Doc Savage’s Weird Science: Resurrection Day and the Vanisher (#SFWApro)

4918593(Spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned)

“It is in my power to bring a dead man back to life,” Doc Savage informs America in RESURRECTION DAY.

It’s a one-time only deal so the normally publicity-shy Man of Bronze takes to the airwaves to solicit Americans’ views on who should be brought back. Kids ask for parents. Parents ask for kids. Napoleon and Edison are both nominated. But the winner? Doc and his advisors figure the world needs wisdom most of all, so it’s going to be Solomon (Doc’s aide Johnny recently found his mummified body).

This touches off a sensation, which Dent captures well: Solomon hot dogs, Solomon cigars, Solomon balloons, he’s a big name and out-of-copyright so the sky’s the limit. A burlesque manager offers to marry his entire lineup to Solomon, claiming the women are so hot, it’s as good as having a thousand wives!

Unfortunately the hoopla draws the attention of General Ino, a ruthless international criminal (with a quirk of faking accents) who decides to exploit it. With the help of his crooked lawyer, Shaster (with a quirk of cutting off heads) he switches Solomon’s corpse for Pey-dey-a-gen (or as Monk puts it Payday Again), a pharaoh whose buried wealth has never been uncovered, hoping to use the resurrectee to find the hoard.

Which is where the book lost a lot of its steam for me. Doc just brought an Egyptian pharaoh back from the dead; it seems a shame the rest of the book concerns something as mundane as buried treasure rather than, say, lost Egyptian super-science or something of the like. It’s still a fun adventure—Ino is a formidable adversary—but not completely satisfying. Dent does have fun, though, comparing Doc to movie resurrections of the dead (“There was always enough electricity in attendance to execute a penitentiary full of convicts.”).

Trivia points include that Doc has a way of giving instructions that makes them impossible to forget; the use of a drug that lets you stay underwater without breathing (presumably the same one used in Mystery Under the Sea); and the complete lack of any female characters, very unusual for a Lester Dent story.

6371232THE VANISHER is one of Dent’s most comic-book villains as the hunchback disguise shown on the cover (the villain is never referred to as the Vanisher, just “the hunchback”) makes him a costumed criminal with a super-scientific gimmick—teleportation. In the opening scene, the hunchback gases a guard at the state pen, then uses his tech to transport twenty prisoners out for revenge on the organization that framed them. A score of businessmen take the prisoners’ places—why yes, they do tie to the organization, how did you guess?

Dent does a good job keeping what’s really going on murky: the escapees vanish into a truck, weird music comes from inside and when the cops break in they regret it—there’s nothing but a pool of acid on a glass floor (the acid, as we learn later, has wiped out the teleporting tech). More impossible crimes follow, including the shooting of a prominent FBI agent who sounds suspiciously like J. Edgar Hoover. And once again, Doc is framed for the killings.

Ultimately it turns out the hunchback isn’t out for revenge. The organization is running a big stock swindle and rather than use his teleporter to rob banks or the like, the Vanisher is terrorizing the businessmen into cutting him on their scam (as Dent specifically identifies them as insurance executives, I wonder if this refers to some scandal of the day?).

It’s a good yarn, though as with Mystery Under the Sea, the fact the teleporter is still usable at the end (as opposed to being smashed or requiring some rare element that’s been used up) seems like a big loose end. Sure, Doc specifies it only works line-of-sight, but there’s still plenty of commercial uses for something like that. Or just for his own use, there have been stories a teleporter would have come in mighty handy.

Covers by James Bama; all rights to current holder.

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Don’t blame me if I made up stuff about history, because I’m creating art! (#SFWapro)

The critically acclaimed Selma has taken some flak for reportedly (I haven’t seen it) showing President Johnson as trying to get King to postpone the Selma protest and generally not being a civil-rights supporter (LBJ was, in fact, a big supporter). Likewise The Imitation Game (again unseen) has been criticized for making stuff up (including that Turing was targeted by spies who tried blackmailing him over his homosexuality). The screenwriter of the latter, Graham Moore, argues that fact-checking biopics for accuracy is like fact-checking Monet’s water-lilly paintings for accuracy. Truthfulness is not the issue, drama is.

This is not totally unreasonable. Realism and accuracy aren’t the sole standard for judging a work of fiction; as I discuss here, errors don’t necessarily matter if they’re minor and the movie is otherwise excellent (however entertaining the endless print and online lists of factual errors may be).

However in the specific cases, it’s more than just whether the typefaces for the era were accurate. The idea homosexuals were uniquely vulnerable to blackmail from foreign spies was a rationale for barring them from government service (the book The Lavender Scare is very informative on this), even though there was no evidence they represented more of a security threat than adulterers or drug addicts, say. So if Imitation Game implies that they were indeed a security risk, that’s a rather big error, like showing international Jewish bankers involved in a secret conspiracy.

Plus, of course, I’ve yet to see a biopic that implied it wasn’t Based on a True Story. Nobody promotes a movie about a famous person by saying “A drama vaguely related to the life of Martin Luther King” or the like. The implication that we’re seeing reality is part of the hook: announcing it’s irrelevant is little different from adapting a book, promoting the connection (You loved the book! Now see the film!) and then when fans object the book has been mangled, proclaiming “Well, I think it should be judged in its own right.” Nobody ever says that before people plunk down ticket money.

I can’t evaluate the errors in either film or whether the good outweighs the bad, as I haven’t seen them. But there are definitely times it’s reasonable to criticize a film for inaccuracy. I enjoyed A Beautiful Mind, for example, but the film-makers’ version of Nash’s delusions is made up out of whole cloth, and it’s a big part of the movie (it didn’t help that in interviews they admitted they just used Nash as a convenient real person to fit a pre-existing story of theirs on). And the structure conforms too much to Hollywood cliches about the struggling genius and his torments to get away with any talk about art.

On the other hand, I have absolutely no problems with the fact Jupiter’s Darling, starring Howard Keel as Hannibal and Esther Williams as the Roman woman he falls for (“I take this woman—or I take Rome!”) is not even remotely tied to the real history of the Punic Wars (all rights to image with current holder). There’s no hard or fast rule… but insisting it’s not an issue at all (particularly when you’re under fire for errors) ain’t gonna cut it.


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And what does this mean, I wonder? (#SFWApro)

7107948As usual, I took plenty of books with me on my trip. Being away for a week, I had full luggage because, clothes (even though I only took a few shirts, knowing it would be cooland dry enough that I could wear them twice). But I didn’t want to read ebooks, so … (and yes, Weird Heroes Six was one of them)

The surprising thing was how fast I read. It wasn’t just that I had more time, but that I found it so much easier to focus than I have in the past few months. I finished everything I’d brought, and one I’d picked up at the airport.

Part of that, I think, is that there’s much less distraction than when I’m sitting around with TYG and the puppies.

Part of it may be that on vacation, I was less inclined to get distracted. With the hit to my writing schedule, it’s hard not to feel that I should be doing extra work, or maybe playing extra with Plushie or Trixie, which makes concentrating on a book tougher.

And then I think part of it may be that since moving up here, it’s been our practice to go up to bed around 7 or 7:30 and sit and read. We don’t do that now because as the dogs get their last walk around 9, we’d have to get up, get dressed again … so we stay down in the living room. And I think I’m interpreting that as “place to Do Things” rather than “place to relax and read.”

So one of my goals for this month is to break that habit and relearn to focus on reading while I’m downstairs. And to stop worrying I should be doing something else instead (setting off a dedicated Just Read period may be necessary).

But as I’d been very annoyed by my lack of focus, learning it’s curable is quite encouraging. :)

(Cover image by Steve Hickman, all rights to current holder)

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Filed under Personal, Reading, Time management and goals

So the reason for my recent social whirl— (#SFWApro)

—is that I headed back to where I used to live for the first time in three years.

Excepting visits to family, it’s the first time I’ve ever traveled purely for the sake of hanging out with people, without being tied to an event (Mensa gatherings, for instance). I got in Sunday Feb. 22, unfortunately way later than I’d planned: there was dense fog at the airport so after a couple of passes the airplane headed over to Tallahassee. After an hour’s waiting, they carried us back and successfully landed, about 11:30 (it could have been worse, if they’d bused us back, it’d have been around 2:30 a.m.)

I crashed the first couple of nights with a friend of mine, then a hotel for three nights. TYG was supposed to join me on the third night, but we got another six inches of snow in Durham Wednesday, so no go (even if the airport was open, it would be too risky to drive there, to say nothing of getting the dogs to the boarding place). Then I spent a night over at my Dad’s in Pensacola, and crashed with a friend on Saturday. I’ll try to arrange things next time so I’m not quite so peripatetic.

I had lunch or dinner with multiple different friends, plus dropping in on a couple more. Then a friend I didn’t know was back in the area (she’d moved out of state) found out I was back and asked me out for coffee.

I’m not sure there was really a single high point but I was really happy to catch up with my old high school drama teacher Jo Yeager. So much of who I am was shaped in her classes, thanks to her and to my classmates. It was a wonderful group, and I would be a much less open, happy person without them.

Unfortunately the weather was miserable—chilly, overcast, often rainy. So I didn’t hit the beach as I’d planned. And I never made it out to Destin. I did amuse myself visiting Ft. Walton Beach’s old mall; while it’s no longer the town’s shopping center, it is surviving, apparently relying heavily on teen fashion stores I’ve never heard of.

I drank a lot of tea at Starbucks. Speaking of which, I wound up visiting Seattle’s Best Coffee at the Atlanta Airport, both coming and going. I’d remembered the chain as having good tea but they’ve apparently lost the touch: twice Starbucks’ airport price and no improvement in quality.

I became very grateful for the talking GPS on my iPhones when I visited my Dad. It’s been well over a decade since I drove to his house, the streets were traffic-clogged and getting directions made it much easier (I couldn’t possibly have kept checking a map, though I could have memorized the directions before going out). Though it felt weird as I had no idea of the big picture or how the route fit together, just “turn here” or “take this intersection in half a mile.” Like Jack Bauer taking direction from Chloe in 24, or Edison Carter with Theora in Max Headroom.

As Mum is moving back to the area I also did a few odds and ends to help set up her new room. She’ll be arriving Tuesday.

I felt almost over-socialized by the time I left, so I think that’s a sign it was a good trip. And I think it was a good thing TYG and I weren’t snowed in together for a second week. But I’m glad to be back with her and the pups.

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Still whirling

So I’ve spent the past week visiting friends back in Ft. Walton Beach where I used to live. Now I’m home in the frigid, snow-covered wasteland we call Durham. Even so, I’m glad to be back, but I’m not focused enough to post about my trip yet. So, some political links!

The FCC authorizes a couple of cities to launch their own broadband network despite state laws against it (and complaints from dissenting commissioners that this destroys capitalism!). It’s a ruling of limited effect, though, as other cities covered by the laws will have to petition the FCC for permission. Still, better than the alternative.

•The FCC has also signed off on net neutrality, though there are some questions about what the final rule will look like. Consumerist looks at the fallout.
•Morgan Stanley has settled a Justice Department investigation into whether the bank sold securities backed by unsound mortgages. A number of right-wingers have insisted that the fault lies in the federal government forcing banks to issue mortgages to poor non-white people who can’t afford to pay them off. But shit like securitizing the mortgages clearly has nothing to do with anything but banks’ yen for profit.

•Yet another right-winger mansplains how feminism is all about sex, and that’s bad. Oh, and also pathetic. Plus every woman who complains about sexism in videogames is fat.

•Privacy rights advocates call for an investigation into Samsung’s smart TVs and their voice recognition technology.

•Cereal sales are generally down, and Kellogg in particularly has lost its luster. Though I’ve seen enough companies written off, then recover, not to count Battle Creek out yet.

•Go, Denver! The article describes students walking out of school in protest of proposed new standards that would focus history classes on such topics as ““promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” (OK, the last one sounds fine). No wonder one Fox news host thinks we should have no public schools at all.

•A Nevada lawmaker explains cancer is a fungus so kill it with fungicide and flush it out of your body!

•Idaho State Rep. Christie Perry says parents should have the right to take their children to faith healers and deny them conventional medical treatment. And if it’s a choice of conventional treatment or death, well, everyone dies eventually so what does it matter? And forcing parents to save their kids is an attack on Christianity. Unless they’re fetuses, apparently, because Perry is also pro-life, er at least that’s how she defines herself. If I were cynical I’d suggest it’s less any standard related to life and more to “what do right-wing Christians think parents should be allowed to do.”

•Meanwhile, Wisconsin state senator Glenn Grothman wants a bill that identifies unmarried parenthood as a cause of child abuse.

•So if a job applicant wears a hijab or a turban (for example) but doesn’t specify it’s for religious reasons, can the company reject them for violating the dress code? The Supreme Court discusses.

•Slacktivist once again discusses the problem of assuming that hardliners in a religion represent the purest, truest manifestation of the faith (links to early discussions in the post).

•Chicago police have maintained a black site where they can interrogate prisoners without reporting the arrest, notifying anyone or letting the prisoner contact a lawyer.

•Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker asserts that as he can stare down protesters opposed to his policies, he’d be the kind of commander-in-chief who could take down ISIS.

•The NCAA’s no-compensation rules for college athletes impose a burden other students don’t have (a music student can sell records or perform for pay, forinstance).

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Filed under Politics, Undead sexist cliches

The social whirl is currently crazy (#SFWApro)

Which is why I haven’t posted since Wednesday. But I’m taking a moment to pair up these three linked topics about what we read and what we should read.

First, KT Bradford has a reading challenge: for the next year, stop reading fiction by straight white men and look for books by other authors (she offers some suggestions). While some of the articles I’ve seen in response focus on the call for diversity, or treat it as an eat-your-spinach-it’s-good-for-you move, Bradford is quite clear this is about entertainment: she’d been increasingly dissatisfied with the stories she was reading and thought the switch to a non SWM perspective might be more satisfying (she says it was). And while I’m not taking up the challenge, there’s no question a year of NK Jemisin, Naomi Novik and older writers such as Brackett and Norton would certainly be entertaining.

John Scalzi discusses the challenge and says no, he’s not worried that a dearth of people reading straight white men will destroy his career. Foz Meadows vents about a critical column that argues it’s just not possible to figure out if an author’s gay and maybe not whether they’re non-white, so what’s the point? This would have made sense to me 40 years ago—as a teen reader I had no idea Samuel Delaney was a gay black man—but in the age of the Internet it’s not that hard.

Moving to topic two, we have Ruth Graham at Salon (not a direct link, I’m not giving her the clicks) who wrings her hands over adults reading YA, and doing so without even a little bit of embarrassment. Because dammit, it’s not literary, like the stuff they should be reading, for their own good (Graham does come off a bit eat-your-spinach in all this): ” if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.” The real issue being that YA has satisfying endings, whether tragic or happy; good literature has has ambiguous endings and complexity and unsettles you.

As iO9 points out, there’s no particular reason to stigmatize YA over this: lots of adult fiction has neat, tidy endings and isn’t that complex. Graham’s sneering at it much the way Lynn Shepherd dismisses JK Rowling’s work and tut-tuts that adults aren’t reading grown-up adult books instead. It’s the kind of genre shaming (though iO9 points out “Young adult” isn’t a genre as much as a marketing category) fantasy and SF fans are used to, romance fans too.

It also strikes me that Graham offers no proof for her underlying assumption, that the seductiveness of Y/A is luring adults away from Good Books. Some of the fans may be people who wouldn’t otherwise read anything. Or would be reading adult romance novels, fantasy novels, etc. The odds are many of the readers wouldn’t be turning to the Deep Thoughts Graham loves anyway—most people opt for the more entertaining side of fiction (based purely on subjective observance, I don’t have hard stats either). Or (gasp!) it could be they read East of Eden and Chaucer, then pick up Hunger Games. Why not?

And for number three, my new And column, on the conservative meme that the success of Fifty Shades of Grey proves feminism is dead


Filed under Reading

Elementary, my Lord Darcy (#SFWApro)

As a Christmas gift to myself, I bought the complete collection of Randall Garrett’s LORD DARCY fantasy detective stories. I had the original three books of the series, but this includes a short story Garrett wrote for an anthology several years later, so why not go completist?

The stories are set in an alternate history in which Richard the Lion-Hearted survived the Crusades and returned home sober and more mature, to become a great king. A bigger turning point is that a couple of hundred years after the divergence, a scholar figured out the underlying principles of magic. By the 20th century, the Anglo-French Empire has endured for centuries, as has the Catholic Church (no Henry VIII disestablishing the church in this timeline). Technology stopped at the Victorian level (gas lights, trains) but magic has replaced it. Magic provides healing (in one story, a character speaks disparagingly of folk remedies based on moldy bread or foxglove—i.e., penicillin and digitalis) and also forensic science. By the laws of contagion (two connected objects are never truly separate) a trained mage can make a bullet return to the gun that fired it, or confirm the blood on a blunt instrument is actually tied to the murder victim.

880461I’ve never seen anyone convey the sense of magic-as-science so well, while keeping the magic resolutely magical. It’s not a world where magic works for everyone, as technology does (a big difference between the two); it’s a talent only some can practice, and it takes training to wield well. One of the characters compares to having a natural talent for music. Yet at the same time, it is presented as something reliable and efficient, albeit in different directions. We may have lost out on electric lighting but magical healers can promise most people a century of life.

Garrett implies in one story that magic is what keeps the empire and the church strong: sensitivity to evil allows the authorities to purge themselves of the corrupt, the cruel and practitioners of black magic. I don’t entirely buy this (I think revolution and religious schism would be probable in any timeline) but I’ll concede the point (the real reason, I suspect, is that as a devout Catholic, Garrett just liked giving the church a big role). Overall, Garrett’s worldbuilding is the strongest part of the book for me (as witness it’s what I’ve discussed first).

The stories themselves are primarily classic mystery puzzlers (question stories, as I put it here), with magic added. Lord Darcy, a royal investigator, and his Irish sidekick Sean look into murders (espionage cases as well) using their respective abilities of deductive brilliance and forensic magic. Characterization is thin, but usually adequate, and the mysteries are well-executed. The rules of magic are tightly designed enough that they don’t provide an easy out for either the killer or the detectives.

One weakness the tales have is the heavy exposition. Sean, you see, likes to lecture about his craft, which is Garrett’s excuse for providing info-dumps. It doesn’t bother me as much as usualy because the information is interesting, but it does feel forced.

A bigger problem is Garrett’s women. In most of the stories, they’re ciphers, witnesses or suspects with zero character. Admittedly these are minor roles but a lot of mystery writers managed to give the bit players some personality. A few stories are all-male. We get a couple of adequate female roles in the novel Too Many Magicians, but overall it’s glaring how male-dominated the series is.

Despite the flaws, I’m quite happy to have the book on my shelves.

(Cover image rights belong to current holder)


Filed under Reading