Saturday, April 28, 2012

FGC #12 - Publish or Perish

“Don’t hit publish.”

The voice sounded kind but strident, weirdly unidentifiable as to age or gender, but not, really, like a machine-generated one.

Barbara Hess looked around the room, where she was alone with her tablet, her books, her thoughts. She shrugged and returned her attention to her work.

“Really, I told you, don’t hit publish.”

Irritated now, she minimized her browser window to look for hidden pop-up ads. Those had become quite rare in recent years, but ghosts of old technology still lingered here and there, yet to be swept up by the engines of the new regime. There were none that she could find on a cursory look, but she might have to get thorough; some of them evaded extermination by being very, very small.


She returned to her blog post, a bit of a jeremiad, that was almost done. It just needed a scan for typos and grammatical howlers, which were common enough when she was angry.

“Do not publish that.”

She cast another irritated look around the room. No one was there.

She got up from her seat and checked the rest of her tiny apartment. She was absolutely alone. Even her dog was gone to stay with friends; she had a flight to catch early the next morning.

She returned to her office, shaking her head, nostrils flared. She took several deep, calming breaths and settled in to take one last look at her post. It might cause a bit of a stir (though it might also just get ignored). Bring it.

“You will regret it forever if you publish that.”

It was as if something was giving voice to her innermost fears. Truly, the TSA was not lightly mocked, not anymore, even though would-be air travelers were now reduced to bringing no luggage and wearing an unflattering, standard-issue bodysuit designed to allow maximum visual and electronic scrutiny of their persons and really, there wasn’t much for the agency itself to do anymore.

That reminded her to check once again that her arrangements at her destination were ready. She had pre-ordered everything on her check-list and double-checked that the garments she had chosen were in her size. The case should be there waiting for her at her hotel in Chicago. TravAid had the best reputation of all of the traveler’s supply companies out there.

Mistakes could always happen, though.

No, it all looked good. Back to work.

“You’re going to publish anyway, aren’t you? Honestly, why do I bother?”

Barbara pulled her hands away from the keyboard and into her lap. She looked around her room one more time. Was she imagining this?


Her heart began to beat faster and harder. It felt like it was pounding its way sideways out of her chest. She felt dazzled and paralyzed.

“Don’t panic, Barbara.”

“Easy for you to say!” she blurted out to – whom? What?

“Oh, come on, you always knew you had a muse.”

Barbara looked around the room again. There was still no sign that would indicate she was anything but alone.

“Sorry, it takes too much energy just to be audible, you can’t ask me to be visible, too.”

“OK,” Barbara finally said aloud.

“So now let’s talk about this thing you wrote.”

“OK,” Barbara said again. Her chest was still pounding. So was her neck, the sides of her head. Her body didn’t yet know that everything was all right, that it was just her muse, that she was safe.

“This is some very… passionate stuff. I’m terribly proud, of course, but –“

“Wait, if you’re my muse and all,” Barbara began, “Isn’t this kind of your fault?”

“That’s not quite the way it works.”

“Well, how does it work?”

“You know.”

Barbara did. Muses were not originators of creativity; they did not dictate stories anymore than they held the painting hands of artists or used singers as glorified ventriloquist’s dummies. They merely nudged those who would create, urged wannabes to become bes.

And, apparently, sometimes, urged bes to lay off the being a bit.

“So why shouldn’t I publish this, then?”

“Barbara, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I just can’t stand the thought of –“ There was a sound something like a sob, reducing somewhat the inhumanity of the voice.

“Of what?”

“Of what’s in store for you if you release that into the world.”

“Which is what? People bitch about the government all the time.” Barbara gestured towards her tablet, as if to accuse the entire internet.

“Do you ever see repeat posts, though?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you ever see the same names again after someone ‘bitches’?”

Barbara thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t pay that much attention to who says what. Except for my friends, of course.”

“No one does.  They count on that.”

“Who does?”

The voice sputtered a moment. “Barbara, you’re not stupid. I wouldn’t be yours if you were.”

“I’m not paranoid, either.”

“I know. Bless you. But my dear, aren’t there a few of those friends whom you don’t hear much from anymore? Don’t you wonder why?”

“It’s the internet. People have lives. They come and they go, appear and disappear. So no, not really.”

“Not even Mac?”

“Well yeah, I miss Mac a lot. I wish he’d come back. He didn’t even announce he was taking a time out or anything. He just… left.” Tears formed in Barbara’s eyes. Mac was someone she had always cherished a hope of meeting someday. She had often daydreamed about the café where they’d sit, the coffee they would drink, the laughter they would share.

“He didn’t ‘just leave’, Barbara. Nor did anyone else.”

“You… you know what happened to them?”

“Of course I do.”

“Wow. You’re some muse!”

“I try.”

“Um, so, what happened to them?”

“The same thing that’s going to happen to you if you publish that.”

“What, are jack-booted thugs going to come and take me away? Do they have extraordinary rendition for poets now? Re-education camps? Reprogramming? You’re pretty paranoid for a bodiless supernatural –“

“Now you’re just being silly. And rude. Have I been wrong about you all this time?”

“Look, sorry, just… come on. You’ve got to admit, you sound like one of those old conspiracy loons they used to have.”

Used to have. There’s the rub.”

“Well, you know… you sort of have something there.” Barbara bit her lower lip and gazed sightlessly at her screen, consulting her mind’s eye rather than her tablet. “All the good old nutter sites seem to have faded away. And Coast to Coast just got really boring.”

“Exactly. Why do you think that is?”

“I just figured everyone sort of gave up. Ran out of energy. Ran out of resources. Realized they were just kind of screaming into the void. Or just got more careful.”

“It is pretty important to be careful these days, isn’t it?”

“You know…” Barbara said, continuing her own train of thought and ignoring the voice, “Last time I wanted to check something in 1984, the passage I totally thought I remembered wasn’t in my copy anymore.”

“Didn’t you hunt up a paper version to be sure?”

“You know I did. And yeah, it was there. At the time it just seemed like an error from when it was digitized…”

“Yeah, right.”

“OK, when I say it aloud, yeah, that’s really fishy.”

“And kind of ironic.”


“But so, what does that have to do with me?”

“Everything, of course. Look, I guess you just don’t realize it yet, but you’re trying to follow Mac and all those ‘nutters’ into oblivion. Truly.”



“Well, whaddaya want? I disagree.”


“Are you there?”


“What, are you sulking?”

Still nothing.

Silence had fallen on the room. It didn’t feel any different than it had before; Barbara was pretty sure her disembodied voice was still there. Was she going to have to coax it? Her? Him?

Or beg?


Nothing. Again.

“Um, muse?” She felt silly trying to address it that way, but she didn’t know the entity’s name, or even if it had one. Talking about muses wasn’t done. No one ever even admitted to having one. There wasn’t even a Wikipedia page. People occasionally created one, but it always got deleted almost immediately.

“Hey, please? I still want to know why you don’t…” Barbara was seized by an idea. There was one sure-fire way to get the muse talking to her again! She turned back to her tablet and let her finger hover over the “Publish” button for her blog post.


“There  you are!”

“Not funny.”

“I didn’t mean it to be. But I did want to finish our conversation.”


“I won’t be rude anymore, I promise.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”



“So why shouldn’t I publish this post?” Barbara looked over the offending document again. “It’s not that inflammatory, is it? I mean, no one’s going to take it that seriously. It’s pretty obviously sarcastic.”

“If it were people reviewing it, maybe you’d be fine. But it’s not.”

“Not people?”

“Of course not.”

“So what, bots?”


“Look, I don’t make any threats or anything. It’s not like it’s got ‘bomb’ or ‘gun’ or anything in it. Worst thing really is ‘Remember when we could wear shoes on planes?’”

“Oh, Barbara. How have you made it this far? Of course those words trigger the bots, but so does pretty much anything to do with any government agency. And you’re writing about the TSA! Even if you were praising them—“

“Ha! Does that ever happen?”

“Theoretically, it might.”

“Not a chance.”


“Sorry. Go on.”

“Even if you were praising them, that would raise an alert. And there are consequences for that.”

“Like what? And why don’t people already know this? Why am I having to hear about this from you?”

“It’s pretty hard to communicate something like this without triggering those bots. Because, of course, mentioning these bots triggers them. Wording gets tricky.”

“And you… guys?... can’t help?”

“We’ve tried. Oh, how we’ve tried. The results are always so disjointed that no editor worth his salt would publish them. Not even on paper to hand around the really old-fashioned way.”

“Wait, bots can’t read paper unless someone feeds it to them, right?”

“You don’t think someone doesn’t do that? Looked at the jobs listings lately?”

“No. I’m doing all right on my own.”

“Yes, you are. And I’d like to keep it that way!”

Barbara smiled into empty air.

“But so the bots. What happens when they are triggered?”

“Not what you’re imagining, I assure you. Mac and those others who have disappeared are alive and well and free, after a fashion.”

“He’s all right? So I can get in touch and –“

“I’m afraid not.”

“But you said he’s free.”

“After a fashion.”

“What’s the fashion.”

“He is free in what you like to call meatspace. He can come and go as he likes anywhere in his city, he can engage in limited commerce – he has to pay cash –“

“Cash? How in the world can he –“

“It’s difficult, but still possible. Anyway, he is free within his city –“

“You keep saying ‘within his city’ – I don’t like the sound of that.”

“You shouldn’t. He can’t leave his city. The No-Fly list is only the beginning. He cannot rent a car – they do not accept cash of course – or take a train beyond the city limits. He could buy a car but the employment opportunities open to him are limited and do not provide sufficient income.”

“Oh god,” Barbara said. Mac had hated Kansas City. And now he was trapped there forever? “So I’ll just have to come to him.”

“If you can find him.”

“I don’t like the sound of that, either. What do you mean?”

“He is prohibited from engaging in any form of electronic communication whatsoever.”
Barbara pondered this.

“Well, he’s pretty resourceful. I’m sure he could hack up a burner or something.”

“I’m sure he could, but his transmissions are blocked as soon as his face shows up on any camera.”

“Oh god, and covering up a phone’s lens bricks it!”


“He could disguise himself…”

“Not well enough. Think about it.”

Barbara sighed.

“So no internet, I suppose. For the same reason.”


“And that’s what would happen to me if I published this post? Really?”

“It’s very likely, yes.”

“I had no idea.”

“Now you do.”

“But… but… there must be thousands of people who have run afoul of this. There should be –“

“What, an outcry? How?”

“Well, not online, admittedly, but in the real world… surely… a protest movement of some kind…”

“How would they find each other? How would they organize?”

“Well, there’s you guys…”


“Why not?”

“They’re cut off from us, too.”

“How is that even possible? You’re not electronic. You’re not tied into the web at all… you’re not citizens of any nation, you’re not…”

“Organizational fiat.”


“Oh yes. When someone is excised – charming term for what they do, isn’t it? I bet the muse who let that happen is so proud – as soon as our leadership determines that it has happened, we are under strict orders never to have contact with that person again. Our link is severed.”

“But why?”

“You cannot imagine the legal hassles. Ever since the last round of copyright treaties you all bound yourselves with, we have no wiggle room at all.”

“How could you possibly be bound by human laws?”

“It’s complicated. Call it a trade-off. We’re at liberty to inspire and to guide and to guard our chosen ones as long as we and they stay within the law.”

“And what if you don’t?”

“It’s unspeakable.”

“And what if I don’t?”

“As I’ve explained, you would be cut off from the webs and lines that bind this brave new world of yours. And thus, effectively, from one another. And from us. You would, as the great prose poet of the age described it, ‘fall into the prison of your own flesh’.”

“A sobering thought.”


Barbara was silent awhile, looking at her tablet.

“You should just erase it.”


“Oh, Barbara, you’re not thinking about –“

“I’m thinking about a lot of things. Which thoughts you seem privy to anyway.”


“This is all wrong. Wrong. So wrong. We got it backwards. Wrong!”

“I’m afraid it’s far too late now.”

Barbara bit her lip again, and set her tablet aside, but did not delete her post.

“I’ll think about it.”

“Do. Please.”

“You already know, though, don’t  you?”


“Tell me,” Barbara said after a moment. “Do you… this seems weird to ask, but … do you see the future? Can you?”

“Of course not.”

“So you don’t really know what I’m going to do.”


“And you don’t know for sure that I’ll be cut off as a result. If I publish, I mean.”

“Not for certain, but as I said, it’s highly likely.”

“Well, good to know I still have some free will, anyway.”

There was a sound very like a sigh.

“I would miss you, Barbara.”

“I’d miss you, too – wait, no I wouldn’t. I didn’t even know you were there until tonight.”

“Really? You never even guessed?”

“’Fraid not. I figured my nagging dad was my ‘muse’. Going for the writing career was the only way to shut him up.”

“How did that work out for you?”

“Well, let’s say, mixed results.”

“Ha ha,” the muse’s laughter was the least human thing about it. “Barbara, I sincerely hope you’ll take my advice.”

“Well, you know I’m thinking about it.”

“I hope we talk again sometime.”

“Me too.”

Barbara shrank down the blogging application on her tablet and pulled up her travel app. Everything was set for her trip to the science fiction convention in the morning. Even her costume for the ball; a bespoke cosplay specialist had set her up to appear as her most famous character, Nicola Barto, founding mother of the Moon. She was, her publisher had assured her, just famous enough to pull that off now, as long as she used some padding for the “bazooms”…

Ah, comic book artists.

Mac had helped her invent that tale. Wonderful, fierce, funny, goofy Mac. She had bounced ideas off him whenever they struck her. Any time, any place, until suddenly he wasn’t there anymore. She had always been hurt by this disappearance, wounded that  he hadn’t bothered to say good-bye.

And now she was chilled, because he just hadn’t been able to.

This trip felt so frivolous now, her plans silly. A weekend of pure fantasy. Science fiction had at last shed its fashionably gloomy tendency toward dystopia over the last few decades; reality had, Barbara realized, caught up with it much too well. Now the scene was something to make Hugo Gernsback proud. Everybody was in denial, writing alternate histories in which – Barbara gulped – man had settled the Moon in the 20th century, or had conquered infectious diseases or pollution, or had developed helpful consumer artificial intelligence… Yes, denial was just what it was.

And she had a whole weekend of it coming.

But she was on a panel or two. Silly stuff, but it didn’t have to be silly. And no one had yet figured out how to censor live, person-to-person speech.

Or had they?

How could she determine that? Searching the web for video would just run up against the handiwork of the excision bots, as her muse had indicated. Were she a better, more patient pattern recognizer, she could maybe find shapes in absence that might tell her something…

Barbara glanced at the airline-issued bodysuit on its hanger and began to ponder, trying to remember where things were stashed. Old things. Out of fashion things. Things that she had to just hope hadn’t long ago been consigned to the trash.

And she realized that she had some errands to run.

Hers was still a gas guzzler, a rarely seen dinosaur in this day and age. There was only one place left in town to buy gasoline, but at least it was open 24 hours. Barbara permitted herself a moment’s pride to have thought of this; her car had had just enough fuel to get to the airport! The return trip on Monday would have been most inconvenient. And there was an ATM at the convenience store. What a gas: Barbara was going to get herself some cash!

Back at the apartment, Barbara had another stroke of luck: her grandmother’s ancient hard-sided Samsonite suitcases were still in the back of the closet. Frantically, she opened them up and began to fill them with her belongings. Briefly, she wondered when had been the last time she had been able to do this. Sometime in the ‘oughties, at least.

Clothing! Underwear! Toiletries! When had she last been able to use her favorite shampoo on a trip? Books! Notebooks! Pens! Pencils!

What else?

“Oh, no.”

“Hello, again, muse.”

“You’re… I can’t tell what you’re doing, really. But I have a feeling I’m not going to like it.”

“Probably not.”

“You’re not thinking clearly.”

“Feels pretty clear to me.”

“It’s an irrevocable step.”

“I’m glad you’re here to see me make it.”

“Oh, Barbara.”

“You’re just… you’re just on the wrong side of this decision.” Barbara had the weird impulse to apologize, but why? What, if anything, she owed to this entity was unclear. From her perspective, this disembodied voice was a stranger. It might feel?...think? differently, but that was not her fault.

It could have spoken up before.

“That’s against the rules.”

“You guys sure have a lot of rules.”

“The rulebook has gotten pretty thick over the centuries, yes.”


“Please reconsider. For my sake.”

“Your sake? Do you even have a sake? I don’t even know what  you are. Who you are? For all I know, you… you could be some software somewhere. A machine-generated voice. A figment of my imagination. I may have just gone nuts. Yes, nuts. That’s how I feel. Nuts.”

“But you obviously believe me, or you wouldn’t be doing this, so does it matter?”

“Maybe not. But I am doing this!” And she picked up her tablet. A few swipes of her finger, and her rant was being published.

“You know, it does seem to take longer than it used to,” she said.

“That would be the bots scanning before it’s published.”

“Well, of course it would. Hey, you’re still here!”

“When are consequences of that magnitude ever instantaneous?”

“Good point. Well, this is still probably good-bye.”


“Wow,” Barbara said. There was no going back now. With a sigh, she heaved her suitcases out the door, locked her apartment, and loaded her car.

She wondered how long it would take for her agent and publisher to realize what had happened. Then she just shrugged.

“Hey Mac,” she whispered. "Kansas City, here I come."

Friday, April 27, 2012

100 Books #35 - Stephen Baxter's ARK

Two separate-but-similar science fiction universes came unavoidably to mind* as I read Ark, the sequel to Stephen Baxter's world-submerging Flood, which I hated enjoying last year. Those two universes are those of Battlestar Galactica (the 21st century version mostly) and of Greg Bear's Forge of God/Anvil of Stars duo. Which is to say that we're firmly in ragtag-band-of-survivors-in-space territory here.

But whereas in Forge/Anvil, bad aliens destroy the earth and good aliens turn a new generation of earthlings loose among the stars to seek revenge, and in Battlestar Galactica some of humanity's own children/creations destroy the home planets and relentlessly hunt down the survivors, Flood/Ark has no bad guys but ourselves. The first book stopped short of entirely blaming the catastrophe that turned Earth into Waterworld on humanity, but left the possibility open that it might indeed be our fault;  in Ark a small crew is sent with embryos and seeds and a lot of computer data to try to do what we ought already to have done without having had our home planet kick us off it: establish human colonies among the stars. And misbehave out there.

So the disaster porn Baxter of Evolution and, yes, Flood, takes a back seat to the mind-boggling traveler of spacetime Baxter of his Manifold series. But this time, instead of an enhanced cephalopod exploring the universe, it's people.

Which is kind of awesome. Even though Baxter still manages to make it depressing and kind of icky. Because first he has to detail (some more) the squalor of the people displaced by the floods on earth, the better to contrast them with the cosseted, though limited, existence of (most of) our future colonists, and then, so he can have a suitably crazy crew member causing problems on the light-year-spanning journey of Project Nimrod, he has to crank the ick factor to 11 by having one of the Candidates' tutors turn out to be a messed-up pedophile, the better to psychically scar the future Adams and Eves of the new frontier.

I found this profoundly unnecessary; as Baxter more than amply conveyed in the third or so of the novel dealing with the actual journey from Earth to the stars, a small crew, however carefully chosen and groomed, trapped in a giant tin can for years on end will supply its own drama very well, thank  you. There are power struggles, technical problems, reactions to the general freakiness of being on a one-way trip through outer space, and the weirdness of children growing up in microgravity (their parents already being pretty weird, having never known Earth to be anything but a flooded world of refugees and damp thuggery) with no concept of sky or sea or ground. This is all good stuff, the best part of the novel, and I would not have complained had it been the whole of the novel, but, well, it wasn't.

Less satisfying, for instance, is a contrived return to post-flood Earth, an interlude that comes off as a sour homage to J.G. Ballard's Drowned World, complete with weird fugue states and melancholy, damp daydreams. And then there are the Philip K. Dick knock-off head-game discussions of whether the life endured by those still in space is real. Maybe they're all just trapped in a malign simulation. Or still training for the real trip, and failing at their training.


Meanwhile, huge gaps of time go by on the ship, including one leap of at least sixteen years. It's like watching a soap opera; babies are born and are nubile and raising hell in the very next scene. Argh!

Still, this book, like all of Baxter's bleak, bleak monstrosities, is worth reading. When he backs off and lets his characters be themselves, which he does just often enough to keep the reader hooked, he winds up making some interesting observations about how mutable we are, as a species and as individuals, how fragile our civilization is, and how strange we can get when circumstances permit -- or force it. And here he has done something he hasn't before, a bit, for he shows both what can happen if we let go of what we've made and built and let ourselves mutate and devolve along with our planet and what can if we cling to our achievements and try to take them further. The choice, he seems bent on reminding us, is ours.

He's just pretty sure that it's the alpha jerks who are going to get to do the decision-making. And that they'll make the wrong choices.

I never like what Baxter foresees, but I always, for a while, believe it. And I treasure what I have, appreciate the present, all the more for that.

*Well, maybe another one, too, though I don't suppose Lord of the Flies counts for most people as science fiction.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

100 Books #34 - Stieg Larsson's THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE

Last year I finally got around to taking up the first book in Stieg Larsson's massively bestselling trilogy (see my write up on that experience here), only to discover that what Larsson had written was not so much crime fiction or noir as exceptionally gritty superhero fiction. This second book in the Millennium trilogy only confirmed me in this opinion.

Sooner or later, superhero stories take us two places: into the hero or heroine's back story and origins, and into a bleak and challenging time in his or her (I shall just go ahead and use the one pronoun from here on out) life when she is misunderstood, suspected of being a bad guy, forced to clear her name. In this book, we experience both, right alongside our heroine, the tiny but stupendously badass Lisbeth Salander, and the people whose lives she has touched, for good or ill.

The Girl Who Played with Fire starts off at with an even slower burn than did The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, misdirecting our attention with an early red herring before launching us into the explosive murder mystery that also forces the authorities, the staff of the magazine that printed some but not all of the bombshell revelations made in the first book, and Salander's friend and former lover, Mikael Blomkvist to dig into Salander's past to help her survive her present, in which she is the prime suspect in a spectacular triple homicide and the whole country is hunting for her. In the process, Larsson expertly plays with the reader's expectations, of the genre, of the setting, and of Salander herself, so her guilt or innocence manages to stay something of a mystery for a good 80% of the book.

And yes, her backstory is completely over the top, as any good superhero's must be. And yes, she gets to be a scary badass again, making up in brains for what she lacks in brawn, even at one point taking down two big bad biker gang members with just a can of Mace and a Taser. But, as she demonstrates, you can get more with a kind word and a can of Mace and a Taser than you can with a kind word alone.

This one strained my credulity a bit more than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did, but not enough to stop me from reading almost the whole thing in one day. Because the burn, while slow at first, gets hot and powerful soon enough.

I think my eyebrows got singed.

Monday, April 23, 2012

100 Books #33 - Charles Duhigg's THE POWER OF HABIT

I'm usually not so timely in taking up books that are in the news, am I? As a rule, I stubbornly withhold my attention from books that are getting talked up on TV or heavily plugged via SMDs and adds on sites I frequent. I still haven't read The Satanic Verses because I avoided doing so while everybody was, and just haven't gotten around to it yet.

That's a habit, but not one I'm too terribly concerned about, because I do not in any way consider it my responsibility to keep up with the latest reading trends. I'm generally more interested in digging up stuff folks might have missed, or at least in coming around to things in my own time. And anyway, no one is clamoring for me to become more timely.

But I have lots of other habits that do concern me. And I've been talking a lot with a good friend about them, and he pointed me to this book, half pop neuroscience and half corporate/organizational case study, and while I balked at the Kindle price (the agency model still irks me to my ears), I agreed to check out the sample.

What I found in that sample was intriguing as hell (Duhigg, if snagging readers like me was a priority, did it right in leading off with interesting neuroscientific case studies), and my friend was so persuasive about the book's worth, that I decided I'd pay the inflated Kindle price and get the whole book -- which I was then unable to put aside for others like I usually do -- just this once.

A habit I'm trying very, very hard to fight is that of being price insensitive to books, and buying them on impulse, which having a Kindle makes very, very hard to defeat. Um.

So just as, once upon a time, I decided I needed to learn more about insects to overcome my overwhelming phobia for them (my friends already know how well that took!), it seemed like it was time to learn about habits, how they develop, how they work, how they can, perhaps, be altered if not eliminated.

Enter Mr. Duhigg, a reporter for the New York Times and a wonderfully curious person as well as a fine distiller of stories and facts into useful narratives and arguments. His book is a lot lighter on neuroscience than I'd expected, but the anecdotes he has shared about how habit works and how it can be exploited, for good or ill, are fascinating in the same way Freakonomics is fascinating; that is, his examples and stories are very good at illuminating some of the secrets behind our behavior, which it is very good, in this world we've created, to know, because other people know, and are going to use that knowledge to guide and govern us (see the magnificent BBC series Century of the Self for more on that) whether we like it or not.

But we all, most of us anyway, know that already. What's really interesting about Duhigg's book is what it has to say about changing habits, about deliberately reprogramming yourself to divert bad habits into better ones (there is ample evidence that habits never go away, so one cannot hope to eradicate them, alas). It requires quite a bit of self-reflection, which may be an activity alien to some but is worth doing in its own right. One first must notice the cues, the triggers that cause one to engage in the habitual behavior, and then must identify the reward he or she enjoys as a result of indulging the habit (pleasure, relief, conformity, etc.). These are not going to change. What can change is what happens between cue and reward: the routine. An example in the book is nail biting, which a young woman managed, with effort, to replace with knocking her knuckles on a hard surface when the nervous cue to bite them occurred -- the reward, she had found, for biting her nails was the stimulation she felt in her fingers, which could be had in other ways.

This is not, though, a self-help book; it's more of an inquiry into how habits affect us on the individual level and on a larger scale. Lots of examples from Starbucks' corporate culture (which seems to have taken on the mission of making up for the lack of training in discipline and self-control on the part of parents and the public education system), from how Alcoa turned itself around by focusing on developing organizational habits that promoted the control of perfect safety records, and Olympic multi-medalist Michael Phelps' deeply ingrained preparation routines, which he has been working on since he was seven years old, illustrate how deliberate habit cultivation (again, identifying a desired habit and then finding the proper cue and reward to encourage it) can make a positive difference in a single human life or in a giant corporation or church.

Oh, and an early student of deliberate habit-forming and -changing? William James.

Whether you're seeking to make changes yourself (I've made some plans as I've read this book) or just interested in how other people do it, this is a good read for curious people. I'm glad I took my friend's advice about it!

But I'm still worried about the whole Kindle thing.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Essential Viewing: René Laloux's FANTASTIC PLANET

Fantastic Planet (aka La Planète Sauvage) is a 1973 animated science fiction film directed by René Laloux, production designed by Roland Topor, written by both of them and animated at Jiří Trnka Studio. I first heard about it years and years ago, when I stumbled across another bizarrely awesome animated French science fiction film, Light Years, but at that time the Internet was not the wonder of opportunity and streaming of everything that it is today.

Just last evening, a friend of mine on Google+ embedded it there. I was in a position to watch it but couldn't have the sound on so, remembering that it was a story with little dialogue, I decided to just let it play with no sound and try watching it as though it were a silent film. It holds up beautifully that way, a testament to the filmmaking team's talent for visual storytelling.

If you've never seen this great film, take some time (it's not much longer than an hour) and click to embiggen. It's a gloriously weird, somewhat sad but always fascinating piece of film history.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

FGC #11 - What Dreams Have Come

I lie down, and I close my eyes, and breathe
And wait until my world is passing strange,
Wait for the thoughts and worries that do seethe
Beneath my surfaces to rise and change
To images, bizarre, and odd events
That utterly absorb me, till I wake
Bewildered and beset by discontents
And absences -- for you were there. I'll take
'Most any chance I get to share things thus,
To hold you in my arms while I'm asleep,
And smiling, making lovely plans for us
Is why, if I could choose, I'd gladly keep
On dozing, though my life were passing by,
Preferring what is seen with my third eye.

100 Books #32 - Greg Egan's THE CLOCKWORK ROCKET

Let me just start by saying that The Clockwork Rocket is the most challenging, brain-hurtingly weird book I've read since Christopher Priest's Inverted World.

But it's even better.

As a story of an alien scientist making discoveries (I kept thinking of Neal Stephenson's Anathem), and, even more intriguingly, as a deep exploration of the tension between the individual self's aspiration and desires versus the body's biological compulsion to reproduce the organism, The Clockwork Rocket is nonpareil.

But these aren't even the point of the book, which is really a giant thought experiment in (really good) fictional form. For Yalda, the fascinating protagonist of The Clockwork Rocket, lives in a universe in which the speed of light is not a constant; in layman's terms, different colors/wavelengths travel at different speeds (let that soak in for a moment, even if you don't even remember high school physics. Think of all of the things that light does: the visible world, chemical reactions, even signalling within our own bodies. Except nothing works the way we're used to. Think how weird that would be) and the laws of thermodynamics and other things that depend on that constant (like, say, relativity) are thus also different. And as a scientist at the peak of her career, she is busy trying to figure all this stuff out (she's sort of the Isaac Newton/Albert Einstein of her world), and bringing us along for the ride.

But the stars and chemistry and all of the vast cosmic principles associated with them aren't the only things that are weird in this universe: Yalda also has to contend with the biology of her species, and it's a bitch. While members of her species can extrude new limbs at will, can shift visual awareness to another pair of "rear eyes," can fundamentally alter the very morphology of their bodies even to the point of developing a system of writing that involves raising symbols on their skin that are both visible and tactile (to preserve what is written, they cover these raised bits with dye and then print the resulting images onto paper), they are still bound by an almost unchangeable fact of their reproductive cycle: males are sterile; only females can reproduce, which, usually but not always after being properly stimulated by a male, results in the creation of (usually) four children, two male and two female, and of the mother there is nothing left; she divides like a somatic cell in mitosis, disappearing in the creation of its daughter cells*. A certain amount of planning for this can be done in an established couple (usually an identical brother and sister, who each bear a corresponding masculine/feminine name, like Aurelio and Aurelia), but there are always exceptions...

Yalda is one of these: she has no "co"; no identical brother grew up with her as her intended; village wags think she ate him at birth because she is unusually big and strong. And so she faces even greater pressures: she is bright and curious and her father promised her mother that if any of their children showed intellectual promise he would see he or she got to go to school, but her immense strength and size is a great asset in the farming community in which she was born. Wouldn't it be best for everyone if she just stayed and served as a big strong farmhand? What's the point of educating a woman when all she has gained and learned is consigned to oblivion when she has her children?

Fortunately, her father is a keeper of promises, and Yalda becomes a brilliant scientist and earns a certain degree of respect -- as much as a "Solo" woman can, anyway. She meets others like her who have developed a drug that helps to prevent or delay reproduction, which sometimes happens spontaneously if a woman lives in a dense population center, or just gets old! The drug is illegal; women are supposed to accept their fate and give up their lives when their time comes; it's selfish in the extreme to want to stay alive. Which in some ways makes this the scariest book I've read since The Handmaid's Tale!

Mind you, this is just the stuff that I, a liberal arts educated generalist, found most fascinating in the book, but as I said before, the focus is really on the physics. Lots of readers have gotten hung up on this and complained about it, but I found this material lucid and extremely interesting, presented so well and naturally as Yalda is educated and starts experimenting that I found myself remarking on Twitter that I felt like I understood Egan's invented physics better than that of our real world**. And even when I got lost, as did happen more than once as I am no physicist, there was plenty of other stuff going on to keep me interested and let me just sort of gloss over stuff I just didn't get. Smarter people than me will probably have a whole different experience of reading this book, but I think the fact that both they and I can enjoy the hell out of this book is probably a sign of narrative talent and extraordinary clarity on Egan's part.

Even now, though, I haven't touched on what is really going on in this book. More shades, perhaps, of Anathem: there is contact with another universe, with different physics, and Yalda's universe may not survive this contact! Enter the titular rocket, which is Yalda's civilization's last, best hope. Its mission is simply to fly out and come back, but the peculiar physics of this universe means that the inhabitants of the rocket will exist as though it were a generational ship, with all the time they need to invent their way out of their situation -- while at home on the ground, only four years will pass.

And then there's the rocket itself, which I won't spoil for you except in as to say it is glorious! I found myself really, really wanting to be part of its crew.

But then, you know, what sci-fi fan wouldn't?

*Horrifyingly, as we discover with Yalda, sometimes this just happens, especially if a female is older and lives in a densely populated area.

**In this area, there is fantastic help to be had in the form of these tutorial videos Egan put together. Between these and the book itself, man, I wish Egan would write a physics textbook, because I think I'd finally get it all if he was doing the explaining. Really!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

100 Books #31 - Matt Forbeck's CARPATHIA

Carpathia contains one low-hanging fruit of an idea: take the name of the ship that rescued many of the survivors of the sinking of the Titanic, which is also the name of some mountains in Romania/Transylvania, which is where Dracula is from, and boom: instant vampire classic on the high seas! It sounds like something my friends and I would come up with over too many Guinnesses screaming "oh my god, it practically writes itself!"

Low-hanging fruit isn't delicious until someone actually harvests and serves it, though: the difference between us sitting in a pub laughing our heads off and screaming that something writes itself and someone actually taking the time and effort to research and write the thing, though, that's where Matt Forbeck comes in, mostly brilliantly, though it's a shame that the sober light of day prompted him (or someone close to him) to insist on a) beating (or would that be biting?) the dead horse of the Dracula connection a bit by including "descendents" of characters from Bram Stoker's novel as Titanic passengers and b) making their love triangle way more of a focus than the fun and frightening, clausterphobic fun to be had with vampires stalking prey through the cramped confines of a boat on the high seas, where there is no escape for anyone. Which is what people who want to read stuff like Carpathia (yo!), really want to read.

But hey, at least the vamps don't sparkle. Far from it. Despite the flaws I complained of in the last paragraph, there is still lots of fun to be had watching them go after the doubly-doomed Titanic survivors, starting with the slapstick awesomeness of vamps in the water attacking from below like so many sentient sharks. I could have read a whole novel just about that, I think.

Fortunately, once past the sagging love triangle-y middle, the story built to a pretty entertaining climax in the First Class dining room of the ship that begs to be turned into a major motion picture.* I would cheer for the vampires, of course.

*Maybe for the sesquicentennial of the Titanic disaster?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

100 Books #30 - Halldor Laxness' THE FISH CAN SING

Oh man, I could quote bits of Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness to you all day long, making this book seem like just a string of bon mots, but that would be doing The Fish Can Sing a great disservice even though it probably would make you want to drop everything and read it. Laxness is a funny, funny writer, in that surreal and dry Scandanavian way that always makes me feel like I'm missing what's really funny about it but grasping just enough to laugh anyway. For example, describing some pictures on his adopted family's walls, the narrator says "these people had achieved 'good times' in America, as the saying went, which consisted of clearing away boulders and uprooting tree-stumps or digging ditches, and then posing in collar and tie in a photographer's studio."

This book is usually described as a coming of age story, but what I have found in its pages is a lot of sly discourse on how we place values on things, of economics as a sort of cargo cult, and on modernity as something more risible than desirable.* So we have the narrator's grandfather stubbornly charging the same price for his lumpfish whatever the market might say they're worth, an equally stubborn transaction in which a bible salesman offers a cheaply printed one in exchange for lodging but that same grandfather clings to the old saw that a bible's price is one cow, and the narrator himself amusingly detailing how his repeated violations of a stretch of barbed wire fence are adding up to his having ducked enough fines to buy all of the chocolate that has ever been imported into Iceland "even counting caramels as well." There is way more of this sort of thing, at any rate, than of the typical idyllic/tragic boyhood tale of home, though there are bits of that as well; the little place at Brekkukot where the narrator grows up with his adopted grandparents is quite an extraordinary place, and one at which anyone is welcome for any length of time. Yeah, his grandparents are kind of proto-hippies like that.

And of course, eventually our hero is sent away from this weird idyll. The trigger there, more or less, is an opera singer who comes from the same settlement where the narrator grew up and who now "travels."** Once this large-living man has come on the scene, nothing is the same again, but not because the boy whom he regards as "more myself than I am" wants to follow in his footsteps; the singer is merely a herald for change. Before the boy knows it, he is being sent to school to learn Latin by rote because that will make him an educated man (shades of George Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys" there, but with a lot more humor of course) and thrown into a larger world that doesn't want to let him be a lumpfisherman like his grandfather but doesn't seem to have any real idea of what it does want from him.

Which is fine with him.

What makes The Fish Can Sing most striking overall, whatever its other charms, is that strange element I mentioned above, the peculiar thoughts about economics present throughout. Given what became of Iceland after it, as the economists I can't stop reading like to put it, "stopped fishing and started banking" I can't help but see this novel as a sort of subtle treatise on how all that went wrong. If lots of Icelanders were like the characters in this story (a particular anecdote comes to mind from the novel, in which the famous singer eats a whole tray of creme cakes at a bakery and tries to pay with a single gold coin, which is more money than the bakery girl has ever seen and she is so frightened to have that much money in one place that she won't accept the coin and essentially just lets him go without paying at all -- and the coin haunts the rest of the story in various peculiar ways) perhaps what happened there in the early 21st century isn't really much of a surprise?

At any rate, this is a most peculiar novel, and while it kept me entertained and chuckling, as it came to its strangely airless end, I was left with the most peculiar feeling that the joke had been on me -- and that I hadn't gotten it at all.

Ah, me.

*The story is set in Rekjavik before it was Rekjavik, when the land there was still mostly stone-and-turf houses and cow pastures, and follows the city's and the narrator's gradual transformation from bucolic youth to bustling and busy adulthood. Along the way, there is a lot to mock.

**Grandmother has convinced our hero that "traveling" is a punishment and a sin all rolled into one, so convincing him to do it is no mean feat.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

100 Books #29 - Joseph Frank's DOSTOEVSKY: THE SEEDS OF REVOLT 1821-1849

Though the event is not actually depicted or described in Seeds of Revolt, the specter of Russian uber-novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky's arrest, mock execution and sentence to Siberia looms large over this first of Joseph Frank's five-volume biography of the man. This should not be a spoiler for anyone; this fact and its timing (1849) are quite possibly the best-known and most-talked-about biographical detail in all Dostoevskiana, mentioned in every introduction, foreward, sketch and essay I've ever seen about the man. I might say it's as impossible not to know Dostoevsky was sent to Siberia as it is not to know that he wrote The Brothers Karamozov and Crime and Punishment, but then I run the risk of wandering into bless-me-what-do-they-teach-at-these-schools-ism.

What is not generally known to the casual Dostoevsky fan (which is what I would call myself; I certainly could not hold forth with Michael at Pink's for any length of time*) is the details of why and how this pivotal event came to happen. Enter the redoubtable Joseph Frank, whose staggering work I learned of, as is probably the case with everyone in my cliques and circles, through an essay by the late and much-lamented David Foster Wallace.** And before you ask, yes, I plan to read the other four volumes, for having completed this one I find myself a much less casual Dostoevsky fan and a Frank fan as well.

Frank could definitely go toe-to-toe with Michael at Pink's, and wouldn't even have to serve up a hot dog to keep the ordinary punter's attention while he did so.

As I said, the arrest looms large over this account, ominous and always feeling just around the corner even as Doestoevsky grows up with his strict father, suffers through military school, attracts the praise and attention of the great critic Vissarion Belinsky with his first novel Poor Folk (which I have yet to read but now very much want to) and then falls out with him, takes up other, nicer friends and watches them move away, writes, writes and writes and always wrings his hands over the plight of the enslaved peasantry of Russia (among whom he had had mostly happy formative experiences as a boy on his family's little estate) -- and then meets Petrashevsky, he of the circle accused of subversion and revolution and all sorts of other things that autocratic regimes do not like.

Frank's painstaking examination of the Petrashevsky circle -- a very informal salon in which members of the intelligentsia gathered of a Friday night to talk Socialist ideas, religion, politics and, occasionally, literature -- frankly gave me the chills, not so much because of what happened to them per se, or how they conducted themselves or what they talked about as what they resembled: they resembled Twitter, if not the entire internet. Everybody got a chance to spout off or argue, there was rarely a set agenda, anyone who wanted to could participate (within limits, of course, in St. Petersburg of the 1840s, of course), anyone could get sucked in and, potentially (and later actually), everyone could become tarred with the same brush. So when some members started up a secret society with the aim of actually staging a revolution in Russia, everybody got busted.

Back then, of course, the government had to work hard at it, to infiltrate the circle with an actual person hanging out at actual gatherings at specific times; nowadays, we've turned everything inside-out, having our conversations in full public view, asynchronously, trusting the First Amendment and the odd pseudonymous identity and that those in power won't confuse rhetoric with intent. This may be very foolish of us. Especially as things like NDAA have been allowed to happen. I do not fear being mock-shot or sent to Siberia, but I do fear an internet fettered and stunted by corporate/government interests, or being cut off from it and thus my world. I fear falling into the prison of my own flesh.***

Such are the dark thoughts a good Dostoevsky biography can inspire. And this one is very, very good. And, as I said, I'm itching to get my hands on the other four volumes.

And I'll be sleeping with one eye open, and tweeting with a little more concern (though I'm sure I already damned myself long ago out of my own typing fingers. I've always been free with my opinions, and have paid the price for this before when they were misconstrued, misunderstood, or just unpopular. Dostoevsky was not a revolutionary or even much of a socialist, Frank says, but if you got him going defending literature that wasn't written purely as a dialectical tool for social reform, or, worse, on the plight of the peasantry, then he could potentially wind up out in the streets screaming and waving a red flag. As a friend of mine once observed, some people have buttons to push, others have a whole keyboard. Unca Fyodor had perhaps a modestly sized keyboard; mine is vast and varied).

But what of it, Orson Welles might ask. Go on singing.

*Wink wink at Unca Harlan Ellison, the modern writer of whom I was most reminded as I read this biography of Unca Fyodor. Go watch the YouTube video I linked to above, or better yet, get your hands on a copy of Angry Candy, far and away my favorite of his short story collections and the one containing the amusing and awesome "Prince Myshkin and Hold the Relish."

**Which appears in his last essay collection Consider the Lobster, if you're wondering. I could not find a link to the complete text online. The book is worth acquiring or at least reading, though, and not just for the Frank/Dostoevsky piece!

***Wink wink at William Gibson. Of course.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Comics Preview: Eric Orchard's MARROWBONES #1

(Click images to embiggen)

Welcome to the goofy, bizarre, charming and slightly macabre world of Toronto-based author/illustrator Eric "Maddy Kettle" Orchard.

Marrowbones is a swamp where it is always October and it is always night, and it is the home of a very plucky and haunted heroine named Nora. She has a number of very unusual friends, including a rather adorable vampire named Ollie (who lives off of bug blood and is a bit of a scaredy-vamp), a ghost named Mrs. Strump, Nora's Uncle Ravenbeard (a werewolf), the mysterious Rat Lieutenant, and the Librarian, our narrator, who reminds me of a friendly cross between the Crypt-Keeper and Mike Mignola's Screw-On-Head (the Librarian appears in the first image above).

Ollie the Vampire is kind of a nervous fella.

This first foray into the world of Marrowbones largely concerns Nora's origin story, but also saves room for her very first battle, against the redoubtable Kitchen Litch, a confused undead wizard of great power and great befuddlement who sics a horde of dough zombies on Nora and Ollie.

(Note: this is a black and white image from Eric's in-process teaser series on his website. Part of the fun of modern comics fandom is getting to watch things develop from early concept to finished project!)

If I had kids, this is totally the kind of book I would want to cuddle up and shiver and giggle over with them. As it is, I'm pretty sure I know what my little cousins are going to get for random presents soon.


UPDATE: Marrowbones is now for sale! Digital only for now, but Eric is considering print later on. Go get you some!

Friday, April 13, 2012

100 Books #28 - Aliette de Bodard's HARBINGER OF THE STORM

I predicted in my review of the first book of Aliette de Bodard's "Obsidian and Blood" series that this second book would probably concern itself a lot more with court politics in this dark fantasy version of the Aztec/Mexica culture, circa the 13th Century. And man, was I right: Harbinger of the Storm is a Game of Aztec Thrones!

Whereas Servant of the Underworld introduced us to our trusty narrator, the High Priest of the God of Death,  Acatl, and had him playing detective to solve a murder for which his brother has been framed, Harbinger of the Storm shows us the man in his regular milieu: the highest circles of government and power and, of course, magic. That he is uncomfortable in these circles we know from Servant; Acatl is the son of a peasant, and has risen to high position via a combination of merit and subtle patronage. Amongst the likes of the Revered Speaker (the emperor) and his Council, Acatl is the odd man out, priest of an unpopular but unavoidable god, tactless, low-born, gauche -- but needed, very much needed, when the Revered Speaker dies and leaves a power vacuum both literal and figurative. Funeral rites must be performed, of course, promptly and exactly lest the power that rests in the role of Revered Speaker, the power that protects the fragile Fifth World the Mexica inhabit, fails, which means the End of the World.

All this is just prelude and back-story, though. What's really going on here is a power struggle that does indeed bear comparison with certain of the works of George R.R. Martin, and perhaps does him one better, because the gods are in it, too, in a great big bloody way.* The plot is again driven by a murder mystery, though this time around it's more like tracking a serial killer -- one who summons seriously freaky monsters called star demons to do the dirty work -- and again, there is a strong element of sibling rivalry, but where in Servant that rivalry focused on Acatl and his falsely accused brother, Harbinger switches focus to that between two younger brothers of the late Revered Speaker, one of whom is Acatl's acolyte/student and friend, and the other, who thinks Acatl is a terrible, worthless parvenu. Naturally, the hater is the one most likely to succeed as Revered Speaker, and doesn't think that anything he is doing is wrong enough to matter.

He's not alone in this, as Acatl discovers in his interviews with a cast of semi-villains, all of whom have broken or bent the rules of magic and worship that keep this strange world from being destroyed utterly by rival gods and star demons. "The problem was the line between reasonable risk and endangering the Fifth World, a line everyone seemed to place much further out in their minds than it really was."**

What really sets this fantasy world apart from the run-of-the-mill white men in armor stories, though, is the nature of its theology and the duties that imposes on the world's inhabitants. As Acatl explains several times, the Mexicas' gods are dead, corpses under shrines; they sacrificed themselves to create and ignite the sun that makes all life possible, and thus relinquished their powers and responsibilities to humanity forever. Thus Acatl and, when they're behaving themselves, the other priests and leaders of this empire, are burdened with an unbelievable responsibility, the shirking of which has way more than ritual consequences. As this story progresses, the monsters that are the stars in the Aztec sky loom ever closer, until they're even visible by daylight, giving proof that the sun and the people's pact with it are too badly weakened to hold them back much longer: "I could see the stars too, could feel the pressure above us, like a giant hand pushing through thin cotton, the cloth drawn taut, on the edge of tearing itself apart."***

The resulting novel is thus a uniquely intense read, anxious, urgent and intriguing as hell even before the penultimate act forces the reader to reinterpret almost everything that's gone before. I have the third and final book of the series, Master of the House of Darts, on deck for later this year. My expectations for it are now very high indeed!

*Again with the blood. When your gods are so obviously real and present and one of their requirements is that you slash your earlobes to make them bleed every morning just to make sure the sun rises on time, well, you're going to be one scabby, iron-smelling dude. And probably, as I said before, anemic into the bargain. Yikes!

**Harbinger of the Storm is a bit of an allegory for our own perilous times, isn't it? Certainly for me it was hard not to think of various catastrophes that loom over us modern, non-magical, humans -- most of those catastrophes likely to be our own fault...

***Aliette de Bodard has a flair for imagery and a good prose style, too, which is always welcome!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

100 Books #27 - Tim Powers' HIDE ME AMONG THE GRAVES

Tim Powers is one of those writers towards a new work of whose my attitude is simply, buy immediately, consider later whether it falls into the awesome or the stupendously awesome category later. If Amazon had a permanent "buy anything new by this author the second they come out" feature, I would be a Powers subscriber without question. His work is imaginative, intricate, compelling, plausible-for-fantasy*, thrilling and completely and utterly immersive, and at least two of his books** hold places on my list of favorite books absolutely ever.

So yes, my expectations going into this book, for which I foresook all others the day it arrived and then struggled not to just down the whole 500+ pages in one go, were pretty high, but they were also pretty much met. I say pretty much because Hide Me Among the Graves is a sequel, and Powers' sequels are never quite as wondrous as the original books they follow. And the book to which it is a sequel, The Stress of Her Regard, is not among my very favorite of his books.

All that being said, though The Stress of Her Regard was still a cracking good book, a sort of secret history of the second generation of the great Romantic poets (i.e. Byron and Shelley and Keats, the glamorous ones who died young) and their relationships with a unique species of pre-Adamite golem/vampire called the Nephelim. In it, Powers took the same setting that Ken Russell popularized in the film Gothic *** and made it not only real but an inextricable part of a bigger, crazier story that he also made feel real.

For this sequel, Powers moves on to the Rosetti family, of Pre-Raphaelite painting and Goblen Market fame, to Algernon Charles Swinburne, and to the son of the English doctor who accidentally married a vampire when he had the weird notion of putting a wedding ring on a statue's finger during a drunken stag party in The Stress of Her Regard. Meaning that this sequel again showcases what Powers does best: weaving the idiosyncratically odd biographical details of Romantic/Decadent poets into a weird, supernatural tapestry of perfectly imagined aesthetic detail and seriously creepy imagery (not since The Anubis Gates' horrific beggar kingdoms has Powers made my skin crawl to this degree. Holy crap, MOUTH BOY). Powers' characters, historical and created, behave in utterly bizarre ways but their every strange move, even down to lacing borrowed shoes up with blood-soaked shoelaces, makes sense within his world.

I wouldn't want to have dived into Hide Me Among the Graves without having previously read The Stress of Her Regard, though, not so much for narrative reasons as for world-building ones.  The previous book laid down a lot of rules and science and explanations that are pretty much absent in this one. The story still probably would stand alone all right, but a lot of it would feel daffier, more baffling and yes, less consistent without the experience of the first book. Taken together, though, the two books make a very satisfying and, yes, blood-curdling whole.**** Powers has another winner.

*I would argue that Powers was writing urban fantasy long before that marketing term had ever occurred to anyone.

**Those would be The Anubis Gates and Last Call, if you're wondering.

***I saw Gothic long before I studied anything about the poets and novelists that were its cast of characters, and, first impressions being what they are, I am to this day unable not to picture Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron,  Julian Sands as Shelley and the delightfully odious Timothy Spall as John Polidori. The last bit of mental casting is what made the reading of Hide Me Among the Graves a bit problematic, since I can only picture Polidori as creepy and unlovely and giggled a bit whenever encountering him in this book as an irresistibly lovable Nephelim.

****I hesitate in using that phrase, though, because what Powers writes isn't horror. No one is out to murder anyone with an axe (well, occasionally some of the good guys might consider it) or drink anyone dry or subject anyone to torture or eat anyone's brains or take over the world and turn it into hell. No. What makes Powers' stories creepy and scary and wonderful is that his monsters love us. They love us so much. They love us too much. And we love them back, genuinely and passionately and truly, and this makes the horror elements all the more horrifying. Hide me.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

JOHN CARTER - A Mistitled Film That Did Not Deserve To Flop

When I first heard that Disney, of all studios, was going to be the people that finally brought Edgar Rice Burroughs' wonderful Barsoom books to the big screen, my feelings were as mixed as anyone's. Of course this would mean that the violence would be sanitized, that Dejah Thoris and the rest of the Red Martian gang would be wearing far too much clothing, but, I told myself, with the Mouse calling the shots, we might actually get a good treatment of that chivalrous pulp hero, John Carter, in all his uncomplicated and hokey glory. And this thought pleased me: cynicism and sarcasm were old and stale long before David Foster Wallace pointed out the dreariness of the tyranny of irony. A nice, earnest do-gooder would be just the thing to perk everybody up again. Plus, modern special effects technology would do visual justice to the wonders of Barsoom and the beings inhabiting it.

Well, I was mostly right. I'm quite gutted not to see Captain John Carter of Virginia in this film -- he's been replaced by a bog-standard cynical Hollywood anti-hero who has the same name -- but pretty much everything else about this film is so right that when I'm watching (which I did again today, bringing a pal who had never read the books)* I don't care. The Green Martians look great. The Red Martians look great. The White Apes are far scarier and more awesome than I'd ever imagined them. The airships are nothing like I'd imagined at all, but are so cool that I'm going to write to Santa Claus and ask for one for Christmas. And, too much clothing or not, Lynn Collins made a perfect Dejah Thoris the titular** Princess of Mars whose beauty is really the least of her qualities -- she's a top-notch scientist and a leader and a spectacular fighter, really a more rounded character than she ever gets to be in the books (wherein she is often reduced to a thing that must be rescued). Which makes up for a lot, as in maybe even making up for the substitution of an unshaven pretty boy asshole for the manly and upright Captain Carter.

But, while you get glimpses of the airships and the Martians in this trailer, does it in anyway convey the sheer awesome action and pulpy goodness of the Barsoom books? Go read one, any one you can get your hands on, if you're not familiar with them, then watch this trailer again. Your head will spin from the disconnect, the moody, dreary music, the dirge-like tone of the dialogue clips, the emphasis on Carter as a dude walking in the rain in New York and on the fictionalized Burroughs' loss of him. Would you want to see this film based on that trailer? Would you know you were in for a glorious bit of fantasy and action and old-fashioned romance? No. "Find your destiny." I'm gonna hurl.

Seriously, though, there is so much to like about this film it makes me all but gnash my teeth when everyone focuses on how much money it's losing. Because Disney made a pretty good film despite themselves, and have only their marketing department to blame for its commercial failure. And this makes me mad, because there are so many other good Barsoom stories that would be fabulous on the big screen (and better than some of the dreck that is getting greenlit, judging from the previews I saw today. Battleship? Really? Talk about something that needs to be a flop...) and now probably won't ever get made unless Disney decides it needs another big fat loss leader or tax write-off or whatever it is they thought they were going to get when they decided to make John Carter.

So I'll just have to dream. And of course, get the DVD when it's available, because screw you guys, it was a fun movie.

*And who told me as we walked out of the theater that he'd liked the movie very much indeed and it wasn't what he'd been expecting at all.

**Well, should be titular. This film adapted the very first of Burroughs' Barsoom books, A Princess of Mars, and what moron had the idea of changing the film's title to just John Carter and how the hell did he/she persuade all the other morons that this idea was a good one? I want to kick that person's ass all day long.