.  Initially, she said "Oh, why do we have to read a boy's story?!" but she got into it as I started reading. It took us almost an hour because we would frequently stop to ask questions when she encountered something that she didn't understand.

There weren't really any concepts she was unable to follow with the story. She asked why bullets were bouncing off his chest and I explained that was one of his superpowers, and it struck me that it was such a little kid question because I tend to think of super strength and invulnerability going hand in hand. (Unless you're Sunspot, but that's a horse of a different color)

I doubt she caught the deeper meanings about planting seeds and making sure that they all had room to grow, but that's fine. When we talked about the story afterward, and I asked her to tell me what it was about, she said "People all over the world are hungry so Superman flies all over to help them, but some people are scared because they don't know that he's there to help. In the end, he gets sad because he can't help everybody, but he talks to a reporter who tells people that they can work together and help each other," which I thought wasn't bad for four years old.

This is Superman

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: A Thing of Terrible Beauty

I am unfortunately running out of Roger Zelazny books to review. Just a handful left now. I've already been interspersing shorter works between the novels and that's what I'll do today.

I say that I've always liked Zelazny's short works, but that's not completely true. Take A Thing of Terrible Beauty. It's a wonderful story, told over the course of just a couple pages. I came across it when I was still in my teens, and could make neither head nor tails of it.  I obviously understood on the strictly literal level, that some bodiless entity was riding along with a critic and experiencing things along with him, but there was clearly a deeper level that I knew I was missing. (I don't have my copy of Threshold here as I'm writing this, but there are so many references to classical literature that I imagine the end notes are almost as long as the story.)

I'm paraphrasing Zelazny badly here, but I recall  that he said in an introduction or an afterword somewhere  that he read a poem that caused him to reassess his views on poetry. Until he read that particular poem, he believed that it needed to contain a narrative elements. I'm entirely at a loss for specifics here, but I feel the same about A Thing of Terrible Beauty, because it is such a lyrical work that I would be content to read it as poetry, even if it didn't tell a story.

I love the opening line: "How like a god of the Epicureans is the audience, at a time like this!" but teenage Josh was probably like, "Fah, what the fuck is this? That last story had a robot vampire and I'll bet this one doesn't have robots or vampires!"

I did read the whole thing, because it was so short and there was a reference to Oedipus in the first paragraph and I've been a huge mythology buff for as long as I've been able to read.

I tend not to like long excerpts for shorter works, but the thing I love about the story is that the lines are so poetic that they remain powerful even when divorced of context: Now that inchoate scream from the dawn of time, and Oedipus stalks the stage in murky terror!

The story is a simple one. An incorporeal entity, a self-described itinerant esthetician, has been benignly coexisting alongside Phillip Devers for ten years, perpetually on the cusp of his awareness. Understanding of certain human emotions has eluded it, and, as it has learned that the world is about to be destroyed, it comes right out and reveals itself by asking "DO YOU SMELL ME, DED?"

Whoops, wrong story.

His mood is a strange one. It is almost as if he knows what is to occur at one o'clock—almost as if he knows what will happen when the atom expands its fleecy chest, shouldering aside an army of Titans, and the Mediterranean rushes to dip its wine-dark muzzle into the vacant Sahara.

But he could not know, without knowing me, and this time he will be a character, not an observer, when the thing of terrible beauty occurs.

I usually love Zelazny for the concepts he brings as much of as the poetry of his work, but this story is something special even by the standards of a career defined by poetic prose.

I mean, this short story has more beautiful lines than most books: "...and in the last moment when the unalterable jungle law is about to prevail,, he must stare into the faceless mask; of God, and bear himself, for that brief moment, above the pleas of his nature and the course of events."

The plot itself is unremarkable, but the beauty is in how it's told. One of my all time favorites.

Scary Princesses

So, I was talking with Lily about what movie we should watch for our Wacky Wednesday and she said, "What about that movie with the scary princesses?" and I said, "What movie with the scary princesses?" and she replied, "When we were on the computer, I saw a movie of Ariel with hairy seashells and a skeleton face. Can we watch that movie tonight?"

I told her that I didn't remember that movie. (Because if I had seen it, I would certainly be seeing it every time I closed my eyes!) and I asked if she meant the movie where the girl plays the piano with the boy, (Corpse Bride) but no, she repeated the thing about undead Ariel, this time with the added detail of a green (presumably decomposing) tail. I have no idea where she saw this. I remember somebody put a a slideshow on youtube of scary princesses, but we didn't watch that one. I said that I didn't remember that movie and she said, "That's okay. Just go to the computer and type in 'scary princesses'". Sheesh.

She only likes two segments of Fantasia. One is the Pastoral Symphony with the cute little baby Cupids and Pegasui and centaurs all frolicking around. The other is Night on Bald Mountain where Chernabog summons from these horrifying ghosts to make war against the living. I'd say this would give her nightmares, but she already has nightmares. The one the other night involved the ears falling off her stuffed bear and someone sewing bunny ears on in their place. The horror! Zombies and monsters she can handle, but don't lay a finger on her Baby Bear!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Working for the Weekend

When we were driving to the grocery store and Lily suddenly blurted out, "Did you know that if you didn't have any air to breathe, then you would die?!"

I said that I did, and that's always why I try to stay in places that have air. She went on to say that Outer Space had poison air and she'd never want to visit because she didn't have a special suit that would let her breathe in space. (I corrected her once by telling her that space actually had no air, but just that one time, as this was not a conversation I had particular interest in prolonging, as she talks about death a whole lot already for such a little kid)

Jen is still getting stuff straightened out with her car that was hit in early October, so she went of to the DMV and Lily and I settled in to watch some Superman!

We got the Superman: The Animated Series disc in the mail from Netflix and watched a couple episodes. She liked it, and had lots of questions. The thing that was toughest to explain was why Superman had two sets of parents. She'd somehow never been exposed to the concept of foster parents or adoption, which is odd, because we know several non-traditional families. I explained that Superman's parents knew that they wouldn't be able to take care of him, so they sent him to a family that would love him very much and that seemed to satisfy her.

It does get pretty complicated in parts. In Lex Luthor's initial appearance, he hires some criminals to steal his battlesuit because the client resides in a hostile country, and he can't go ahead with an above board transaction. That, of course, went over her head, but she liked it.

Since Jor-El and the adult Superman look so similar, every time he came on screen, she would giggle hysterically and say "Look, it's Superman's daddy!"

We joined my grandmother for lunch at a local restaurant and that was nice. I overheard a woman talking about how her World of Warcraft account was compromised by a keylogger. Funny to hear random nerdery while eating out.

We returned to the house and Grammy turned on the Hallmark channel, which was having some kind of wedding movie marathon and caught most of the The Good Witch's Gift.

Sadly, I was paying closer attention to the movie than anyone else there. When Jen said she wasn't following it, I kind of huffed and said, all in one breath "No, it's not that complicated. Listen, Cathrine Bell is Cassie Nightingale, she owns the store, she's going to marry the police chief, his son is dating the blond girl, who the other kid thinks might have stolen the wedding ring because her dad was a bank robber," thereby solidifying my position as a thirteen-year-old girl.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Deus Irae

We continue our tour of Roger Zelazny post-apocolypsia with Deus Irea Irae.  I think it was the third Zelazny book I ever read, after Roadmarks and Creatures of Light and Darkness.

I had a PDF of the book open on the computer when my wife walked past.

"Is that a name?" she asked.

"No, it's the title of the book. It's actually a rather clever play on words. Dies Irae is a the most well known musical sequence in Catholic Requiems. Deus Irae means God of Wrath. Do you care?"

"Not even a little bit. Have fun writing your blog."

I don't especially like the book, to be entirely honest. (Though the cover, as disturbing as it is, is fantastically evocative and probably my favorite Zelazny cover art)  It's Philip K. Dick book! Now it's a Roger Zelazny book! Now it's a Phil Dick book again! Each author has a very distinctive style, and the shifts in tone remind me of a campfire story where one speaker gets to the chapter break and then passes control to the next person in line.

It's the story of an armless, legless painter named Tibor McMasters. (He paints using U.S. ICBM extensor system) He's going on a Pilg (Pilgrimage) to find Carleton Lufteufel in order to paint a murch. (Church mural) (Mercifully, they stop introducing these type of words after the first couple chapters)

Carleton Lufteufel, the Deus Irae, is another great name,

"Carleton Lufteufel," Father Handy said, "was Chairman of the Energy Research and Development Administration from 1982 to the beginning of the war." He spoke half to himself. "To the use of the gob." The great objectless bomb, a bomb which detonated not at one particular spot on the Earth's surface but which acted so as to contaminate a layer of the atmosphere itself. It therefore (and this was the sort of weapons-theorizing that had gone on prior to World War Three) could not be headed off, as a missile could be by an antimissile, or a manned bomber, no matter how fast -- and they had gone quite fast, by 1982 -- by, incredibly, a biplane. A slow biplane.

The setting reminds me of the Gunslinger. The first printing of the Gunslinger and Drawing were cool because they gave the impression of a world that had developed differently than ours, rather than a bog standard post apocalypse society, of which there already were a million.

Here! The black-spotted cow drawing the bicycle cart. In the center of the cart. And at the doorway of the sacristy Father Handy glanced against the morning sunlight from Wyoming to the north as if the sun came from that direction, saw the church's employee, the limbless trunk with knobbed head lolling as if in trip-fantastic to a slow jig as the Holstein cow wallowed forward.

Interestingly, Salt Lake City was mentioned here as well as in Damnation Alley. (I only remembered this because I came across a review speculating that Tanner might come from a Mormon family.

Collected Works has some interesting stories about it, but as the only people who read this blog either read it or wrote it, there is little point in rehashing them here.  (Also, I see they're on the Wikipedia page)

It had been a while since I read the book (probably a good ten years) and certain disturbing passages and the prolonged sequence where Lufteufel gruesomely cuts the shrapnel out of his head were the only things I remembered.

Disturbing passage one:

No; he had his own favorite, and, although it had killed only a relatively few million people, it impressed him: its evil was so blatant; it glowed and stank, as a U.S. Congressman had once said, like a dead mackerel in the night's dark. And it, like the gob, was a U.S. weapon. It was a nerve gas.

It caused the organs of the body to eat one another.

Disturbing passage two:

The bird cackled, "Let me tell you the best I've ever seen, in all the places I've ever been. It consists of an external brain which is carried in a bucket or jar, still functioning, with a dense Saran Wrap to protect it from the atmosphere and to keep the blood from draining off. And the owner had to constantly watch it, to see if it hadn't been dealt a traumatic jolt. That one lived indefinitely, but his whole life was spent in --"

Wikipedia tells me that Phil Dick initially went to college as a German major. I can't say I'm terribly surprised, since he sticks a bunch of German words everywhere. Apparently Zelazny noticed too:

Pete, his forehead wrinkling, said slowly, "I saw once what's called der Todesstachel. At least that's what your buddy Father Handy and that inc Tibor would call it; they like those German theological terms."

Heh.  He likes German words like Roger Zelazny likes "arroyo".

Dr. Abernathy says to Tibor: "A legless man cannot kneel."

I don't think of "Who gave you that Jesuitical bit of knowledge?" without thinking of David Fentris in Home is the Hangman, who employs a similar turn of phrase.

"A mirror! I need a mirror! Get the little one on top of the john and bring it to me! Hurry!"


"Looking-glass! Spiegel! Reflector! The thing you see yourself in!"

I'm just guessing, but I think Dick probably wrote that.

The Big C was neat, it was a malfunctioning pre-Smash computer that  waylays passersby and breaks them down in order to continue its existence. This reminded me of  the stone from Jack of Shadows.

Huh. The Great C says to Pete. "Well, as Oscar Wilde put it, 'Each man kills the thing he loves." I didn't know that was Wilde. I thought, of course, of Yama's line to Mara at the beginning of Lord of Light. He was obviously quoting someone, but I didn't know the providence of that quote.

They eventually encounter Carleton Lufteufel in the most transparent disguise ever, going under the name Jack Schuld, Shuld is German for debt. I kind of like that, as Lufteufel is trying to make amends for his crimes.

Overall, it has some elements that I like, but it's just so relentlessly grim that I didn't enjoy it.  "There are no heroes in Dick's books", Ursula K. Le Guin wrote and that about sums it up. Everybody's just kind of an asshole.

Friday, January 21, 2011

AM Radio

No, not that one!

(Though I do happen to like it).

My car wouldn't start on Wednesday, so I had to quickly arrange a loaner from my grandmother, who generously allowed me to use her 30 year old Oldsmobile for the day. I usually listen to the Philly NPR station or local college radio, depending on what I happen to be in the mood for, but this car had a cassette deck for which I had no tapes and an AM radio.

Not wanting to drive over an hour in silence, I tried to find something decent. I hadn't really listened to AM radio in ages and it was about what I expected, a lot of sports shows, a lot of talk shows, somebody singing in Spanish at the far end of the dial. For the drive in, I settled on Radio Disney (see this post about my role as a thirteen-year-old girl), and on the way back I wound up listening to the Sean Hannity show.

Obviously, our politics are very different, but I'm always interested in hearing what other people think. I mean, I think he's dead wrong about almost everything, but at least he's making the effort to articulate his philosophy.

To digress for a moment. A while back I had one of those silly Facebook comment wars with a friend of my wife's and the whole thing wound up getting pretty nasty. She thinks House, M.D. is a good show and I don't, and the crux of my argument was that if she isn't going to at least try to explain why she thinks it's good, then I'm not going to give her opinion a lot of weight.

When we were having this debate, I at one point mused: "You know, no one asked me the obvious question: How would you feel if somebody trashed Roger Zelazny/Scott Pilgrim/whatever? I was thinking about it and realized my answer would be "'Great! Because then I'd have a chance to talk about it!'"

That's the thing. I'm endlessly fascinated about why people believe the things they do. That's part of the reason I'm so happy that people are commenting on the blog now with greater regularity. Obviously, "Sluggishly Sloshed" Chris and I have different opinions on Eye of Cat, but I'm looking forward to hearing what he likes about the book. Who knows? Maybe I'll come around.

Back to Hannity. I've never listened to his radio show, but I guess he's been doing it for a long time. One thing I've noticed is that he's really good at filling time. He was talking about how health care reform would be an onerous burden on restaurant owners and then he segued into a little story about how he worked in a restaurant, and how there are always things to be done, and he launched into a ten minute segue enumerating these chores in fairly exhaustive detail.  I guess you have to stretch things out if you're going to be on the air for a couple hours every day.

I noticed that he was very good at distorting the truth and seeming to back it up. In the maybe thirty minutes I listened, he played the same clip three times, of a Democratic Rep saying that if Healthcare reform is repealed, then people will die. When the clip ended, he would say "Did you hear what she said? After her President called for civility at the memorial service on Tuesday? She said that REPUBLICANS WANT TO KILL GRANDMA!" Well, no she didn't, asshole. What she said was that if healthcare reform were to be repealed, some people will lose their insurance, and people at the outer fringes will die as a consequence.

To his credit, he didn't support the truly crazy of his callers. When somebody called in and said that Steampunk Palin was correct in her use of the phrase blood libel in regard to some of the criticism she's been receiving. He agreed with the caller, reassured him that they shared the same viewpoint, and then went on to clearly contradict him, but doing it with such a light touch that the caller wound up agreeing with him. Also, when someone asked him why Jared Lee Loughner, the gunman who shot Representative Giffords and many others, hadn't been committed, Hannity answered the question exactly the same way I would have, that it's really hard to have someone committed against his will.

I wouldn't want to listen to him regularly, because he's a deeply mendacious man with a real mean streak, but it was informative to hear what kind of arguments he was making. Also, if I ever need some commemorative gold coins, I only have to wait for the next commercial break!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Come Back to the Killing Ground Alice, My Love

"I had forgotten," he said softly "that you are the magician who slew the phantom tiger."

"I didn't really kill him," Kalifriki said. "He's still out there somewhere. I just came to terms with him. Storytellers don't know everything.

Sometimes I think that I'd like to see someone pull a Kilgore Trout (the pen name used by Philip José Farmer
when he was writing actual versions of the fictional books mentioned in Kurt Vonnegut's stories) and and write the stories about the spectral tigers or the Moonriders out of Ghenesh, or the tale of how One in Red went up against the power of the Seven Lords of Komlat in the land of the witches, (all the stories that Zelazny alluded to, but never told) but then I remember that Zelazny was insistant against allowing other authors to play with his creations, and the only authors I can think who could have done these stories justice are his friends who loved and respected him too much to do so.

Zelazny sequels make me happy. His imagination was so impossibly fertile that he seldom needed to return to old worlds, opting to create something completely new instead.  I am certain that had Zelazny lived longer, we would have seen more Kalifriki stories. I don't know where they would have appeared, as the magazine model was already fading when he passed, but I'm confident that Kalifriki would have found a path.

For today's installement of my Roger Zelazny Book Reviews, I'm looking at "Come Back to the Killing Ground Alice, my Love". It's the second and final Kalifriki story and it opens with a reference to Casablanca, "All the death-traps in the galaxy, and she has to walk into mine" and that segment concludes with "Play it again, Alices...". I don't know what meaning to ascribe to the references. The Collected Works of Roger Zelazny, probably the most comprehensive look at Zelazny's works, simply notes that the lines are from Casablanca, one of Zelazny's favorite movies. It may very well be that there is no deeper meaning than that, and he just used the quote because it could be made to fit the story and it was an engaging way of drawing the reader in.

Kalifriki, the hero of the previous story, is somewhere in Greece when a woman named Alice calls upon him for his services. He's a master of the Thread, which surrounds the universe in its nth-dimensional way, and allows Kalifriki to perform all manner of tricks in his chosen role, that of a very special type of troubleshooter. (Which usually, but not always translates to assassin)

I like that Alice comes to Kalifriki with a plan. She's thought it through, and even though he chooses not to employ the methods she lays out, he seems to respect them as valid. His has resources that she does not, but never once does she strike me as a damsel in distress. I like Alice, scarred, blue-eyed, ("She fixed him with her blue gaze and he felt the familiar chill of the nearness of death"), stone cold. Even though the resolution of the story puts her actions in a different light, I never stop liking her.

She's a clone whose short life is built into her design, in the form of a poison sac at the base of her brain. (This safeguard was disabled by her head wound) I think Blade Runner and Berserker did this better, with Blade Runner simply designing the Replicants with limited lifespans and Berserker setting up field agents with a hypnotic "death dream" whereby they could will themselves to death in circumstances where capture is inevitable. Yes, yes, it's one of Josh's picayune complaints about an exceedingly trivial aspect of the story, and I've already spent more time complaining here about it than they spent talking about it. Anyway, it's a small point, and purely subjective and just about the only thing I didn't like in an otherwise pitch perfect fable, but it felt needlessly complicated and out of place in the story. (I do really like the story, and I think finding exceedingly trivial things to bitch about is half the fun of being a fan. I mean, it's not like it's a trait limited to science fiction fans.)

Kalifriki accepts the mission and they begin their journey. When Kalifriki brings a second singularity into the subspace, the AI notices something odd, but observes "Is it that I am running faster? It would be hard to tell if my spin state were affected." That reminded me of a smackdown I saw posted online somewhere or other, "What's sad is his total lack of understanding of theoretical physics. Max Planck is spinning in his grave. Whether it is spin up or spin down is for someone else to determine." Nerd humor always tickles me.

He makes the distinction between a self-sustaining, programmed accretion disc and a black hole. (And it didn't occur to me until now that that must be what the cover art from Manna from Heaven is depicting. I thought it was just some generic spacescape.) Lesser writers sometimes make the big new technology like radiation in the 1950s. Nanotech is to the 2000s is what radiation was to the 1950s, some magical force that gives you superpowers/allows ants to grow to 50 feet/whatever. I don't think these kind of stories are going to age well. It reduces science to Magic! Zelazny's take on new technologies were always plausible, for lack of a better word. I don't think a superstring will ever be employed in the same way Kalifriki uses it, but Zelazny takes enough care in crafting the story that I'm willing to suspend my disbelief. (Though I'm a chemist and not a physicist, and for all I know, the physics in the story gives those guys fits.)

I kind of like not knowing the whole deal with Kalifriki.  When I was a young kid, I loved big roster books for licensed games. I'm thinking of TSR's Marvel Superhero game. They sold these Gamer's Handbook to the Marvel Universe pre-holed-punched and set up for inclusion in a binder, each of them nothing but stats and histories for all the characters. I loved it. I loved it more than the source material. I loved knowing every little secret and having the exact capabilities of my favorite characters measured out for me.

I'm still somewhat analytical in my thinking, but there are some areas where I'm content not knowing everything going on behind the scenes. (Coincidentally, this shift in my thinking came around the time I saw Highlander 2, which taught me that a bad answers can be so much worse than not knowing.)

"Who are you really?" she asked him. "You know too much. More than the culture of this world contains."

"My story is not part of the bargain," he said.

I mentioned before that something I like about Zelazny is that his creations seem part of a larger world and not things that springs forth simply to populate a story.

Anyway, we have some lovely and evocative set pieces in Ubar and elsewhere as Kalifriki gathers what he will need and we get a plot twist right out of Raymond Chandler near the end, and if the story doesn't have a happy ending, it has an enormously satisfying one. It had been a while since I had read this story, and I had forgotten how it resolved. When I got to the end, I started over and reread it in its entirety, and reading the story with foreknowledge of where it was heading was like getting two fables for the price of one.

(Also, if Chris K is reading this, please check out the lively debate in the Damnation Alley comments. We have need of your expertise.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Kalifriki of the Thread

I like Kalifriki, both the character and the story, but the story always leaves me felling vaguely sad. I first read it in the Manna from Heaven collection, with along with the the second Kalifriki story, "Come Back to the Killing Ground Alice, My Love". It's a decent collection and it also introduced me to Godson, which remains one of my favorites.

The opening lines grabbed me right away:

This is the story of Kalifriki of the Thread, the Kife and the toymaker's daughter - in the days of the shifter's flight from the Assassin's Garden . wherefrom it bore a treasure almost without price.

I read that and thought, "I don't know who this Kalifriki is, but apparently she's something called a Kife, and her dad used to make toys!" Then I read a little more and figured out, "Oh, those are all different things." Heh.

(I also really like the cadence. I reminds me both of the rhythm in The Furies and how we are introduced to John Donnerjack: John D'Arcy Donnerjack loved but once and when he saw the moiré he knew it was over. It just kind of has a fairy tale meter to it.)

Also, let's look at those concepts in order:

Who is Kalifriki? The Kife describes him as "Hammer jawed, high of cheek, dark eyed beneath an oddly sensitive brow, dark hair tied back with a strip of blue cloth." It noted a "slight irregularity to his  lower teeth, a small scar beside his right eye, piece of red cloth wrapped about his left wrist." He's strong enough to heft and hurl boulders.

The Thread is a neat concept and a pretty distinctive signature weapon. I like the description we get for it in the beginning of the story.

For the Thread may wander anywhere and need not have an end; the thread has more sides than a sword; the Thread is subtle in its turnings, perhaps infinite in the variations it may play in the labyrinths of doom, destiny, desire. No one, however, can regard every turning of fate from the Valley of Frozen Time. Attempts to do so tend to terminate in madness.

We learn a little more about the Thread in the second story, but I'm going to address it based strictly on what we know from this one.

The impression that immediately sprang to mind, and which I think Zelazny was trying to evoke, is that of the superstring, an object that exists in more dimensions than those the observer is capable of perceiving.

 What's a Kife? The Kife is Kalifriki's quarry, a shifter capable of inhabiting other bodies and traversing the side-by-side space,  very alien in some ways, but which I found to be very human in its reasoning.

The man, Kalifriki was a hunter, a killer, with the ability to traverse the side-by-side lands. It struck the Kife that the two of them had much in common. But it did not believe the man was of his own kind. That is, he shifted, but the means he employed bore no resemblance to the Kife's own methods.

I liked the flow of the story. Kalifriki completely outclassed the Kife. A Kife has to be killed five times within a year and the first couple of pages are just Kalifriki showing up and killing the shit out of it repeatedly. In Kalifriki, we see an assassin equally at home with dragons as he is with robots.

He follows it to the castle of the Toymakers, where he is hurt in an accident and tended to by the clockwork automata there. Jerobee Clockman is the Master Toymaker, and, while I do find the name a little bit silly, I think it's silly in a way that adds to the fairy tale ambiance of the story.

The whole second half of the story reminds me of something out of Ravenloft, something benign given a 90 degrees twist into the sinister. No point in spoiling the ending, since the story is so short, but I'll say that I really enjoyed it and it left me wanting more.

I mentioned in the beginning of this review that reading it always leaves me feeling a little melancholy. It just feels like Zelazny wasn't done with Kalifriki yet. (He did get a sequel, which I'll be covering next, but that only serves to reinforce the feeling.) I think that if he had had more time, Kalifriki would have grown to be one of his iconic characters, maybe not a Corwin or a Sam, but one of those beloved second-stringers like Dilvish or Nameless, who go on to have a life among fans beyond that which they are given on the page.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Not a great weekend

Jen got around to taking her new used car to the inspection station. The good news is that it passed. The bad news is that it started smoking right after it did. (Her original account made it sound like the car started smoking when it was still in line and that she still passed in spite of that. I was imagining flames leaping out of the hood, and a blasé attendant saying "Okay, you're good to go.")

So she spent most of her day getting that straightened out. Then we watched the Princess Diaries to make sure it was an appropriate movie for Lily. I remembered liking it okay. It is of course the perfect movie for Lily, because it's all about Maria Von Trappe telling a girl that she's secretly a princess.

Hector Elizondo reprises his roles from...well, every movie he's ever been in. Julie Andrews is usually pretty great and this was no exception.  Anne Hathaway gave a really good performance as well. It's to her credit that she's not overshadowed by the other two actors.

Before we started watching, Jen and I were trying to remember the name of the fictional country in the movie.

Jen: I think it's Munrovia.
Me: No, isn't it Genovia?
(Julie Andrews mentions the country is called Genovia.)
Me: (Pointing to self) Winner!
Jen: Congratulations, you're the 13 year old girl in this relationship.

At about this point, I picked up Jen's phone and went to plug it in. When I did, I saw that she had a text message, so I said "Hey, I saw that you had a text massage, but I didn't look to see what it was" and gave her back her phone. She looked at the message, and got a look of horror on her face, and I asked "What's wrong?" She read the message out loud, "Are you going to go to Ed's funeral?" Ed is the name of our next door neighbor.

So Jen called and learned that Ed had indeed passed away on Friday. We had no idea. He was an older fellow, but in apparently good health. When it snowed, we always tried to get his sidewalk too. We'll be attending the service tonight and we'll be helping out his widow whenever we can.

Sunday was a little bit better. I went to birthday party with Lily. It was at a McDonald's Playland. Lily was impossibly well-behaved for the whole thing. Always said please, always said thank you and got really engaged when talking to my  friend Amy. Lily was telling her about a dream she had yesterday morning where some kind of creature was stealing her pitas. Also, there was some kind of robot-mommy. And Lily was telling her about this dream like it was the most important story in the world, and Amy, bless her heart, was listening as if it were.

We came home and Jen set a new record with her hula hooping, keeping it up for a solid twelve minutes. I credit Lily, who was cheering her on with the chant, "Mommy! Queen of the hula hoop, queen of the world!"

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths

We all have types of stories that we like to hear told and retold. Me, I'm a sucker for a tale of redemption as well as for a certain story that doesn't really exist outside of sci-fi and soap operas, that of the evil twin.

Of course in science fiction it often takes the form of a counterpart from a parallel univers. I loved Grant Morrison's JLA: Earth 2 and I was expecting the awesomely made but lamely titled Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths to be essentially an animated version of the comic, and I was pretty pleased to see an extensively reworked story!  I loved the characters design. Better than JLU series where everybody seemed to be built like a Gorilla Grodd.

The beginning is pretty much the same. Good Lex Luthor and his pal the Jester are stealing some technology from the Crime Syndicate, the evil version of the Justice League. The Jester is killed by evil Hawkgirl, which causes him to die again, this time of embarrassment, and Luthor escapes to our world, where he beseeches the Justice League to help him.

So the League, minus Batman goes to Earth 2 where the learn the base is compromised They fight Z-listers like Evil Vibe and Evil Gypsy. I mean, there are demi-gods like Superman who thunder across the globe and then there are the "Why are they on the team again?" heroes characters like Vibe of whom I wrote in another JLA review:

And it was nice to see some of the B-listers. (A C-listers. And you too, Vibe. I'm not sure which list you're on, but I'm pretty sure we'll need a letter from Grant Morrison's 64-Letter alphabet to describe it. Hey-o! Invisibles Shout Out!)

Despite the lameness of their opposition, the JLA is forced to flee when they the little leaguers call in the big guns. I loved the Made Men. (The mafia metaphors in this movie are not what I would call subtle. Ultraman in particular is unable to complete a sentence without using "dis" dat" "dese" or "dose".)

I guess the Made Men were supposed to be the Marvel Family (judging by the names in the credits) , but they reminded me of the Three Storms from Big Trouble in Little China. Our heroes evade the villains, and the chameleon Circuit on Owlman's jet was cute. (It gets stuck in the on position and the plane becomes permanently invisible. Wonder Woman steals it for her invisible Jet) and go to Lex's pad.

President Deathstroke was a bit of a tool, which seems to be a constant no matter what universe you're in. His daughter really reminded me of Zoey Bartlet. She falls in love with J'onn J'onzz, and he with her. Who knows why?

Flash seemed barely faster than I am. Fucking feet of clay, man. His role seemed to be run around and then get cold-cocked as he gawked at something s*l*o*w*l*y coming towards him.

The heroes split off into pairs and attack the opposition. Lex and Superman go to the Daily Planet and call out Ultraman, the evil Superman. I really loved Jimmy ("Ultraman's pal") Olson as a superpowered goon. It seems fitting somehow.

I enjoyed seeing Batman getting his ass kicked. I think I'm going to dedicate an entire post to how much I hate Batman. And I think it's a tribute to how good the movie was that I liked it even though it was the goddamn Batman who saved the day (as usual).

Ultraman shows up and Superman is ready to throw down but Lex stops him, saying that he has to be the one to do it if it's going to mean anything after the heroes go home. There are lots of superpowered brawls, and Owlman puts his plan in motion. Owlman is the nihilistic evil counterpart to Batman (though Owlman is not Bruce, but Thomas Wayne.) I was texting my friend Eric when I started the movie and I mentioned that I wanted to have Owlman's owl babies.

Pictured: Awesome

He texted back saying "James woods as owlman" and I replied to that with "That sounds like it could be the first line of a haiku".Hmmm... Let's see what we can do!

James woods as Owlman
He's a nihilist. What? That's
no ethos, asshole.

Big Lebowski shout out!

Owlman was the best part of a really good movie. He reminded me of the Batman analogue in Soon I will be Invincible, who was explicitly autistic.  His last words, "It doesn't matter" will stick with me long after the movie has ended.

Me, I want a hula hoop

Two quick hula hoop stories.

So Jen's getting good with her Christmas hula hoop. She's keeping it going for five minutes at a time.  I told Lily that I had an invisible hula hoop and I was moving around as if I did. I certainly have my share of flaws, both as a person and as a father, but I think one good thing we're doing is giving an inquisitive kid the tools she'll need to understand the world around her. When she asks me a question, I'll typically ask her what she thinks the answer is and help her work through it. Sometimes this makes me sound like Eliza, but I think it's a good process for her to learn.

I saw her putting this into play when I made the claim about the hula hoop. She didn't believe that there were such things as invisible hula hoops, but she reached out to see if she could feel it. When she couldn't, she told me that I didn't have an invisible hula hoop. I insisted that I did, but it was also intangible. She didn't know what the word meant, so she asked, and I told her that if something is intangible, you can't touch it. However, that confused her, and she asked "Why can't I touch it?" and Jen and I clarified that it's not that you're not allowed to touch it, but that it's something that people are unable to touch, like air or love.

She still didn't believe that I had an invisible, intangible hula hoop, though.

Nor did she want a ride on my invisible pink unicorn, sadly.

Speaking of hula hoops, my friend Karen posted on Facebook that she was exercising with her Wii Fit and I joked that a hula hoop peripheral would be awesome. She said that there was a hulu hoop game that worked with the balance board. I thought this could be used to sell Jen on a Wii. I approached her when she was spinning her hulu hoop.

Josh: We should buy a Wii. I hear they have a game with a hulu hoop.
Jen: (Not looking over)  I already have a hulu hoop.
Josh: ...fuck

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Damnation Alley

I always get excited when I start Damnation Alley. It opens when Hell Tanner (which is a great name) hits a passing gull with a flicked cigar butt. I love that image, because it instantly paints a picture of the kind of guy Hell is. It starts off good, and while it never becomes bad exactly, it seems like it's front loaded with the good stuff.  I think Damnation Alley unique among Zelazny's works in that it could have been written by someone else.

I'm surprised that this was the only film adaptation of Zelazny's work. Come on! Roadmarks would be awesome! You could even have special features like the Memento DVD did that lets you watch the scenes in the proper order!

It's a post-apocalyptic adventure story with giant mutant monsters. It has some really cool vehicles, and Chris, if you're reading this, I will never again question the importance of automobiles in Zelazny's work after rereading this particular bit of car porn:

There were no windows in the vehicle, only screens which reflected views in every direction, including straight up and the ground beneath the car. Tanner sat within an illuminated box which shielded him against radiation. The "car" that he drove had eight heavily treaded tires and was thirty-two feet in length. It mounted eight fifty-caliber automatic guns and four grenade-throwers. It carried thirty armor-piercing rockets which could be discharged straight ahead or at any elevation up to forty degrees from the plane. Each of the four sides, as well as the roof of the vehicle, housed a flamethrower. Razor-sharp "wings" of tempered steel, eighteen inches wide at their bases and tapering to points, an inch and a quarter thick where they ridged, could be moved through a complete hundred-eighty-degree arc along the sides of the car and parallel to the ground, at a height of two feet and eight inches. When standing at a right angle to the body of the vehicle, eight feet to the rear of the front bumper, they extended out to a distance of six feet on either side of the car. They could be couched like lances for a charge. They could be held but slightly out from the sides for purposes of slashing whatever was sideswiped. The car was bulletproof, air-conditioned, and had its own food locker and sanitation facilities. A long-barreled .357 Magnum was held by a clip on the door near the driver's left hand. A 30.06, a .45-caliber automatic, and six hand grenades occupied the rack immediately above the front seat.

It has a lot of stuff I like, but the stuff I like doesn't fit in with the broader tone of the work.  I like the staccato account of his capture. It reminds me of Corwin's description of a similar event. I like lines like "The man with the pistol turned and stared through bifocals that made his eyes look like hourglasses filled with green sand as he lowered his head." because, hey, green eyes, take a drink.

I like the dressing down from Denton, the Secretary of Traffic for the nation of California. (I thought it was especially well performed on the audio book)

"Shut up! You don't care about them, and you know it! I just want to tell you that I think you are the lowest, most reprehensible human being I have ever encountered. You have killed men and raped women. You once gouged out a man's eyes, just for fun. You've been indicted twice for pushing dope, and three times as a pimp. you're a drunk and a degenerate, and I don't think you've had a bath since the day you were born. You and your hoodlums terrorized decent people when they were trying to pull their lives together after the war. You stole from them and you assaulted them, and you extorted money and the necessaries of life with the threat of physical violence. I wish you had died in the Big Raid that night, like all the rest of them. You are not a human being, except from a biological standpoint. You have a big dead spot somewhere inside you where other people have something that lets them live together in society and be neighbors. The only virtue that you possess, if you want to call it that, is that your reflexes may be a little faster, your muscles a little stronger, your eye a bit more wary than the rest of us, so that you can sit behind a wheel and drive through anything that has a way through it. It is for this that the nation of California is willing to pardon your inhumanity if you will use that one virtue to help rather than hurt. I don't approve. I don't want to depend on you, because you're not the type. I'd like to see you die in this thing, and while I hope that somebody makes it through, I hope that it will be somebody else. I hate your bloody guts. You've got your pardon now. The car's ready. Let's go."

And I guess that's it for the stuff I like. As for the stuff I don't, well...

Part of the problem is the tone.

We're told that Hell is a murderer, a rapist, a slaver, a pusher and a pimp, someone who would gouge another man's eyes out just for fun.

We're shown Hell as a this happy-go-lucky goof who loves his brother and mouths off to authority figures, a lug who is lazy in his casual cruelty.  When I imagine Hell the image that sticks with me is "...he drove with one hand and ate a corned-beef sandwich."

He's supposed to be this savage brutal thug, (who looks at the world through crap-colored glasses, another great line), but he seems too deliberate, too civilized. I've always thought that Zelazny's writing melds the poetic and the precise, and Hell is supposed to be neither of these.

(Apropos of nothing, I always imagine Hell and Ganelon as the same guy.)

When morning came, many hours later, he took a pill to keep himself alert and listened to the screaming of the wind. The sun rose up like molten silver to his right, and a third of the sky grew amber and was laced with fine lines like cobwebs. The desert was topaz beneath it, and the brown curtain of dust that hung continuously at his back, pierced only by the eight shafts of the other cars' lights, took on a pinkish tone as the sun grew a bright red corona and the shadows fled into the west. He dimmed his lights as he passed an orange cactus shaped like a toadstool and perhaps fifty feet in diameter.

Consider that passage for a moment. The story isn't first person like many of Zelazny's story, but Hell is unquestionably the protagonist and the narrative follows him. Descriptions like those, juxtaposed against the barbarian Hell is supposed to be, (or have been, depending on how charitably you want to interpret his statements) just draw attention to the difference between Hell as written and Hell as described.

Another thing is Hell's use of the word "Screw," as a profanity. I happen to like this, as it makes him distinctive. I imagine it was some kind of compromise, because he probably couldn't say "fuck", and while it lacks the visceral impact of the f-word, I'm fine with it.  However, that leads into another oddity about the story, the line: "To the squares, this was Damnation Alley. To Hell Tanner, this was still the parking lot."

I thought that was a cool sentiment, but the use of "squares" simultaneously dates the story and neuters Hell. If the last Hell's Angel is using slang out of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, then your story has taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Indian and Angelina

Jen wanted me to call this post “Indian and Angelina” and since she so seldom takes any interest in my blog, I decided to got with it. Jen made some curry dishes for us to enjoy while we watched our Wacky Wednesday movie, one of the Angelina Ballerina collections, which I didn't really dig, but which Lily watched twice because it was so short and cooking ran long.

Not a whole lot of excitement at home lately, which is why it's mostly been book reviews.

We had a nice New Year's Eve, with pretty much the same lineup as last year. Me, Jen, Lily, Jen's mom, my Grammy, our nephew. We watched movies, Chris played games, everybody ate junk and Lily conked out fifteen minutes before the ball dropped. (We had canceled our cable but found a stream of the ball dropping online.)

I was proud of Lily for a couple reasons over this past week. One is that she said Superman is her favorite superhero. Yay! Superman rocks. She didn't want to read Kingdom Come with me, though. Pity. It's a beautiful book. Maybe when she's older.

I'll cover it in more detail some day soon, but there are some elements I really enjoy in the story, chiefly among them the idea that it's possible for anyone to learn from his or her mistakes and to move beyond them.  I didn't really get the extent of Magog's redemption until I read that article above and looked for the actions described.

But back to Lily and superheroes. She told me that if she were a superhero, her name would be "Super Princess Lily" and her powers would be "saving people" and "bringing them back to life if they die". This death thing is getting out of hand. Jen told me yesterday that she got through a day with Lily without telling her that two people were dead. I didn't think that was all that remarkable, because I often manage to get through the day without telling her that two people were dead until she told me that Lily had started asking questions about Michael Jackson after recognizing one of his songs. (I don't know which I find more impressive, the fact that she was able to place the song or the fact that she actually used the word "recognized".) Jen managed to deflect both the questions about Michael Jackson and her cookie recipe from her great-grandmother. So, go Jen!

The other reason I was proud of Lily is that she said, "Daddy, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but your bathroom is very messy and you should clean it up a little."

I'm pleased, not because she thinks my bathroom is messy, but how she could phrase that in a respectful fashion that nonetheless makes her meaning clear. For kids, and some adults, that's not always easy.  It reminds me of the time the Autistic Robot gave me something for a quick review. I worked on it in MS Word's editing mode, and was surprised to find that I made 112 changes when I was done. I can offer criticism, and I can be nice, but I can seldom do both at once without great effort. I'm pleased to see that that this seems to come more easily to Lily. I'm proud of the kid she's becoming.

I'm less pleased about other things. I was finishing up a reading of the Little Mermaid and Jen was in the room listening to us. I mentioned that Eric and Ariel only dated for three days before they got married. So we asked her how long people should date before they got married. Lily thought about it for a moment and said "One or two days."

Then she went on to tell us that she loves two boys in her class and she will marry one of them after dating them for the appropriate wooing period of up to two days. They each dance funny and don't get many time outs and sometimes they pull their eyelids down to look like monsters.

By staggering coincidence, that's exactly what I'm looking for in a future son-in-law!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Donnerjack, part four: Verité

There is quite a bit of story left, but it all moves very briskly once our two protagonists are all grown up. They meet, they part ways, Jay keeps his father's bargain and all the separate threads are pulled together very neatly.

One of the things I like is that it is mentioned that the gods move slowly. In another work, that line would just be flavor, something mentioned to establish their character and quickly forgotten. But it takes them about twenty years to go from gathering their forces to open warfare (something that only works because of the generation sweep of the book) and I'm pleased that this glacial pace was something we got to see and not just hear described. Likewise, I enjoyed the depiction of the long game. Too often in popular fiction, long-term planning is simply magical, with the character in the Saw movies (for instance) predicting and planning around incredibly specific events several years after his death. Death has a general idea of the category of enemy that will be opposing him, and rather than make specific plans, he recruits an agent who can act in ways he cannot.

(Also, it's weird that Zelazny wrote two "Death takes a protégé" stories (Donnerjack and Godson) as it's not the most crowded field, but each of them manages to be entertaining and engaging in entirely different ways)

Another thing that I like is that authors never forget that Virtù is an artificial world. They manage to blend the mythic and the mechanical in a way that makes them both seem magical. When discussing ailments, Ambry observes that "reproduction proges are as old as the first simple copy programs." Skyga, Earthma and Seaga are the greatest gods on Mount Meru, but they are also programs. (I like that Seaga manifests in the form of a cuttlefish colored "as blue as a jazz musician's soul".) Skyga oversees the general power of the system's structure. Earthma is the aion of all aions, the base program for all loci. Seaga's domain is the vast tidal masses of data in Virtu. In order to destroy a proge, one must obliterate it utterly or create a new memory so powerful that it overwrites the existing one.

If I had to pick something I disliked about the book, it would be Alice Hazzard. Alice comes as close as possible to destroying Donnerjack. She's 16 years old,  but already an accomplished muckracker. (Her pseudonym comes from Lincoln Steffens) She reminds me of another muckraker with something of a gap between how is written and how he is perceived:  Buck Williams: "Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time!"

Anyway, here's how the GIRAT reported, firsthand, from the scene of an all-out nuclear surprise attack:

To say the Israelis were caught off guard, Cameron Williams had written, was like saying the Great Wall of China was long.

Just remember, when L&J discuss good writing, this is what they mean.

That's from the slactivist's excellent ongoing takedown of the Left Behind series. Alice is a poor man's Buck. She manages to produce prose both purple and banal. She has such a tin ear it came to life and helped Dorothy find the Wizard.

On the other hand, Alice does have believable interactions with her mom.  Maybe Lindskold was responsible for them and, maybe not, but Zelazny was never great with his depiction of women, and, as shitty a character as Alice is, at least she passes the the bechdel test

Unfortunately, Alice gets the last word. She comes across Jay, who is, quite understandably, getting drunk, because he's absolutely devastated after  witnessing his childhood playmate and his mother murder each other right in front of him. She tells him to stop sulking, and the crusader ghost chimes in with a "You go, girl!"

It's called mourning! Jesus.

And to wrap up this review: I like the depiction of Death in the book, as I had previously mentioned. He reminds me of Hades as the Greeks understood him. With the exception of Persephone, Hades wasn’t really a bad guy. He was dark and unpitying, but fundamentally just.  He was probably better than most of his cohorts, because if you're a Greek peasant, things probably aren't going to end well for you if you attract the attention of a god, and Hades just mostly kept to himself.

I also couldn't help but think of Dream, from Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. Dream is the position held by Morpheus, and while there must always be a Dream, the Endless can be killed. In the course of the series, Morpheus dies and another rises to become Dream. Likewise, while there must always be a Death, it need not always be the same Death. Earthma seeks to supplant him, by having her child, Antaeus, seize his cowl and thus his station. 

Death says "If you were to disassemble everything of me that you see before you, yet would the forces of the universe bring back toogether their overseer of entropy - somewhere, somehow - and I would return. I am necessary to the proper functioning of things..." (The wording is also very reminiscent of how the Steel General is described in Creatures of Light and Darkness, which returns to my earlier point that there seem to be elements from many Zelazny stories in Donnerjack.) Adding to the similarities is that Gaiman says that Zelazny's death and subsequent wake informed Morpheus's.

Is Donnerjack perfect? Not at all. But much like Creatures of Light and Darkness, I like it because of, not in spite of its flaws. It might have been a more polished work had Zelazny survived to finish it and there are some interesting insights about the original direction for the story in the handwritten outline called Donnerjack, of Virtù: A Fable for the Machine Age. It shows that the story would have been somewhat different (and also that Zelazny had absolutely appalling handwriting.) It's an interesting look at an interesting book.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Donnerjack, part three: Virtù

Part Three of my Donnerjack review. (Part One Part Two, and the link to the index.)

This one will have FOR REAL spoilers, so STOP READING NOW.

Donnerjack is a generational story and while Zelazny has written some stories that span great length of time (For a Breath I Tarry leaps immediately to mind, as does "The Game of Blood and Dust" or Roadmarks if you want to get cute), I can't think of anything quite like the structure of this one. Maybe the Amber books, if you take them as a single work and not as two series. Again, not so weird if you keep in mind that it wasn't intended as a single book, but as a trilogy. I like it.

To digress for a moment, I loved Stephen King's Dark Tower books. The first two were great, the next one was pretty good, the fourth one prompted my first ever sarcastic review on the internet and then it was all downhill after that.

Also, part of the problem is that the final books were released in rapid succession. The Drawing of the Three was released in 1987, The Waste Lands in 1991 and Wizard & Ass in 1997, followed by the final three one after the other in 2003 and 04.

I think the long delay worked for the earlier books, because it allowed King to introduce themes that percolated for years before they came to fruition in later books. When he tries to attach a similar significance to the number 99 in the later books, I'm like "Who are you trying to fool? That's just something you made up a couple months ago."

Allowing concepts to take on a life of their own is something that's much more difficult to do over the course of one book and I have to wonder how different it would have been as a series. I think it is a weighty enough work that those concepts planted early on come to blossom in the resolution.

And to return to the I thought Aradyss died much earlier in the story than she did, but she sticks around for a bit. (I thought that Donnerjack outlasted her by a goodly amount, but it's only a few chapters.) I enjoyed her interaction with the caoineag, who tells her "The dust of the black butterfly yet clings to your hair." I really liked that line. Donnerjack is a big book and there are passages that are not as strong as they could be, but there are memorable gems too. It made me think of The Last Defender of Camelot where Launcelot says "It is true that I have aged, yet whenever I am threatened all of my former strength returns to me."

Looking back, I like all of the foreshadowing. I was surprised to find all of the main characters already present by the end of Part One. Lydia Hazzard pregnancy was handled pretty well and I like the parallels to Jay's conception.

I neglected to mention this in the earlier review, but the genii loci remind me of Lords with their "Place of Power" from Jack of Shadows. Reece Jordan talks about differential time flows in Virtù and that made me think about shadows with different time flows. We also have a line "Donnerjack calculated an existence theorem that worked out the necessary coordinates for a hidden valley where strange attractors grew on trees..." which reminds me of the bit in Nine Princes where Corwin and Bleys find Avernus, a shadow full of custom made cannon fodder.)

 I'm not sure if the reference eating of the liver and the heart was also a deliberate nod to The Guns of Avalon or if I'm reading a lot of Zelazny and just imagining connections when there are only coincidences. Though allusions to real world books that may have shaped the story (Such as David Park's Image of Eternity, or the Future as History in Bridge of Ashes) seems to recur with enough frequency that I'm thinking about including it in the Roger Zelazny drinking game. (Another trope seems to be relatives resembling each other strongly enough to make a relationship clear at a glance. Corwin and Merlin, Selar and Dilvish, here we have Alice and Lydia, which is especially interesting, because the resemblance is strong enough that Jay knows that Lydia is "Link's" mother right away, but he can't figure out that Link is a girl?)

It's possible that these tropes seem exaggerated because the book was completed posthumously by Jane Lindskold and she may have been consciously or unconsciously pulling elements from his earlier stories in order to make it feel more like a Zelazny work. I'm uncomfortable speculating along those lines however, so I'm not going to go further along the path than that.

We return to Arthur Eden, the undercover anthropology professor who, in his identity as Emmanuel Davis has just displayed his virt powers to a higher ranking memeber in the church, Randall Kesley. I like both characters a lot and this has the nuanced exchange I've come to expect from Zelazny.

"Do you believe in the gods, Emmanuel Davis?"

"More than ever before."

"More than nothing can still be almost nothing."

"...If you are asking me do I believe specifically in Enil, Enki, Ishtar and all the rest I would have to say that there are divinities who find those names and their attendant forms as convenient as any other, but if I was asked to say whether I believed that those were identical to to the deities who were worshiped in the Fertile Crescent I would be forced to say no.

"I see. Heresy?"

"I would prefer to call it metaphysical conjecture. In any case, my teaching is not out of line with the teachings of the Church. Even in the earliest lessons, we are taught that form and name are metaphors for something more primal."

"True, but what about faith?"

"Faith is something that is given - it cannot be learned. At least so I have always felt. I offer instead my worship."

"Your experience with the development of a virt power did not change your mind about the divinity of those worshiped by the Church of Elish?"

"I never said I doubted their divinity, sir, only that I doubted the equivalency of the deities we worship here and those from ancient times."

"Yes, I see."

Later on, Aradyss gives birth and then dies. Donnerjack builds the Brass Baboon, his "Prince of Puppets", a living locomotive that "cannibalized realities, broke the bounds of virtual domains, and tore like a meteor through anything, spewing gleaming tracks before it as it, leaving a horde of irate genii loci behind it to adjust to its passage." Together they storm Deep Fields, and fight Death to a standstill, negotiating a settlement where Jay may have a normal childhood in Verité rather than growing up as Death's ward. (And by normal, I mean, of course, being raised in a haunted castle by robots and playing with reanimated animals sent to spy on him.)

Death gets Donnerjack shortly after that. I like how the siege is announced by the image of a skull on the monitor. Jay grows up some, meets Reece Jordan in Virtù. Reece is an old colleague of the senior Donnerjack. Together with Warren Bansa, they are the three folk of Verité worshiped by aions. Reece is also present for two of what appear to be inconsistencies in the narrative. Reece is very old and a patient at the Center for Iatropathic Disorders, the CID. Their aion is Sid. Heh.

On page 138 of the hardcover, Paracelsus refers to Bansa as the man who started the whole thing. Donnerjack responds that he wouldn't go that far, "but he came up with some novel theories as to what happened." Here's the thing, though. Bansa kicked off Virtù by crashing the Worldnet and precipitating the Genesis Scramble. He crossed over to Virtù bodily and died in the process. So A.) Of course he knows what happened, because he was there for it and more significantly. B.) Doing it made him dead and it's not like he's submitting papers for peer review at that point.

On page 207, Reece is trying to help John Jr. come up with the name he'll use, because he doesn't want to call him John, because as far as Reece is concerned, that was the elder Donnerjack's name. He says that Jack Donnerjack sounds like something from a fairy tale, which I found kind of amusing, but he also says his middle name "D'Arcy", is a little bit pompous. No denying that, but is it his middle name? Aradyss refers to herself as Aradyss D'Arcy Donnerjack, and some quick googling didn't turn up anything unusual about Scottish naming conventions. (I know Hispanic people in America occasionally have difficulty filling out forms, because the naming conventions include a given name and two surnames (mother and father) so I was thinking it might be something along those lines) I then thought that Donnerjack might be a title, a la Lord Tennyson, or perhaps Reece was confused. It doesn't matter. We wind up with Jay, as you may have surmised, since that's what I've been calling him.

We meet Link Crane, and she's so obviously Alice Hazzard that I'm not even going to maintain the polite fiction of pretending to believe that she's a boy. (I always imagine her as looking like Leo from Tekken 6)

Who do you think you're fooling, young lady?
She's rescued by Desmond Drum, who sighs and rolls his eyes and pretends to believe she's a girl too. Alice is enormously annoying and really the only thing I don't like about Donnerjack. She wants to be Veronica Mars but she's just Pol Detson.

Let's talk about cool things instead. Death contacts Jay a few years later.

"Who are you?" the boy repeated.

"You know me. Everybody knows me," he said. "Goodbye for now."

I think that's a good note to end this portion of the review. Goodbye for now.