Thursday, January 31, 2013

Where there had been darkness, I-wait, what?

I was thinking about Steven Brust lately, which is not something I often do. He's a talented writer, but I never really got into his stuff.

I do like his Cool Stuff Theory of Literature,  though, which states "All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool", and it's hard not to like a blacksmith who clearly loves his anvil so.

And I'll be honest in that I never gave him much of a chance. I read his first Vlad Taltos book and it didn't click for me, and I never tried him again, even though a lot of fans say the later books change a lot of what I disliked about the first.

So I seldom have reason to think about him, but when I do it's with a vague sense of goodwill.

Also, he is as responsible as anyone for giving this blog its name, so I like him for that. I first read his piece about what he wishes he had said at Roger Zelazny's funeral in the introduction to the Manna from Heaven collection.

He said he couldn't think of anything appropriate at the time, but Sandow's musings on life in Isle of the Dead occured to him after the fact. I had read that passage before, but never really appreciated it until Brust pointed out how wonderful and poignant it was. I had mentioned that I misread it at first, as "Where there had been darkness, I hung my words," and that was what leaped to my mind when I was looking for a title for this blog.

You can see the quote right there in the About the Site tab.

"Where there had been darkness, I hung my worlds. They were my answer. When I finally walked that Valley, they would remain after me."

The Shadows & Reflections anthology mentioned that they had received a story from him, so I was thinking about him a bit lately. So, when I found myself thinking about Brust and his essay, I picked up my copy of Manna from Heaven and opened it up, and read the passage again.

Where there had been darkness, I had hung my worlds...

Just like I remembered it.

Wait, what?

Where there had been darkness, I had hung my worlds...

Where there had been darkness, I  had  hung my worlds...

Where there had been darkness, I  had  hung my worlds...

WHAT THE FUCK?! I've been misquoting that line for three years now?! Why didn't one of you guys tell me?!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Go Starless in the Night

I could have sworn I had already written this review, but a search of the index page shows me I didn't.

And that's part of the problem with Go Starless in the Night.  I remember the plot and my general goodwill towards it, but when I sit down with the story to actually write something about it, I just come up blank.

But I'll give it a shot here.

Also, I try to avoid spoilers in a story, but I'm going to break that rule here, because I just can't say what I want to say about it without giving away some important plot points. So, if you haven't read the story, read this review only at your peril.

It's the story of an earnest (That's a joke. The character's name is Ernest Dawkins) scientist placed in suspended animation to await the cure to the disease that was killing him.

He is revived by, well, someone. Or maybe something. The nature of his visitors is left undefined, which is one of the things I like about the story. Initially they claim to be archeologists, but they later say that's not true.

There's not enough information in the story to conclude what's going on with any degree of certainty, and I like that kind of ambiguity in my storytelling. They could  be the post-apocalyptic descendents of humanity as easily as they could be Russian spies.

They claim to have happened upon him in the course of exploring the facility that housed him. They ask some general questions about the time, his life, if whales were still around. They oh so casually ask about his work, and when he happens to mention that he was a researcher in "toxic agents of a chemical and bacteriological nature", they're like "Oh, reallllllly? We'd hate for those to fall into the wrong hands. Why don't you tell us where are?"

And they passive-aggressively try to worm it out of him, and Dawkins, like any good scientist, questions their claims. They grow nastier, "accidentally"  disconnecting the speaker for a length and overtly threatening him, ("If something heavy falls upon you, you break like bottle.") and finally just laying it on the line and saying that they're just going to leave him there to go crazy unless he tells them what they want to know.

"We will disconnect your speaker and your hearer and go away. We will leave you thinking in the middle of nothing. Goodbye now."


"Then you will tell us?"

"No. I - can't . . ."

"You will go mad if we disconnect these things, will you not?"

"I suppose so. Eventually . . ."

"Must we do it, then?"

"Your threats have shown me what you are like. I cannot give you such weapons."

"Ernest Dawkins, you are not intelligent being."

"And you are not an archaeologist. Or you would do future generations the service of turning me off, to save the other things that I do know."

"You are right. We are not such. You will never know what we are."

"I know enough."

"Go to your madness."

Silence again.

I think the reason that I haven't written about this story is that I've been unable to put my hand on why I love the ending so much.

For a long while the panic held him. Until the images of his family recurred, and his home, and his town. These grew more and more substantial, and gradually he came to walk with them and among them. Then, after a time, he stopped reporting for work and spent his days at the beach. He wondered at first when his side would begin to hurt. Then he wondered why he had wondered this. Later, he forgot many things, but not the long days beneath the sun or the sound of the surf, the red rain, the blue, or the melting statue with the fiery eyes and the sword in its fist. When he heard voices under the sand he did not answer. He listened instead to whales singing to mermaids on migrating rocks, where they combed their long green hair with shards of bone, laughing at the lightning and the ice.

We so seldom get happy endings in real life, it's nice to have some in fiction now and again.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: Heroes Die, Part 1

I was astonished by how much I enjoyed this book. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it's built almost wholly out of concepts I hate. Look at the blurb on the back.

Renowned throughout the land of Ankhana as the Blade of Tyshalle, Caine has killed his share of monarchs and commoners, villains and heroes. He is relentless, unstoppable, simply the best there is at what he does.

At home on Earth, Caine is Hari Michaelson, a superstar whose adventures in Ankhana command an audience of billions. Yet he is shackled by a rigid caste society, bound to ignore the grim fact that he kills men on a far-off world for the entertainment of his own planet--and bound to keep his rage in check.

But now Michaelson has crossed the line. His estranged wife, Pallas Rill, has mysteriously disappeared in the slums of Ankhana. To save her, he must confront the greatest challenge of his life: a lethal game of cat and mouse with the most treacherous rulers of two worlds . . .

I generally dislike straight up "dwarves & elves" fantasy, Tolkien being the exception. He had a reason for populating his world with elves and dwarves. (And the world was more than that besides) Everything fit together and we only saw a small fraction of what he knew to be true. Every imitator since then has populated his world with elves and dwarves because...that's how Tolkien did it, and I think that's a pretty piss poor reason.

Also, it doesn't hurt that Tolkien was a phenomenal writer:

'Now news came to Hithlum that Dorthonion was lost and the sons of Finarfin overthrown, and that the sons of Fëanor were driven from their lands. Then Fingolfin beheld (as it seemed to him) the utter ruin of the Noldor, and the defeat beyond redress of all their houses; and filled with wrath and despair he mounted upon Rochallor his great horse and rode forth alone, and none might restrain him. He passed over Dor-nu-Fauglith like a wind amid the dust, and all that beheld his onset fled in amaze, thinking that Oromë himself was come: for a great madness of rage was upon him, so that his eyes shone like the eyes of the Valar.

Thus he came alone to Angband's gates, and he sounded his horn, and smote once more upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth to come forth to single combat. And Morgoth came. That was the last time in those wars that he passed the doors of his stronghold, and it is said that he took not the challenge willingly; for though his might was greatest of all things in this world, alone of the Valar he knew fear. But he could not now deny the challenge before the face of his captains; for the rocks rang with the shrill music of Fingolfin's horn, and his voice came keen and clear down into the depths of Angband; and Fingolfin named Morgoth craven, and lord of slaves. Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable on blazoned, cast a shadow over him like a stormcloud.

But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star; for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his blue shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil, that glittered like ice. Then Morgoth hurled aloft Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld, and swung it down like a bolt of thunder. But Fingolfin sprang aside, and Grond rent a mighty pit in the earth, whence smoke and fire darted. Many times Morgoth essayed to smite him, and each time Fingolfin leaped away, as a lightning shoots from under a dark cloud; and he wounded Morgoth with seven wounds, and seven times Morgoth gave a cry of anguish, whereat the hosts of Angband fell upon their faces in dismay, and the cries echoed in the Northlands. But at the last the King grew weary, and Morgoth bore down his shield upon him. Thrice he was crushed to his knees, and thrice arose again and bore up his broken shield and stricken helm.

But the earth was all rent and pitted about him, and he stumbled and fell backward before the feet of Morgoth; and Morgoth set his left foot upon his neck, and the weight of it was like a fallen hill. Yet with his last and desperate stroke Fingolfin hewed the foot with Ringil, and the blood gashed forth black and smoking and filled the pits of Grond. Thus died Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor, most proud and valiant of the Elven-kings of old. The Orcs made no boast of that duel at the gate; neither do the Elves sing of it, for their sorrow is too deep. Yet the tale of it is remembered still, for Thorondor King of Eagles brought the tidings to Gondolin, and to Hithlum afar off.

And Morgoth took the body of the Elven-king and broke it, and would cast it to his wolves; but Thorondor came hasting from his eyrie among the peaks of the Crissaegrim, and he stooped upon Morgoth and marred his face. The rushing of the wings of Thorondor was like the noise of the winds of Manwë, and he seized the body in his mighty talons, and soaring suddenly above the darts of the Orcs he bore the King away. And he laid him upon a mountain-top that looked from the north upon the hidden valley of Gondolin; and Turgon coming built a high cairn over his father. No Orc dared ever after to pass over the mount of Fingolfin or draw nigh his tomb, until the doom of Gondolin was come and treachery was born among his kin. Morgoth went ever halt of one foot after that day, and the pain of his wounds could not be healed; and in his face was the scar that Thorondor made.

Okay, that didn't have much to do with the topic at hand, but I love it too much not to share. Anyway, so we've got a generic fantasy blurb full of ridiculous place names, some cover art that fails to grab me, bog standard fantasy world, a human from our world in the bog standard fantasy world, who happens to be a bad-ass assassin. If this book didn't have Matthew Stover's name on it, I would have run SCREAMING from it.

The blurb I quoted gets the plot of the book right, but the tone all  wrong. It reminds me of the deliberately misleading review of the Wizard of Oz ("Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.") Yeah, those things happen, but not for the reasons that are implied.

I mentioned Stover very favorably in my review of Shatterpoint. His writing has a lot of the traits I loved in Zelazny's stories. Some of the segments in Stover's stories seem as if they could be specific references to his works (the initial description of "Berne's Buckler", the protective spell that warded the vulnerable areas on Berne's body, reminded me more than a little bit of the effects of death bath that armored Rild) and the style and penetrating intelligence remind me of Zelazny's. I don't know who first made the observation that Zelazny tended to write about laid-back, easy-going, wise-cracking, homicidalprotagonists, but I think that's true, and I think that Caine would fit right in.

Stover has a great ear for dialogue. One of the complaints I leveled against Kevin Anderson's Dune prequels is that when your cast of characters are includes a cyborg spaceship, a palace chambermaid and a dashing young noble and they all speak in exactly the same style, you've failed in a fairly significant way.

Stover is ridiculously good with giving his characters distinctive voices.  Hari as Caine,  Hari alone,  Hari with his dad,  Hari with upper castes,  Hari giving a studio interview, they really come across as the same man weighing and adjusting his language for a different audience. That's a subtle piece of characterization and something that writers often forget.

(Also, the name Hari looks a little silly written out, but I heard the whole thing on audiobook and just assumed it was spelled "Harry", because that's how it was pronounced.)

There are two worlds in the story, the Overworld, with its dwarves and elves and evil emperors and whatnot, and a futuristic dystopian earth with a rigidly regimented caste system. Actors from earth assume the identity of adventurers on Overworld, for the viewing pleasure of those back home.

However, they are physically transported to Overworld, and if they fall out of sync with Earth, then they will die horrifically. This is where Hari enters the story. He has mostly retired from being Caine, but he is informed that his wife, Shanna/Pallas Ril, has gone offline and will soon fall out of sync if she doesn't return home, so he takes on one last mission (TM) to save her.

The thing that I like about this setup is that Hari has to beg for the chance to do this. (Hari lowered his head and reminded himself that Kollberg held Shanna's life in those soft, corpse pale hands...he stood, head still lowered, eyes downcast, and put as much sincerity in his voice as he could shove past the fire in his chest, "Please, Administrator, can we make some deal? Please, send me to Ankhana.)

There's no revenue in rescuing Shanna, so he's sent there to assassinate the godlike emperor Ma'elKoth, and he'll be free to rescue her in his spare time once he takes care of that. (Since I heard this in audio, I had no idea how Ma'elKoth was spelled, while the reverse is usually true, in that a reader doesn't always know how a made-up word is pronounced. If you're wondering, it was pronounced Mile-coth, with the third syllable being so similar to cough that that's what I thought it was.)

That's the thing that sold me on the book. Something that I hate in fiction is when our hero loses his or her temper and punches the ashole authority figure right in the face and never suffers any consequence for it.  Prisoner of the Daleks was an egregious offender in this regard. I lost count of the times one of the humans backtalked a genocidal alien cyborg and the narrator tells us that the Doctor could barely restrain himself from thrusting his hand in the air every time they did so. (In fact, I don't know why he didn't, because the Daleks were suck impotent adversaries, the only result of this act would be a bunch of Daleks chorusing, "CEASE YOUR THRUSTING! CEASE YOUR THRUSTING!")

If there are never any consequences for punching the authority figure other than him laying on the ground, rubbing his jaw and saying, "well played," it just tells me that he was a paper tiger and never any threat to begin with.

But Heroes Die avoids this. Hari knows that the only chance he has to save Shana is if these higher caste men will allow him to go. And he has no leverage against them. He's entirely at their mercy.  It's the kind of helplessness not often encountered by fictional heroes (though too often by people in the real world.) We're told some characters in other stories on underdogs, but this kind of thing really shows it.

This got a bit longer than I intended (that's what SHE said) so I'm going to split it into two separate posts. The second one will have some minor spoilers.

Link here to part two here!  

Book Review: Heroes Die, Part 2

This is my second half of my review of Heroes Die by Matthew Stover. The first part can be found here.

There will be some SPOILERS after this point, so proceed at your own peril.

There were so many passages I liked. Here's a selection of my favorites and where I found them in the audiobook, if you want to play along at home. Quotes are in italics, my ccommentary follows. 

58 minutes: He needed to be Caine. He needed, finally, inescapably, to hurt somebody. And, as always, when lacking a better target, he turned on himself. The first part reminds me of Yama's line in Lord of Light ("I am no longer certain. I think so. But I will find who did it, whatever his station, and kill him." "Why?" "I have need of something to do, someone to ... " "Kill?") and the last part reminded me of Set in Creatures of Light and Darkness.


1:28: "He's invented a variant of a Faraday cage...He should only be able to think of thinking of blocking a spell with another spell, instead of taking advantage of a principle underlying a whole branch of magic." This struck me as a concept and an exchange that would absolutely be at home in a Roger Zelazny story.

5:32 Studio sponsored focus groups had determined that 1.6 lethal combats per day was optimum for a Caine adventure...Beating up a whore had a certain old fashioned charm but hardly qualified as actual combat.  - Kollberg is a dick.

7:41 There was something of the dinosaur, of the dragon, in the slow majestic grace of his movements, the way he would flow from pose to pose with evident satisfaction, as though the play of muscle in his massive arms and shoulders, chest and back, gave him some deeply spiritual joy to be savored. - A description I like of Ma'elKoth.

8:56 "I remember a Caine who would rather kill a man than lie to him."  "Killing is simple. You do it, it's done, it's over. A lie is like a pet. You have to take care of it or it will bite you in the ass." "Are you still that Caine?" " I'm as honest as circumstances allow." - An exchange I like between Caine and Ma'elKoth.

11:09 "They see us instead of his illusion, once even firing on us, before Lamorak's head  jerks up like a narcoleptic marionette's..." Another Zelaznian turn of phrase.
12:30 The image that's sullen and cynical That casually homicidal villain who's caused her so much pain, We both carry those images, those built up mental constructs, I think we've spent so long talking to ourselves, inside our own heads., arguing with an imaginary Caine, a fictitious Pallas, that we've virtually forgotten the reality that lies behind them." -This is on encountering Pallas on Overworld, and I think the idea behind this, that we often make caricatures out of our enemies and we forget who they really are.

13:13 I'm not going to type this out, but it's another great exchange, but Caine has just been recalled to Earth by Koldberg, in a fit of pique, and he's possibly missed his only chance to save her. He's angrier than he's ever been, and when he demands an answer from Koldberg, the higher caste man, says "I don't like your tone. Do you understand?" and when Hari chokes out a yes, Koldberg replies with "Yes, what?", which is such an epically dick move, but Hari has to choke out "Yes, Administrator," rather than punch him in the face, because that's the only way to save Shanna.

16:34 "Maybe I don't have to solve every problem with my fists, but every once in a while, a situation arises that is substantially improved by the judicious application of force." Stover's style reminds me of Zelazny's more than any living author and lines like this could have come from Corwin's mouth.

17:29 "If distant thunder could be made into precise words, broken into clipped and overarticulated speech, it would have the impersonal, dispassionately threatening sound of Ma'elKoth's voice." I love the way this sentence is put together.

17:51 Ma'elKoth reached for Caine with such smooth inevitability that he couldn't even think of dodging the Emperor's grasp. The way Stover describes Ma'elKoth is wonderful, and really builds a memorable impression. There is no mistaking him for anyone else.

18:26 "The tale he brought me is a convincing one. It fits every fact and he had an answer for every question. This alone would make me suspicious. Only fictions tally so neatly. Life is less orderly." The end of the book is a near constant series of betrayals, double-crosses, plans and counterplans. The musing is Ma'elKoth's, and if I had to pick out a single reason why I love him as a character, that would be it.  Like everyone in the story, except maybe Berne, Ma'elKoth is neither entirely good nor entirely evil. Ma'elKoth is a bad guy, but a good Emperor. (As Stover said in this interview: I had people ask me about Heroes Die: "I'm not sure how I'm supposed to feel about Ma'elKoth. Is he a bad guy, or a good guy, or what? Am I supposed to like him or hate him?" My general answer: "You're not supposed to feel anything but whatever it is you feel. Make up your own damn mind.") and I do like that kind of complexity in characters."

21:04 As long as I draw this moment out, Pallas and I, we're Shrodinger's cat, equiposed between life and death, and my first move will collapse our wave function into history. Another, beautiful, Zelaznian turn of phrase. 

This is a book that surpassed my expectations in every way.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Project: Library of Creative Illumination

My friend Seth Friedermann is organizing a project. It's called the Library of Creative Illumination and the goal behind it is to assemble a database of instructional videos from artists and creators across a variety of disciplines, explaining how they overcame their challenges to become who they are today. It's an ambitious goal, but if anyone can accomplish this, it's Seth.

I first met Seth more than fifteen years ago, and he immediately impressed me as tremendously, almost intimidatingly intelligent man.  Seth is smart, but there are lot of smart people in the world. As I grew to know him better, I realized that he understands concepts better than anyone I have ever known.

If he doesn't know something about a topic being discussed, he's capable of drawing on the knowledge he has and applying that information to something new.  It's a cliche to say that someone sees "the big picture", but Seth really does have an uncanny ability to make sense of the patterns that underlie seemingly unrelated concepts.

But more than that, he's capable of communicating this understanding. Seth writes about fashion at Design Matters, a topic for which I ordinarily have very little interest. But I never miss one of his posts. His style is so accessible and engaging that I find myself getting excited about it too.

He's got the passion and the knowledge for this endeavor and the eloquence to express it. I think this is a very worthwhile goal, so please click on through to check it out. Even if you can't contribute, please share the link with someone who might be interested.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Open Thread: Loving your hates

I've been listening to Heroes Die: The First of the Acts of Caine. I bought it because I really enjoyed Matthew Stover's other writing.

 In theory, I should hate this book, (Well, in theory, communism works) as it  is assembled almost entirely out of components I loathe. This was going to be part of the review of the book itself (coming soon to a blog near you!), but I thought that the topic was discrete enough that it merited its own post.

Heroes Die: The First of the Acts of Caine! Oooh, such a portentous title! Strike one. (And these baseball cliches are Shakespeare compared to fantasy lit cliches, so don't even start with me.)

The hero is an assassin with a conscience, who only kills for the right reasons.  Strike two.

And our hero isn't just a lovable rogue, he's a contemporary citizen from the real world dropped in to a fantasy realm. Strike three, you're out.

Except, while everything I've said is true, none of it means anything.

Caine, is an Actor, thus the title. Acts of Caine. Get it? Roger Zelazny pulled a similar double meaning with the Hand of Oberon. An Actor, in this context, is a professional moved from the real world to a fantasy world to broadcast their adventures among the inhabitants. So, "Acts of Caine" makes perfect sense.

There is a tendency to whitewash the actual bad deeds of protagonists.  As I've observed previously, the most thuggish criminal, if he's funny, nice to his friends, and allowed to present events from his point of view, will look like a nice guy. Comparing your protagonist's most impressive acts against the antagonist's worst is the lazy route to characterization.

This is the second greatest sin of Grosse Pointe Blank, the first being casting Minnie Driver. I hated Grosse Pointe Blank so much that it has caused me to retroactively hate John Cusack.

But Caine dodges this. One of the PoV characters is his estranged wife, who is more harsh on him than Caine deserves, and he never pretends that his actions have any morality than being the best routes to his goals.

And as far as the third item goes, there are plenty of reasons to hate Lord Foul's Bane, but as it's probably the most well known of the "Real Worlder in a Fantasy Realm", (Somewhere Mark Twain starts spinning in his grave) let's limit our discussion to that. By introducing modern culture into your fantasy book, you're limiting its shelf life. The Lord of the Rings was published in the 1950s. I doubt it would be as timeless if Gandalf were a wisecracking beatnik.

Caine avoids this too, though, making the real world an alternate world, familiar enough to be understood, but different enough to stand distinct from our world and our time.

And that brings me to the meat of this post. I'm halfway through a twenty hour audio book. I'm enjoying it more than almost any book I've read in the past ten years. If I had read the cover blurb, it's very possible that I would have passed it over entirely.

This is my long preamble to an open thread.

  1. When was the last time you were surprised by something like you didn't think you'd like?
  2. And when was last time you really enjoyed something that goes against your usual preferences?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Playing Games with Lily: Lego Batman 2

We picked up Lego Batman 2 because we had so much fun with Lego Harry Potter. My friend Eric had mentioned that the game was very nearly the Lego Justice League, and, after playing it, I'm inclined to agree.

My friend Frederick had played previously. He mentioned that whenever you fly with Superman, the John Williams theme plays. (He also moves his arm to turn.)

I think, though, the memory that sticks with me is going to be my daughter, playing Wonder Woman, running around and beating up the other Justice Leaguers and saying things like "I'm a Princess! Treat me with respect! Treat me like you'd treat your boss!"

Like any Lego game, it has a zillion characters to unlock. This looks like a job for "J'onn J'onzz, Catwoman and...Captain Boomerang!"

"To the J'onzzmobile, old chum!"

The puzzles are a touch more difficult than in Harry Potter, occasionally made frustratingly so by the camera angles obscuring a neccesary component. The controls however, are top notch. Superman, in particular, is a lot of fun to play. I would go so far as to say that this is one of the best video game incarnations of Superman.

His heat vision is SO MUCH FUN to use and occasionally I get carried away and "accidentally" roast Batman. Nelson laugh! Ha ha!

Seriously though, if the control setup were ported to another game in toto, I would have no problem with that.

The cutscenes are consistently enjoyable and occasionally laugh out loud funny. After completing the game, you unlock free play in Gotham City, where you can run around in an open world, freely switching through any character you've unlocked. Unfortunately, this is the game's biggest failing in my opinion. You can collect up to 250 gold bricks, but most are accessed through jumping games, which I hated in the missions themselves. It's just not fun, and it's a shame that an otherwise really enjoyable game ends on such a sour note.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Review: Les Misérables

We saw Les Misérables over the weekend and the three things everyone says about it are true.

  1. The movie was good and Anne Hathaway was great
  2. The movie is three hours of giant faces singing at the camera
  3. Some of the lyrics were changed for no clear reason.

It's the third one that keeps me wondering. Like anyone familiar with a song, I follow the singer along in my head and when they get to a changed word, it's distracting. It's kind of like seeing a live concert where a performer tweaks the words of his own song on the fly. By and large, the changes made the songs no better or worse than they had been, just different. Why, then, make the changes at all? As Emerson said, "If you shoot the king, you must kill him." Change for the sake of change is pointless.

My history with Les Misérables goes back to when I first met Jen, in about 1995. I was working a night shift job and she let me borrow her Original Cast recording greatest hits tape. I put it in my Walkman and listened to it every night. I read the book, and we went to see the show on Broadway a year or two later.

Later on, we picked up the CD that had Kaho Shimada as Eponine. I always remember her, because she learned her lines phonetically for the role because she spoke almost no English at the time.  That always impressed me.

I like musicals, but I also recognize that they're faintly ridiculous. (I've heard Scott Pilgrim versus the World described as a musical, but with people breaking into video game fights instead of songs) As much as I liked Les Misérables movie, I think it loses something in the transition from stage to screen, because it's less stylized, more firmly grounded in the real world. We're asked to take it more seriously.

That said, the scene at the beginning where the prisoners are righting the boat was impressive and makes great use of the big screen. I liked the bit where Valjean picks up the mast, which foreshadows the scene with the cart later on. I also liked it that the movie made it explicit that the reason Valjean didn't intervene to protect Fantine at the beginning was because he was distracted by Javert's arrival. (Also, it's a tiny detail, but I liked that the double they got for Valjean in the courtroom scene did look enough like him from his prisoner days to be realistically mistaken for him.) Also good was Javert walking in the edge of the convent walls, something paralleled in the scene above the Seine.

Hugh Jackman was distractingly, Hugh Jackman. Same deal with Russell Crowe, though in his case, he was distractingly Russell Crowe. Anne Hathaway, though just as famous as the two male leads, didn't stick out for me in the same way and I don't know why.

Jackman was fine. He has a background in musical theater, so I expected him to be decent and he was. However, he has the annoying habit of shaking or nodding his head to reinforce what he's saying, a trait I associate with anchors on the evening news.

Russell Crowe was solid too. Javert is my favorite character in the book, and I'll talk about him a little later.

I've liked  Anne Hathaway since I first saw her in the Princess Diaries. I was one of the people who believed she had the chops to play Catwoman. She really is prodigiously talented and it's great to see her in challenging roles and getting the recognition she deserves.

Also, she's pretty. I like this picture.

Amanda Seyfried was Cosette.  Seyfried is great. She's a local girl, from Allentown, PA, and I've been a fan since first seeing her in Veronica Mars. Unfortunately, the role of Cosette is not a challenging one.  "You're pretty, Cosette." "You're pretty too, Marius. Herp derp."

Samantha Banks was Eponine. I like the character and I like the actress after seeing her in the part.

I'm so old that I remember when Helena Bonham Carter used to be an actor and not someone who channels Bellatrix Lestrange for every performance. Borat was fine as Thernardier, but he got tiresome after a while. We get it, dude. You can't remember her name. It was funny the first time, and less funny each of the twenty subsequent times you said it.

So, Javert.  My last movie review is also about a man known for saying "I am the Law!", but that's just a meaningless coincidence.

It's no secret that that Philip Gerard, the lieutenant from The Fugitive, is based on Inspector Javert. He was named Sam Gerard in the 1993 movie, and my favorite part in the movie is the scene when Gerard has dropped his gun and Kimble has recovered it and is pointing it at him.

Kimble: I didn't kill my wife!
Gerard: I don't care!

The delivery is just perfect.

I think Javert is a wonderful adversary, though not, properly speaking, a villain.  Jen used to joke that I thought that Javert was the real hero of the book. I wouldn't go quite that far, but I do think he is a fundamentally decent man.

Here's how Hugo described him.

Probity, sincerity, candor, conviction, the sense of duty, are things which may become hideous when wrongly directed; but which, even when hideous, remain grand: their majesty, the majesty peculiar to the human conscience, clings to them in the midst of horror; they are virtues which have one vice, – error. The honest, pitiless joy of a fanatic in the full flood of his atrocity preserves a certain lugubriously venerable radiance. Without himself suspecting the fact, Javert in his formidable happiness was to be pitied, as is every ignorant man who triumphs. Nothing could be so poignant and so terrible as this face, wherein was displayed all that may be designated as the evil of the good.

A lot of the traits that make him such a great Inspector are also the ones that make him a horrible human being. Seeing the movie helped me put into words what I like about Javert and Eponine.  They endure hardship for their beliefs in a way that Valjean and Cosette never do. Valjean is a good guy, absolutely, Lawful Good, but he's hardly the ideal guardian for a little girl, being an escaped convict pursued by a fanatical policeman. The best thing he could do for her would be to find a home for her and then get completely out of her life.  She is the daughter he never had, and though he loves her and provides for her, his actions are by no means entirely altruistic.

In Mike Carey's Lucifer miniseries, a militant archangel says to Lucifer, "There is no room for doubt or scruple in the service of the name", and I've always liked that line and thought it applied to Javert as well. (Another one that fits is "Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.")

My favorite scene with Javert is where he's turning in his resignation after accusing the mayor of being Valjean.

Javert: Monsieur, a serious... a grave violation of the public trust has been committed. An inferior has shown a complete lack of respect for the law. He must be exposed and punished.
Valjean: Who is the offender?
Javert: I am. I slandered you Monsieur le maire, I'm here to ask that you demand my dismissal.

Being a police officer was his entire identity and he was ready to give it up because he violated his own moral code.

Stan Lee always said of his villains that they could have been heroes if not for a single flaw or failing. On the whole, Javert has almost certainly done more good than harm. (I think the argument could be made that he did more good than Valjean)  Sure, it sucks to be Valjean when Javert is hounding you, but when Javert's monomania is directed towards actual criminals, he's pretty good at catching them.

And just the same, there is something profoundly pitiable about him. He was born in a prison, and this gave him such a black and white, pitiless view of the world. ("Reform is a discredited fantasy. Modern science tells us that people are by nature, law breakers or law abiders. A wolf could wear sheep's clothing but he's still a wolf.") He'll break before he'll bend and in the end, this kills him.

I was talking with Lily about the movie. I was looking up showtimes and I asked her how she thought the girl in the poster was feeling. She looked and said "Confident", very certainly.

And we talked a little about Valjean and how he's arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. She knows it's wrong to steal, but she understands too that it's wrong for children to suffer too. I wasn't thinking of a Heinz dilemma when I asked the question, but it's always interesting listening to her reason these things out.

Fat Tony: Bart, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?
Bart: No.
Fat Tony: Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?
Bart: Uh uh.
Fat Tony: And, what if your family don't like bread? They like... cigarettes?  

Heh heh heh.

Overall, a very solid movie. It's not perfect, but it's grand and ambitious and it's got Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop. What's not to love?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

CAPTCHA's turned on for commenting

I hate to do this, because I really hate CAPTCHAs, but comment spam is increasingly sneaking past the automated filter, and I'm enabling it until things calm down a bit.

Friday, January 18, 2013

It seems 2013 will be a big year for Roger Zelazny stuff

This blog is in kind of an unusual place regarding the Zelazny stuff. Yes, he's very highly regarded within his field, but he passed away in 1995. I enjoy writing my commentaries, but I don't fool myself into believing that I'm covering new territory; Krulik and Yoke each made the same observations I did in their respective works long before I did, usually more cogently and with fewer typos.

However, and I credit NESFA and the Collected stories for this in no small part, it seems we have quite a few Roger Zelazny projects to look forward to in the coming year.

I contributed to the Science Fiction Land kickstarter. I would have blogged about it here, but I learned about it literally three hours before it ended and I didn't think anyone would see the post until the kickstarter was already over, and I didn't want to have a post that would amount to "Hey, you had a chance to support this, but you missed it!", so I just skipped covering it entirely.

I had almost forgotten about it when my package arrived in the mail last week. Yay! Look at my goodies!

We also have Shadows & Reflections in the pipeline and I just happened to see a promo for an upcoming Nine Princes in Amber board game this morning.

2013 is going to be a pretty good year.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Review: Prisoner of the Daleks

Ah, Prisoner of the Daleks.

How do I hate this book? Let me count the ways.

1.) Daleks are scary in the same way Aquaman is cool: Meaning, despite a concerted effort by the people now controlling these properties, they haven't been able to sell these concepts. We've gotten to the point where the Daleks can't be fixed without changing what they are. I mean, it's possible to make the Care Bears frightening with enough changes, but by the time you do that, you've transformed them into something fundamentally different.

Of course, the Daleks have an almost unbroken 50 year track record of being routed every time they stick their domes up, so I think their menace has been exaggerated anyway.

Now, stories requires a certain level of buy-in. It's not fair to say, "Oh, Dracula was a crappy book because everyone knows vampires aren't real." If the author is telling a story about scary Daleks, it's churlish of the reader to say "Pffffftttt...I reject your reality and substitute my own. Daleks aren't scary. " I will accept, arguendo, that the Daleks in this story are legitimately frightening and effective if it's clear that this is the story the author is trying to tell.

But at the flip side of this contract is that, after a certain point, I'm going to need more than the author's word for it. I want him to show it. I want him to prove it. It's not enough to have the characters talk about how scary they think the Daleks are. I want to see them doing something that makes me (or even just lets me) believe that Daleks are adversaries to be feared. They are almost comically ineffectual in this story, and the gulf between what we're supposed to think of the Daleks and how they actually perform is vast indeed.

Also, they take a ridiculous amount of sass from "Cuttin' Edge", one of the Dalek Hunters.

Hmmm...Dalek Hunters? Where have I heard that before? "Cuttin’ Edge, I served with Abslom Daak. I knew Abslom Daak. Abslom Daak was a friend of mine. Cuttin’ Edge, you're no Abslom Daak."

Seriously, the amount of backtalk the human prisoners give would get me fired by a boss who likes me. When it's directed against Daleks, already itching for an excuse to EXTERMINATE, it doesn't make our heroes seem brave (on the contrary, since it becomes clear very early on that there is no consequence for this); it just makes the Daleks seem impotent.

2.) The Doctor is a Jerk: The Tenth Doctor is occasionally a jerk anyway,  but he's in full on raging arsehole mode here. When an alien laments about being the last survivor of her species, the  Doctor says "I know the feeling," and he just strikes me as the kind of guy here, where if you told him you had a clown at your birthday party would tell you that he had TWO clowns at his.

He has every answer before the questions are even asked. The only tension in the story comes from not listening  to the Doctor, but the only reason he ever gives for listening is "Because I said so." He knows everything, but he never gives anyone a reason why they should listen to him, and his manner  is such that those who meet him are inclined to distrust him. He's constantly telling everyone what to do without telling them why. He's a deliberate Cassandra and he's more than willing to toss aside those who disregard his misleading truths.

I swear, I'm going to write a book with the Doctor as a villain some day.

3.) The science is bad: Okay, it's not like Doctor Who is a model of  scientific accuracy anyway, but this book is just ridiculous. Dalek planet splitter missiles have blown a planet in half. Literally. Half of the planet has been destroyed and the other half is just hanging there in the void, a perfect half a sphere, like a grapefruit someone has sliced in half. I do expect at least a grade school understanding of science from my science fiction.

4.) The Doctor is a hypocrite: At his worst, and he's certainly at his  worst here, the Doctor is a technical pacifist. He reminded of a character I hated in the 1988 War of the Worlds series,  who refused to carry a gun, but spent every episode setting up some elaborate Rube Goldberg strategy to kill the aliens. It drove me nuts. The  Doctor is like that here, but squared and cubed, a smug moralizing prig who automatically judges and dismisses anyone who uses a weapon. Apparently,  since the Time War, the Eye of Harmony is now defunct, so the TARDIS is now powered by the Doctor's sense of self-satisfaction.

Whether a man dies in his bed, or the rifle knocks him dead/ brief parting  from those dear is the worst man has to fear/ though gave diggers toil is  long/ sharp their spades, their muscles strong/ they but thrust their  buried men/ back in the human mind again..."

As Yeats told us, dead is dead however you get there. I don't think it matters too much if you mastermind a plot to have your enemy trigger some kind of genocide weapon against themselves (the Seventh Doctor seemed to do this every other  episode), or if you gun them down like a dog in the street or drop a high voltage line into the lake they're swimming in.

He's constantly judging everyone by the moral standards he holds. It would be bad enough if he were consistent in this, but he's just capricious, so he's effectively judging people by how he feels at a particular moment and that's just fucked up.  

5.) Daleks are stupid: Psalmanazar, the famous fraud, claimed that the priests in his homeland sacrificed the hearts of 18,000 young boys every year. Note only is it a ridiculous number on its own, but he refused to back away from it even when pointed out that this was higher than the annual birthrate he had claimed.

The Daleks are Saturday morning cartoon villain evil. Their small pool of slave laborers fell behind schedule because of a brief interruption. Their solution? Execute the least productive worker every hour to motivate the rest. Twenty workers at 80% efficiency are going to get more done than ten workers at 90% efficiency.  I mean, there's being evil, and there's being evil for the SAKE of being evil, and then there's being so cartoonishly over-the-top-eighteen-thousand-human-sacrifices-a-year evil that you're just destroying any chance of success you might have and the Daleks fall in the latter camp.

The Daleks fall for the, "If you're so confident in your plans, you'll tell me exactly how to stop them" ruse. Even Goldfinger knew better than this in 1964. They fall for the "Whatever you do, don't flip that switch" ruse, which my daughter saw through at four years old.

6.) It had a line that made me smile: I wish I could hate it unreservedly,  but when Doctor finds out that Daleks are trying to meddle in history, he remarks, "As if Dalek History wasn't confusing enough before the Time War,"  which really did make me laugh. Nicholas Briggs does a good job reading it.

Also, it mentions the Osterhagen Key, which was a nice bit of continuity  porn, even if Doctor Jerky-Jerk goes on a tear about how humanity are the  real monsters for choosing a quick death by suicide over capture and torture by the Daleks. (Later on, he goes on at length about how terrible it is to be a "prisoner of the Daleks", so I guess it's no win for the poor humans in the book.)

Bottom Line: It was a very bad book with almost nothing to redeem it. It was clear that the book was awful pretty early on, but I stuck with it, but by the end, I was only listening so I would have more ammunition for this review.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Josh's Trip to New England: Tim-a-palooza!!

I had a truly nice visit up to New England this weekend.

My car recently died. For those of you playing at home, that's like the fourth Ford we've lost between the two of us since I started this blog. We've just had ridiculously bad luck with them. But I'm sure the next one will be different!

However, being without a car actually worked out this time. My wife Jen dropped me off and a different Jen picked me up and we went up to New Hampshire!

I had never been in her jeep before. It looks really cute from the outside, but it's this horrifying garbage barge within, with these jagged spikes of rusting metal poking out where you least expect it.

(Like the door handle!)

Still, she generously did the driving for the entire trip up, and she's offered to pay for my tetanus shot.

We made it up to Keene in about six hours, only hitting traffic and bad weather near the end of the trip. We had dinner at a local Thai place, and I consulted my blog on my phone because I remembered that I had written down the name of the dish I had eaten last time I was there. I had it again and it was still delicious!

We chatted for a while, then Jen vanishes out of the story for a little bit. She went down to Boston to hang out with her friend Tim, whom I don't believe really exists. In fact, since Jen looks exactly like Claire Danes, I think we can call this section of the post "My So Called Tim".

Moving on.

Jen has her own blog, where she's aggressively wrong about the which incarnation of the Doctor is the best. She'll probably post her account of the trip at some point. No pressure, Jen!

Tim and I hung out with his friends and played Zombie Munchkin. My friend Eric has been trying to get me to play Munchkin forever, and I really enjoyed it, and I'll probably give it a chance next time my friends play down this way.

We got home about a little past midnight. I was ready to turn in, but Tim started playing his bootleg Korean copy of Dredd, which I really enjoyed, much to my surprise. My review is up over at this post!

I woke up at nine, three hours before the rest of the house. I watched Goldfinger and then part of Thunderball and a bunch of commercials. Commercials fascinate me anymore, because I so seldom see them because we mostly watch Netflix. I really enjoyed the commercial for the Ear-Vac, which isn't as dangerous as Q-tips.

We went to the Alex Ross exhibit at the Norman Rockwell museum, which you can read about here!

On our way back,  we stopped in Northampton, Mass, home to a million hipsters. Tim took me to a store called "Feces", which he described as "Spencer's Gifts, if Spencer's didn't suck," a description that was accurate, except for the second part. I bought my friend Karen a card for her wedding.

It was just a regular marriage, but I got her this card because she really loves giraffes.
We got back to the house, where Tim played Journey and I played with my phone. Then we watched some Eagleheart, which was hilarious. Then I went to bed, because I was exhausted.

I woke up at 8 because we were supposed to be in Boston to meet Jen and "Tim" there. I was the first to rise, so I killed some time reading Tim's copy of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High".

We got to Boston at about 12:30 and our little group, me and Jen and Tim and Tim's roommate Fok all went around town. We hit Anime Zakka a place close to where Tokyo Kid, formerly Man from Atlantis, had once been. It was neat, but it wasn't as magical as it had been when I had come there in the 90s. They had a whole wall dedicated to Studio Ghibli stuff, including a terrifying plush Catbus.

Jesus Fuck! This is supposed to be a children's movie?!

I bought Lily a little Totoro and a Corpse Bride charm bracelet.

We stopped for some Vietnamese food, which I had never had before. I had the Bún thịt nướng is, shredded beef and spring rolls atop vermicelli. It was good, but I was expecting it to be more distinctive than Chinese food than I found it to be.

Then we went to a couple of book stores, including one with an espresso book binding machine.  I bought the sequel to Bridge of Birds, Eight Skilled Gentlemen. Looking forward to reading it!

And then it was time to go home. Jen and I got going at shortly before seven. We did a few Mad Libs, but it was pretty dark, so it was hard to see and we gave up after three or four.

We made good time, despite missing the final place to fuel and being forced off the road to navigate perilous back roads in heavy fogs in search of a gas station. We passed several that were closed and a number that were on the opposite side of a divided highway before we were able to get to a place to refuel.

But make it back we did. It's great to have have friends and it's great when your friends become friends with each other.

Movie Review: Dredd

I was really astonished by how much I liked Dredd. It gets so many things right.

I was superficially familiar with Judge Dredd from my time in a comic book store, but I was no fan by any stretch of the imagination. I'm not even sure if I ever read any of the books. I mostly just absorbed the information osmotically by virtue of being surrounded by them every day.

I almost missed seeing it. I'd been up since six in the morning and we had just returned from a game night when my buddy Tim started the movie at 1 AM. I was pretty exhausted, but I thought I'd give it a shot.

Now the Stallone "I ram de rarwall" Judge Dredd movie is infamously bad, but the 2012 version, while not perfect, manages to avoid the egregious unforced errors of the older movie.

The thing I admire most about it is its focus. Though the film has been criticized for omitting the satirical elements of the original, I think it gets much more right than it does wrong. There is no plucky comedy relief, no romantic sub-plot awkwardly shoehorned in.  It's bleak, it's dystopian, it's excessively hyperviolent, but it never flinches from any of this. Those aren't bugs, they're features.

I'm sick to death of origin story movies in comic book adaptations. Good God, do we really need another retelling of Superman's origin? He's one of the most recognizable figures on the planet. With Dredd, we get a short voice-over about the setting and a brief action sequence to give those unfamiliar with the setting a brief outline, and then we're off, with details being filled in over the course of the movie.

It's a training day movie, a day in the life movie. Once back at headquarters, Dredd is ordered by his commanding officer to take Anderson, a trainee judge out for a field evaluation.  This is a great scene for a couple of reasons.

Judge is played by Karl Urban. I like his take on Dredd. I'm going to lift this wholesale from the cast section of the Wikipedia article on the movie.  Producer Allon Reich described Dredd as "an extreme character, and he administers justice with an extreme lack of prejudice." Urban approached the producers about joining the film. He found the role challenging because the character never removes his helmet, requiring Urban to convey emotion without using his eyes. He viewed the character as an average man with an insanely tough job in a fragmenting society and likened Dredd's heroism to that of a fireman. The role also demanded physical preparation; Urban undertook intensive physical training to become a "beast of a man". He also underwent weapons and technical training to learn how to operate under fire, how to arrest criminals and breach doors. He insisted on performing his own motorcycle stunts for the film. He played Dredd with a raspy and harsh vocal tone akin to "a saw cutting through bone", which he found difficult to sustain.

That nails it! I think one of the few shortcomings of Nolan's Batman movies was Bale's incomprehensible asthmatic Hamburgler voice, and while the sound of Urban's Dredd is broadly similar in execution, it couldn't be more different in what it conveys. Bale sounded like he was trying; Urban just made it seem that's what Dredd sounded like.

I liked that they kept Dredd's commanding officer as a woman. (An African-American woman no less.) I remember that Robocop was set in Detroit and had something like three black people in the whole movie. Dredd has people of both genders and all races across all different strata of society.

And the final piece of the intro is Olivia Thirlby as Cassandra Anderson. I occasionally complain that it's kind of predictable to name your psychic "Cassandra", but Dredd has been around long enough that the their Cassndra gets grandfathered it, because they were doing it before EVERYONE was doing it.

Thirlby is great. I didn't recognize her at first, despite having watched the first season of Bored to Death just the other week. She gives the kind of performance that one just doesn't find in this kind of movie. She's emotive, she's understated, her character is inexperienced, but not stupid. She really seems like a bright young go getter who really wanted to make a difference. In X-Men 3, the dye job on Famke Janssen was so bad that it was distracting, but the work with Thirlby's hair was great, because her hair looked natural, in that it looked like it belonged with a person of her skin tone.

Dredd takes Anderson on patrol with him. They execute a drug bust and find evidence that one of the perps they capture was involved in an earlier murder, so they take him into custody. Unfortunately, he's the henchman of Madelaine Madrigal (Ma-Ma) and she locks down the tower and this is the meat of the movie, with her goons trying to hunt down the two judges in an enclosed space.

As it has been said, the audience will hate a good villain, but love a great one, and we get a great villain in Ma-Ma.She just seems so weary, so resigned. I hadn't read the following until after I had finished the movie, but after reading it, it helped me realize what I realized about Lena Headey's performance, but couldn't articulate.

Again from Wikipedia.Headey said: "I think of [Ma-Ma] like an old great white shark who is just waiting for someone bigger and stronger to show up and kill her ...  she’s ready for it. In fact, she can't wait for it to happen ... She's an addict, so she's dead in that way, but that last knock just hasn't come."

And while I think he was somewhat overshadowed by the other performances, Wood Harris as Kay, Ma-Ma's goon.  Harris described the character as a villain, but one that sees himself as no worse than the Judges. Harris said: " ... Dredd goes around literally judging and killing people if they do wrong ... Anyone who goes against the system might end up the bad guy. So I think Kay has justified fighting that in his mind."

I like movies where even the minor characters have reasons for doing what they were doing and I can completely buy that explanation.  I love the details that help sell it as a real world. The Snuff Box theme in the computer room!  Snuff box!

The only thing I didn't like was the climax, where they go to confront Ma-Ma, and she puts on this transmitter that will trigger a bunch of explosives and kill everyone in the complex if her heart stops. She thinks she's going to parlay this into a ticket out of there. But the device seems to function in a rather circumspect fashion. Rather than the explosives going off if the receiver fails to detect her heartbeat, they will detonate if there as an affirmative transmission that her heart has stopped beating. Not only is the way that it was actually set up much easier to circumvent, but it seems harder to do anyway.

But Dredd, for some reason has a hunch that her failsafe works in the counter intuitive way that it actually does, and he has the additional hunch that it has an extremely limited range, so he throws her 200-stories down where it can't send its kill signal. The logical thing to do would be to pump her full of the stun rounds he used a couple scenes earlier and just carry her out of there in case she wasn't bluffing, but instead we get a scene that, while visually striking and providing a narrative parallel to events that had happened earlier, nevertheless, doesn't make much sense.

Despite that, it's a really good movie. It's very narrow in its focus, and unapologetic about what it is, and succeeds outstandingly in being that.

Karl Urban did a great job acting with his chin. Tim and I made our Dredd faces.

Tim's was pretty good, but mine makes me look like I'm a constipated duck.

Alex Ross & Norman Rockwell

I think anyone can be taught the basics of almost any activity, that most adults, with sufficient dedication and instruction, can be brought up to a minimum level of proficiency. There are techniques for everything, and if I studied with a knowledgeable instructor and practiced what I was taught, I'm sure I could eventually become at least competent at drawing or painting.

What I will never be is an artist. I don't have the mindset for it. I'm just too mundane. I can't see things in the way a real artist needs to see them. It's such a fundamental limitation in the way that I function that I think it must be physiological in its roots.

Perhaps that's why love good art, because I know it's something I could never create on my own.

Or maybe I'm just romanticizing things. Plenty of people like art, after all.

On Saturday, I went to the Norman Rockwell museum with my best friend Tim to see their Alex Ross exhibit and I can tell you why I like Norman Rockwell and Alex Ross. Because they deal in mythology.

Someone once said that mythology not about facts, but it is about truth.

I spent a lot of time at my grandparent's house growing up and they had the old Four Freedoms War Bonds painting on their walls. I always associate that image with them, Freedom of Speech in particular.

Harry Chapin had a song called "What Made America Famous" about all the ugliness and divisions in American life, but it ends on a note of optimism about how America can still become the place they teach about in schools. This America was never a real place, but it's a TRUE place and it's an ideal worth aspiring to. That's what Norman Rockwell painted. The Myth of America. When faced with criticism that his art was out of step with the values emerging in society, Rockwell answered, "I paint life as I would like it to be."

Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love... true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.

Alex Ross, like Norman Rockwell, is ridiculously, prodigiously, astoundingly talented. Unsurprisingly, Ross credits Rockwell as one of his influences. Superheroes are often just plain ridiculous, but Ross has such an abiding love for them that he paints them not as they are, but as they should be, and as they can be.

And to come full circle, here is a picture of Norman Rockwell as a superhero, as painted by Alex Ross.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Geekfight: Bene Gesserit versus Jedi

For this installment of the geekfights, we'll be looking at the performance of a typical Bene Gesserett versus that of a typical Jedi in a couple different arenas, not just who could beat up whom, as is so often the case.

We'll say that the Bene Gesserit in question is someone comparable to Jessica at some point after she became a Reverend Mother.  The Jedi is one of those jobbers who got ganked by a bunch of troopers in the montage in the Revenge of the Sith.

Actually, scratch that, because if the pattern for Star Wars holds true, I'm sure they are dozens of expanded universe stories about Ki-Amundi and Aayla Secura where they accomplish ridiculous feats of derring-do.  So, someone with skills and experience comparable to Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of the first prequel, a Jedi who has completed his training, but does not have an abundance of field experience.

Jedi abilities are pretty well known at this point, but I'd like to quantify them here. I discussed this in an earlier post,  so I'm just going to summarize it her: Mind Trick, Telekenisis/Force Push, Force-boosted athletics and acrobatics. Jedi Reflexes are, if I recall correctly, supplemented by short term precognition, so we'll give them that too. No lightsabers for the straight up one-on-one fights, but we'll take a closer look at their skill sets, which didn't figure much into the Dalek fights. Jedi are jacks-of-all trades and have training in a wide variety of areas.

Bene Gesserit abilities: Voice (sub-conscious or overt control through spoken language) , Prana-Bindu control (perfect control over every muscle in the body), Internal Body chemistry control (mostly used to confer an immunity to poison, but also can stop the aging process and enter suspended animation or will oneself to die), Other Memory (access to the memories and personality of all female ancestors)  and tremendously refined observational skills.

So the first challenge is that of diplomacy. We'll say trying to get the trust of an unknown monarch in an unfamiliar kingdom. This deprives each side of an significant advantage. The Jedi lose their reputation and the Bene Gesserit lose their network of spies, infiltrators and proxies. Still, I think the Bene Gesserit have the edge. They're more ruthless in the application of their skills. Not that Jedi can't be ruthless, but that's the default setting for the Bene Gesserit. It backfires on them occasionally (notably, Paul was rather displeased with the machinations of the order by the end of the first book), but it tends to work as intended. They can get the measure of their target with their observations of minutia and be pushing his buttons when the Jedi are still explaining what a Jedi is.

In a straight up, one-on-one fight with each of the participants knowing the capabilities of the other, I would give it to the Jedi if weapons (read: lightsabers) are allowed, and the Bene Gesserit if the fight is unarmed. In the case of an ambush, I would give the edge to the Jedi, as they're less likely to be surprised, due to the nature of their abilities.

In small groups, the Jedi improve in direct proportion to their number in a way that the Bene Gesserit do not. That's because, due to the Other Memory, any Bene Gesserit has pretty much the same skill set as any other, and they don't add anything to an effort beyond more bodies, whereas with the Jedi, each individual has the chance to bring a unique skill to their group.

The entirety of the one order versus the entirety of another, it's the same story it was with the Daleks. Not enough Jedi. Or, if you prefer, too many Bene Gesserit. If I recall correctly, the Lampadas Horde contained eight million sisters.That's one thing I liked about the Dune series. It had an understanding of just how big a space-faring civilization would be. A criticism a friend leveled against Revenge of the Sith is that the galaxy doesn't seem very big if Palpatine can depart from Coruscant when Anakin is mortally wounded and arrive in the Outer Rim before he would die.

The Jedi aren't looking too good in the exchange. Are there any areas where they would come out ahead? The technology of the setting seems vastly superior, particularly in the arena of artificial intelligence. I think the canonical story is that droids in Star Wars aren't truly self-aware, but rather their apparent consciousness is just some kind of Chinese Room illusion. I think that's more an artifact of storytelling than anything else; a way of not having to deal with the ramifications of having millions of sentient beings as slaves.It doesn't make a huge difference either way. C-3PO could certainly pass the Turning Test, for instance.

Though that makes me think that the combat droids would be a more interesting opponent for the Bene Gesserit than the Jedi. Their artificial nature renders them immune to Voice (which I figure would be useful once against even a Jedi before they learn to defend against it. It worked against Thufir, and I figure a Mentat has a level of mental discipline comparable to a Jedi), and good luck killing a robot with your bare hands.

So while Bene Gesserit > Jedi, I also must conclude Roger-Roger Robot > Bene Gesserit.

Roger, Roger, ladies!