Monthly Archives: July 2011

And some books!

MANSFIELD PARK is a surprisingly flat work by Jane Austen, mostly because the protagonist is so annoyingly wimpy—not only is Fanny hard to root for, but she aspires to so little (other than being allowed to live another day) it doesn’t give any drive to the plot. Despite the usual character touches like the odiously selfish Mrs. Norris, this is disappointing.
Diana Wynne Jones’ CASTLE IN THE AIR has an Arabian carpet vendor initially thrilled when his new acquisition turns out to be not only a genuine flying carpet, but to land him in the garden of a beautiful princess. Unfortunately, this turns out to be the opening to an adventure involving feuding djinni, a thieving veteran and a wizard with a moving castle (much like Chrestomanci’s appearances in the first sequels to Charmed Life, this has Howl (and Sophie, and Calcifer, and the castle) appear as guest stars late in the story, though more involved in the action than Chrestomanci usually is.
FEARFUL ROCK AND OTHER PRECARIOUS LOCALES: Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman, Volume 3 gathers Wellman’s four stories of Reverend Jaeger, a Civil War veteran turned preacher, and four of occultist Judge Pursuivant. A very good collection, particularly “The Black Drama” (pitting Pursuivant against an immortalist Lord Byron) and “The Dreadful Rabbits” (which proves Killer Rabbits don’t have to be Night of the Lepus).
LOOKING GLASS WAR: Hatter has legendary Wonderland warrior the Hatter hunting for Princess Alyss in Victorian Europe and encountering a cult feeding on the “black imagination” that spills out into our world from Wonderland’s current civil war. Part of larger series, this didn’t give me the urge to seek out more——the story isn’t without interest, but the art doesn’t work for me at all (I have a hard time figuring what Hatter is doing half the time). And Dark Alice isn’t exactly a new idea.
SUPERNATURAL LAW: Sodyssey collects some of Barton Lash’s stories of Wolff and Byrd, counselors of the macabre as they help out a guardian angel being sued for negligence, sue Anne Rice on behalf of Dracula and try to help out the Swamp Thing parody Sodd from getting led into ecoterrorism——not to mention coping with problems in their personal lives. Always a fun strip, or almost always (the Anne Rice parody was weak)
THE CHANGELING SEA by Patricia McKillip has a lonely girl in a seaside town discovering her attempts to curse the sea for killing her father have apparently resulted in the interest of the king’s haunted son and the arrival of a dragon chained by gold to the root of the sea. Not McKillip’s best, but entertaining.
100 BULLETS: The Counterfifth Detective is the weakest TPB of the series I’ve read to date as it tells the story of a hard-drinking, womanizing detective recovering from a scarring accident only to become embroiled in Graves’ war against the trust——which it turns out he’s already a part of. Author Brian Azzarello does much worse with hardboiled dialogue than with the book’s usual street lingo and I honestly have no idea what the whole plot was (and no real urge to go back and figure it out).
BATMAN AND ROBIN: The Sunday Classics collects the Sunday comic strip pages from 1943 through its expiration in 1946. Many of these are straight Batman-and-crooks stories (of varying quality) but there’s also a good story of the Joker battling a rival gangboss, a retelling of Two-Face’s origin and the story that gave the Penguin’s real name for the first time. Readable, if not up to the best material in The Batman Chronicles.

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Movies and TV

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOW PART 2 (2011) is, of course, the big finish wherein Harry & Co. continue their hunt for the horcruxes, Voldemort explains Snape has to die for the Greater Evil, Harry learns Snape’s complicated backstory and we catch up with everyone 19 years later. A solid finish, with the obvious advantage of being more action-packed than Part One. “When have our plans ever worked?”
CAREFREE (1938) may be more comical than most of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, with Astaire a psychoanalyst whom best buddy Ralph Bellamy (as usual, the ill-fated third point on a triangle) asks to analyze Ginger Rogers to learn why she refuses to marry Bellamy. Needless to say, romance between the leads, not to mention hypnosis, ensues. Rogers does a great, funny performance but otherwise this is one of the weaker pairings of the duo. “What was that about doing two things at once?”
TARGETS (1968) is what happened when Roger Corman told Peter Bogdanovich to make a movie out of 20 minutes of the just-completed The Terror, 20 minutes of new Karloff footage and 20 minutes of new other footage (though as it turned out he got to use less Terror and more Karloff) the result being an oddball but absorbing character study as horror legend Karloff proclaims his career over (“They call my movies camp.”) while a young Texan goes on a shooting spree (patterned on a then-current random act of violence). What amounts is two neat little stories that tie together at the end, plus Karloff is quite chilling reading “Appointment in Samarrah.” A perfect capstone to Karloff’s career, but unfortunately he followed it up with several grade-z entries. “I’m going to shoot some pigs.”
Finally caught up on the 2009-10 season of BIG BANG THEORY, wherein Leonard gets and loses Penny, Will Wheaton and Sheldon go to war and Sheldon gets a girlfriend (I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out when I Netflix the next season). Always a fun show.
THE FLASH was a 1990 TV series that regrettably lasted one season alone. Probably the first live-action series since Batman to use supervillains rather than straight criminals, including Captain Cold, Mirror Master and Trickster (Mark Hamill, in what looks like a precursor to his vocal turn as the Joker on the Dini/Timm Batman)—though only the Trickster actually gets into costume. Good special effects and a solid cast (John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen and Amanda Pays as scientist sidekick Tina McGee), it’s a shame it had such a short run (I interviewed one of the cast once, and he said CBS took the blame, saying they had no real idea how to jarket it).

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A good week, but it got busy at the end

But fun busy, a staff party at Raleigh Public Record. It was my first time meeting most of my fellow reporters (Raleigh traffic usually discourages me attending evening staff meetings). Part of this week’s work was finishing up a story on NC State’s nuclear reactor, which you can see here.
Breaking up my schedule with a long afternoon lunch did seem to improve things this week. I’m going to continue with it for now. On the downside, I spent way too much time internet-browsing——I still need to discipline myself.
Story wise, I finished replotting Brain From Outer Space. It still needs work, but it’s the first time I didn’t feel like screaming over all the loose ends. Everything ties up (if not quite neatly enough yet) and all the characters have a role to play. I feel I’m finally getting there.
Likewise, A Happening in Hell and my unnamed Jews-in-al-Andalus (9th century Spain) story are both shaping up, slowly but steadily.
I did bog down in a couple of eHows, but not as badly as when I was surging through the afternoon on them. So I think that’s a good sign I’m on the right scheduling path.
Oh, and I finished my second column for And. I’ll let you know when it’s out.
I still feel annoyingly tired today, but I suspect that’s more seasonal allergies as anything else.

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Comic books and realism

In the introduction to his first Astro City collection, comics writer Kurt Busiek said that people who describe his work (both Astro City and Marvels) as “what super-heroes would be like in the real world” are dead wrong.
As Busiek saw it, a super-heroic world wouldn’t look at all like ours. Take the Marvel or DC universes: All pantheons of gods exist (plus some totally new ones), aliens invade Earth regularly, magic works and so do Iron Man’s armor, artificial intelligence, nannites and other super-technology. Yet somehow, those universes still looks pretty much like ours.
What “realistic” comics give us (at least in the DCU and MU—though not exclusively) is usually an illusion of reality or a small, specialized piece of it. Part of Marvel’s success in the sixties was playing with the idea that being superhuman didn’t solve all your problems, make you a nice person or win you admiration. All of which is realistic, even if the MU itself is not.
Likewise, Astro City has done stories about how trials or newspaper reporting work in a world where aliens really could have replaced the president and a defense of “It was my evil parallel-world counterpart who committed the crime” actually could be true.
This is why I find comic-book discussions that begin with “In the real world of course—” to be fatally flawed. They never go all the way to the real world, they just stop where it’s convenient for the argument.
For example, I’ve heard several people say that in the real world, the only ethical thing for Batman to do would be to kill the Joker. Batman knows the Joker’s going to escape Arkham Asylum again; he knows he’ll kill more people when he does; letting the Clown Prince of Crime live puts those murders on Batman’s head!
What this overlooks is that in the real world, nobody escapes from prison as often as the Joker; Batman wouldn’t have to kill him because Joker wouldn’t be constantly adding to his body count.
Another example is that in the real world, super-powered individuals would never run around free; they’d have to undergo some sort of government registration just like Marvel used in Civil War.
Again, it’s a halfway argument. In the real world, figuring out who had to register would be a vastly more complicated challenge than just targeting the characters we on our Earth call super-heroes (I’ll have to go into why another time).
Or consider Gail Simone’s position about Batgirl regaining the use of her legs in DC’s upcoming reboot: Other super-heroes have recovered from crippling injuries (Batman had his back broken “permanently” for instance; Guy Gardner spent years in a coma) so why is she still in a wheelchair?
But if we accept that logic——that in the “real world” someone would have healed Babs by now——why stop there? The DC Universe has lots of people in wheelchairs (not to mention blind, deaf, quadriplegic, etc.) so why aren’t they healed to? Why only super-heroes? Why is “Batman got healed but not Babs” any more unrealistic than “Batman and Batgirl got healed, but nobody else?”
I can understand Simone wanting to make the best of her situation (apparently if she wanted to keep writing Babs post-reboot, it had to be this way) but as usual, the argument from realism falls short.

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Some links and a continuation of yesterday’s post

First, more economics: Here’s Al Franken on the Republican faith that tax cuts are always the answer.
Second, some discussion of the right-wing reactions to the Norwegian terrorist attack. Lawyers, Guns and Money dissects a WaPo column explaining how the obviously Islamic killing proves we need to revive missile defense programs; Roy Edroso browses the response from right wingers to the discovery al Qaeda didn’t do it.
Third, I’m now contributing blog posts to And magazine. Here’s my first, on Bobby Jindal’s claim that Louisiana’s new “you can refuse an abortion” sign law for abortion clinics is no different from reading criminals their Miranda rights.
Now, as to the continuation from yesterday’s post on the supposed threat to Christian freedom. In fairness, there is one area where their freedom is infringed on (even though I think it’s justified) in terms of business.
Quite simply, Christians do not have the legal right to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring, firing, promoting, renting property, etc. And I know several churches have complained that extending antidiscrimination ordinances to gays means they’re having to serve people in church-related businesses (leasing land for secular events, say) or that landlords object to renting to couples they believe are living in sin.
This takes away freedom, no question. Personally, I believe it’s justified, just as refusing to allow people to discriminate in business for race, creed, handicapped status, gender, etc. is justified: The cost is too dear.
Accounts of black families having to map out trips across the south based on where they’re allowed to eat, sleep or use the bathroom show how unlimited business freedom to discriminate can make freedom an illusion for the victims.
But even there, Christians are no worse off than any other religion: Muslims and Jews can’t discriminate against gays/blacks/women either.
As for the fear that churches will lose the freedom to condemn gays from the pulpit or call for anti-gay legislation, that also affects every religion (Orthodox Jews have expressed the same fear as grounds for opposing gay marriage)——and besides, there’s no sign of it happening, as I noted here. I’m honestly not sure if this is a fallback political position (once the majority of voters starts supporting gay marriage at the polls the standard will switch from “the people have spoken” to “the majority is oppressing us”) or simple transference (assuming pro-gay forces have the same enthusiasm for banning other people’s speech as the anti-gay forces do).
Either way, the struggle for Christian freedom in America still isn’t the defining issue of our time.

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The kind of throwaway remark that always annoys me

Writing in Time‘s political blog, reporter Amy Sullivan discusses the prospects for a Rick Perry presidential run and his potential to win over the religious right. In so doing, she mentions Newt Gingrich’s collapsing campaign and that he initially attracted attention from religious conservatives because “the former Speaker has made religious freedom for Christians his signature issue over the past few years.”
What bugs me is that Sullivan throws that off as if “religious freedom for Christians” describes some sort of comprehensible issue——the same way you’d describe a candidate’s issue as being “banning abortion” or “securing nuclear stockpiles.” And well, it’s not.
I’m not suggesting religious freedom for Christians isn’t important——just that it’s not some kind of separate issue from religious freedom in general. Despite the repeated claims from some conservatives that the First Amendment only protects Christians, the amendment is a flat-out guarantee of religious liberty for everyone.
(Keep in mind that the people who claim the amendment is clearly Christians——despite the total lack of any reference to Christianity in the document——are often the ones who assert that “separation of church and state” is a myth because there’s no reference to that in the First Amendment. Double standard much?).
There are no religious tests for public office.
Nobody (at least in theory) gets to make laws based on their interpretation of their holy text. Everybody is entitled to propose laws based on their interpretation of their holy text.
Nobody (again, in theory) gets to use the school system to proselytize to students. Students are, however, free to pray, say grace, proselytize to each other or read the Bible (or the Koran, or the Vedas or Tom Paine’s anti-religion The Age of Reason at recess (no matter how many times the right-wing keeps saying it, God has not been taken out of the school).
The idea Christians somehow need special protection in this country (Saudi Arabia or China, now …) is a myth. I suspect it mostly resides in the awareness that 60 years ago, “Protestant” equated to “real American.” One of the standard rationales for specifically Protestant school prayers was that by making kids more Protestants the schools were teaching them Americans.
And for the nastier Christians, it’s the fact that they can’t impose their prayers, views on abortion or their views on gays as law on the rest of us. For some, not being able to oppress is a denial of freedom.
Gingrich isn’t fighting for Christian freedom. He’s catering to Christians’ delusions that they’re an oppressed, embattled minority crushed by an atheist, anti-God state (like the Catholic bishop who equated New York legalizing gay marriage to North Korea’s dictatorship). It’s like saying Gingrich’s signature issue is to stop UFO abductions or Muslim sleeper agents infiltrating Congress and the White House.
He’s fighting a threat that exists in right-wing voters’ minds and not really anywhere else.

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Economics and other matters

Rising early this morning (not intentionally), I indulged myself by going through a long list of bookmarked web sites I’ve been meaning to get to for some time. Before I actually clear them out, here are some you might find of interest.
•The Washington Post looks at the rise in executive pay and economic inequality since the 1950s (I know I’ve linked to this before, but it’s worth doing again).
•Economist Brad deLong explains why deregulating the financial industry seemed such a great idea back in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the government’s current view is that it should ease off prosecuting financial crimes and let Wall Street police itself.
•And when overseas labor gets too expensive, there’s always convicts. Who needs slavery? The Economist touches on the for-profit prison industry here.
•On the plus side, Starbucks employees are organizing.
Other matters:
•The long-term impact of online education.
•This 2006 column on air power seems eerily prescient.
•Glenn Greenwald catches the NYT’s asserting that if the Norwegian attacks weren’t by Muslims, it isn’t really terrorism. Fred Clark discusses Herman Cain’s conviction that all Muslims are anti-American by definition.
•Osama bin Laden’s dead. And there weren’t many al Qaeda in Afghanistan to start with.
•What’s the good of giving the president legal advice?
This blog post discusses the sexism of anti-VD military campaigns from World War II.
•Pharmacies selling your prescription information is just a form of free speech!
•Isn’t this the sort of thing we went into Libya to stop? I will note that blaming this on the victims (they were Kadaffi Loyalists!) is standards.

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Like sands through the hourglass …

I never used to get the feeling that days were rushing by. These days I often do. I suspect it relates to the fact I can’t just let my mind wander now that I’m full-time freelance——fifteen minutes spend goofing off is 15 minutes of productive time denied my employer, which is to say me! Which is not to say I don’t goof off, of course…
Time felt particularly rushed this week, since we’re taking today off for some social time w/TYG’s friends. Still, it was a productive week:
•I took on another story for Raleigh Public Record. Both are now at the awkward point of waiting for people to call with information——though I’ve gotten enough stuff on the bigger story that I could reasonably complete it now if I had to (but it’ll better story once I get everything).
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished got very good reviews from the writers’ group.
•I finally feel I’m making progress on the replot of Brain From Outer Space. I’m forcing myself to stop at every point where I have a question and not going any further until it’s answered. That seems to do the trick.
•I have a rough draft for my next And column.
A Happening in Hell (working title——though as it’s set in 1968, including “happening” in the name appeals to me) is getting more of a shape and an arc to it. I feel confident it’s going to get where I want it to be.
On the downside, work took much longer this week than I expected. This may be partly my mind balking at having to get everything done in four days, and partly that I had multiple errands to run (take TYG to drop off/pick up car, get my hair cut, donate blood [only I couldn't find the blood drive site so I'll have to reschedule])——amazingly, if you spend time on non-writing things, it affects productivity. Who knew?
But even given that (and that running errands during the day always makes it hard to pick up the writing thread again) my afternoon writing seems very sluggish. I used to skip afternoons entirely because they were my creativity low-point; that hasn’t been a problem for a while, but now it seems to be. I’m debating whether I should go back to having a 90-minute lunch; scheduling lighter, less intensive work for the afternoon (hunting for markets, working on queries) or shifting an hour of work or so to evening. I shall experiment next week.
Still, it’s important to remember that despite the temptation to slack off, I did get everything I wanted done. And I’m managing the time devoted to the newspaper stories much more effectively, which bodes well for the future.
And hey, a three day weekend is always nice, right?

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Who can believe it?

In his book Hollywood History of the World, novelist George MacDonald Fraser muses at a couple of points on the possibility that accurate history doesn’t always look credible when presented as fiction. For example, one critic, confronted with Sean Connery’s Scots accent in the Western film Shalako, scoffed that Connery made the whole movie unbelievable——are we supposed to believe there were Scottish people in the Old West? (In case you missed the point, yes, there were).
Likewise, John Dickson Carr, in the author’s notes to his historical fantasy mystery, Fire, Burn, quotes a female diarist in the 1820s tossing off the phrase “tell it to the Marines” and wonders if anyone would believe a woman of that era saying that in a novel.
Which brings me to SEXUAL REVOLUTION IN EARLY AMERICA, a fascinating book by Richard Godbeer about the sex life of the American colonies from the 1600s through the late 1700s.
Godbeer brings to life a world where the rules were far from settled: Church and secular authorities demanded formal marriages, for instance, but countless citizens considered themselves entitled to marry (or divorce) without anyone giving them official permission. Rules against premarital sex clashed with popular belief that once you were engaged, it was perfectly legitimate. Sexual double standards proliferated, divided along lines of gender, class and race.
And then there’s the Puritans.
Godbeer shows that while Puritans were as hard on extramarital sexual activity as legend has it, they believed very strongly in a healthy, fun sexual relationship within marriage; one preacher dismissed Catholic reverence for chastity as the sort of thing Antichrist would say. Not just for procreation, either; one woman well past childbearing age won a divorce on the grounds that her husband wasn’t doing his duty.
If I wrote a story with that as the setting, would anyone believe it? Or some of the outrageous accounts of non-Puritans willfully flouting the church’s strictures on good behavior with public displays of private parts or sexual behavior? Or all the bestiality the farmboys seem to have participated in?
And then there’s the Jesus As Sexy Bridegroom imagery. Puritans believed gender was a function of the body, not the soul, so even men with no same-sex urges (“going after strange flesh” as it was termed) had no problems writing about how they longed for Jesus to lubricate their soul and make it swell and grow strong …
If I stuck that into a story, I can’t imagine any reaction but hysterical giggles.
I’m sure some writer could take a line that and work wonders. But whoever she is, she’s way better than me.

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Any sufficiently advanced technology—

Rereading Xombi reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s oft-quoted dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Xombi is a DC Comic featuring David Kim, a man who is transformed into an immortal, unkillable Xombi when he injects medical nanotech to save his life (magic also plays a role in his immortality). The nannites now use any material around Kim to rebuild his body when he’s damaged; as he discovers when he first recovers from death, they find human bodies (like a close friend) very easy material to exploit.
The series (recently revived——I’m hoping it survives the DC reboot) is very good (I may have more to say about it later), but what I’m focusing on now is the use of nanotech, the latest technology to be indistinguishable from magic.
Clarke was referring (or so I always assumed) to really, really advanced technology, millenia ahead of ours, but in fiction, a great many technologies over the decades have been Indistinguishable From Magic (my thanks to Bill Warren’s superb Keep Watching The Skies, which makes this point in the introduction).
In twenties horror movies (and some earlier material in the Victorian age) hormones and gland research could perform miracles. In the thirties, electrical energy, which could revive a dead corpse (Frankenstein for example). And in the fifties, of course, radiation. Warren argues persuasively that the convenience of radiation as a miracle explanation for anything had more to do with its status as some mysterious super-force than actual fears of the bomb (as witness From Hell It Came, the classically awful film in which radiation contributes to animating Tabonga, the killer tree!).
In the sixties, likewise, Spider-Man and Daredevil (and by implication, all mutants) got their powers by radiation; if David Kim had been killed back in the Silver Age, I’m sure radiation + magic would have done the trick nanotech does now.
Computers had some of the same Indistinguishable From Magic quality back in the sixties: If it was any sort of intellectual task, you could simply assert that your character’s computer was super-powerful to justify the answer. For example, Marvel’s Mad Thinker, who could predict events with computers down to the millisecond (but invariably got tripped up by unpredictable human behavior).
There’s also A. Merritt, whose fantasy novels frequently invoked SF explanations of the Indistinguishable variety: Destructive vibrations, genetic racial memories, dimensional portals, etc. Or Steve Englehart’s Long Man, which explains its magic (and takes much too long to do so) as the result of quantum physics.
The book Outside The Gates of Science points out that the same thing happens with parapsychology: When a new scientific concept comes along (quantum mechanics, string theory, chaos theory, whatever), parapsychologists tend to embrace it as the explanation for psi powers. And as it doesn’t actually solve the questions, they eventually move on to the next one.
There are more “sufficiently advanced” technologies that I can think of (subliminal advertising, for instance, which was the basis of one John Brunner novel——Squares of the City?). And it makes me wonder, of course, what amazing super-cool technological miracle will be next?

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