Saturday, January 18, 2014

5 Things You Probably Didn't Know about Ancient Rome

5. There were as many lawyers in Rome as there are today.

The most interesting thing about reading Roman history is how weirdly familiar it all feels. The Roman court system was similar to today's: you got a summons to come to court, there were bailiffs, multiple levels of courts, if a verdict didn't go your way you could file an appeal to a higher court (which ended in the Emperor instead of a Supreme Court), and there were even lawyers.

Not only were there lawyers in Rome, some of them were even what we'd call "ambulance chasers," aided by the fact the Romans were the first civilization to invent the idea of the lawsuit. Lawyers in Rome drafted wills and needed to be on hand for contracts. Since most Roman lawyers were paid by the line, most really were blathery and wordy. Even the smallest village in Roman times had a lawyer.

Interestingly, their job seems very similar to today. Roman courts had cross-examination of witnesses, hearsay was rejected, proof in writing had greater weight over eyewitness testimony, and the burden of proof was on whoever was trying to make a claim.

Being a lawyer sometimes meant being a statesman, too. A famous Roman you've probably heard of, the articulate Cicero, was a lawyer by profession.

4. The Emperor Pertinax's Guard, after murdering him, sold his throne in an auction to the highest bidder.

Ancient Roman Emperors kept their power by a simple rule: keep the armies on your side, and to hell with everybody else.

The Emperor Probus (predecessor of the famous Diocletian), for instance, to keep his Legions occupied, assigned them the sort of busywork you might expect a substitute teacher to give an badly behaving class,  and for the same reason: to shut you up and keep you out of trouble. For instance, he ordered his soldiers to plant olive trees in the Sahara Desert. Overworked and upset about these petty indignities, when Probus said the Empire might be better off with volunteers instead of professional (well-paid) soldiers, it didn't take much for his own men to chase him to an empty tower and then stab him to death. Now, if only modern unions could pull off that kind of thing these days…!

The Praetorian Guard were a tremendously powerful faction in Rome, originally created by the Emperor Augustus as his personal "secret service" bodyguards. They were designed to do what modern day club bouncers do: block doorways, glower, and intimidate. But unlike the actual secret service, the Praetorian Guard had an awful lot of power over the Emperor for the simple and basic reason that if they weren't kept happy, when his back was turned, they had a lot of knives and could stab the Emperor with them.

This actually happened when the Praetorian Guard were annoyed by the Emperor Pertinax, who the Praetorian Guard stabbed repeatedly in 198 AD. The Praetorian Guard had no leaders, and were just an unruly mob, so they decided to auction off the throne of Rome to anyone willing to pay them. 

A rich, vain old man named Didus Julianus paid the Praetorian Guard to be Emperor after being convinced of it by his Mr. Smithers-like yes-men and lackeys. Didus Julianus paid a hefty amount to every single Praetorian Guardsman to do what Mitt Romney tried and failed to do: buy his way to the highest office in the world.

He had a party to celebrate becoming Emperor, but in the harsh light of day had a brutal panic attack: he had no allies anywhere, the people didn't support him because of the slimy way Didus got into office (would you?), the army generals didn't support him (I guess he should have paid them off, too) and on hearing what happened, the Senate sentenced him to death. His last words were, "but I didn't do anything!"

3. One Emperor was a crossdresser. 

I have to stop and emphasize here that I am not making any of this up. 

Even by the standards of psychotic Roman Emperors, Elagabalus was a piece of work. Taking the throne at 14, he ruled for four years where he wore women's cosmetics including eye shadow, and tweezed his eyebrows. At night, he often went out to work as a prostitute on the streets of Rome, even catcalling passerbys.

He married a muscular blond slave who drove his chariot, Hierocles, and apparently, Elagabalus was the woman in the relationship. He used to say "I am delighted to be called the mistress, the wife, the Queen of Hierocles." 

Elagabalus offered a huge sum of money to any physician or doctor in the Empire who could take off his penis and give him a functional vagina.

And to top it all off, Elagabalus was a religious nut, too. He replaced worship of Jupiter with a Babylonian mountain god called Elagabal, which comes from Ilāh hag-Gabal, a damn weird cult centered around touching a meteorite.

2. Christianity was created by an act of "selling out."

In the beginning, in order to be a Christian, you had to be a Jew first.

Early Christianity was an odd sect of reform Judaism, allowing only Jews, requiring circumcision and obeying kosher dietary laws. When did that change? Partially it was the work of St. Paul, but the earliest, most severe break point was a gigantic act of selling out in 135 AD.

A couple years before, the last of Jewish self-rule was eliminated when the Romans, who as usual didn't mess around: they crushed the rebellion of Bar Kochba, a man who claimed he was the Messiah and even delusionally printed his own coins to that effect.

Note to future Messiahs: don't print your own coins saying the Kingdom of Heaven has come unless you're absolutely sure.

With the end of military leader Bar Kochba, the political future of Jewish identity was a sinking star you'd be crazy to hitch your wagon to, especially for an up and coming new reform sect like Christianity drifting further away every day from its roots. On the other hand, the Roman world was looking more comfortable and hospitable, at its absolute high point under first class ruler Antoninus (one of the famous "5 Good Emperors," notable for their lack of insanity).

The break point came in 135 AD. The Emperor Hadrian built a city intended to be the new financial, Roman center of conquered Palestine right on Mount Sion, the Ælina Capitolina. The one rule was this: no Jews were allowed. Stop and think about that: Jerusalem was so totally destroyed by the Romans almost nothing was left, and no Jews were allowed on the new city built where it once stood. If this sort of thing keeps happening, I'm liable to start thinking the Jews can't buy a break.

In response to this "keep out" rule, the Nazarenes, who in truth were growing more different from the Jews every day, elected Marcus as a bishop – the first gentile to be Bishop of Jerusalem, who was either Italian or Latin, and Marcus persuaded the Nazarenes to give up the Mosaic law…all to buy entrance into Hadrian's business port! By the way, the office of the Bishop of Jerusalem continues in an unbroken line in today's Orthodox Church 2000 years later.

Not everybody agreed with the election of Marcus, though – they moved and became the Ebionites, one of the most eccentric groups of Christian-Jews. But all that notwithstanding, it was easily one of the most influential acts of selling out in world history.

1. Rome was once seriously close to being beaten by a warrior-queen. 

Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, was like a character out of a cheesy fantasy novel, except she really lived. She was so cool it's hard to believe she was a real person. She used to like to hunt with her men and officers, and could ride a horse, steer a chariot, throw a spear, and shoot a bow. She was described as darkskinned and dark-haired and was "more beautiful than Cleopatra," though unlike Cleopatra she was totally devoted to her husband and didn't sleep around.

Zenobia was not only warlike but literate: she spoke fluent Latin, Greek, Aramaic, and even Ancient Egyptian, and surrounded herself with poets and philosophers.  Zenobia said she was descended from Cleopatra, a claim that's nowhere near as farfetched as it sounds, because Cleopatra's family tree (the Ptolemies) did have many eastern branches that survived.

In a detail that might just be too good to be true, it's reported she was Jewish through her mother – not only Jewish, but an early Christian back when it was hard to tell the two groups apart… a member of an obscure Eastern version of Christianity, Paulianists, who believed Jesus was born a mortal man but God later "adopted" him as His son. Even if she wasn't a Jewish Christian, Zenobia was shockingly Jew-friendly: Rabbis came to her court to speak.

Zenobia ruled Palmyra, a Greek-speaking Eastern trading center in modern Syria, big enough and rich enough and Eastern/foreign enough to be a legit contender as a rival to Rome. When the Romans were tied up with the Gauls on the other side of the world, Zenobia seized her chance and created a break-off "Palmyrene Empire," taking Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Asia Minor. As all of Rome depended on Egyptian grain, this was a pretty serious threat to the entire Roman Empire: it meant Rome started to run out of food.

Unfortunately for Zenobia, the Roman Emperor at this time wasn't run by a teenage crossdresser, but Aurelian (the city of Orleans is named after him), a no-BS, serious fighting man who kept the Roman Empire from breaking up into three. He claimed a ghost appeared and told him to handle his enemies with kid gloves, which explains why, when Zenobia was inevitably captured, she wasn't put to death but instead lived out her life in a posh Italian villa comfortably, and her descendants were major historical and political figures.

That's almost enough to make up for the fact only one movie was ever made about her, the Sign of the Gladiator, a cheesy 60s peplum uplifted by the gorgeous Anita Ekberg in the title role (and featuring Chelo Alonso in a dance number, who I wrote about here).

Monday, January 6, 2014

Why Thanos is cooler than Darkseid

Both Thanos and Darkseid are craggy faced, megalomaniac outer space bad guys who are intergalactic menaces. The two characters are compared often, and to me, it's not even a contest: Thanos, the "Mad God," is the more frightening, the more intimidating, the more fearsome, the more complex, the more intriguing, and is featured in way better stories. And it doesn't surprise me in the least Thanos would make it to the big screen ahead of Darkseid.

Sure, Darkseid came first (but not by much), but as with everything in life, it's not who does it first, but who does it right.

Thanos has a more interesting motivation and origin.

Thanos is a nihilist in love with Death herself, who wants to give her the universe. Darkseid, on the other hand, wants to solve a math problem.

Beyond that, Thanos has a far more interesting psychology at work. He's terrifying for a reason Darkseid isn't. Darkseid is an authoritarian dictator who wants control. Thanos, on the other hand, has a cold, crystalline commitment to nihilism and death terrifying to any rational being. He commits genocide because he is philosophically opposed to life: he views it as a disease in a dead universe. He kills because death is beautiful, and life isn't worth living. Thanos tears out grass because its life is hideous to him; the ground would be more beautiful dead and cold. He wants to destroy life on Earth and other planets because our world is far worse off than quiet, crystalline, barren worlds like Mars, Mercury, and the Moon. Thanos proved his commitment to this idea in a cold, personal way: he killed his own mother.

In short, Thanos is terrifying because of the way he thinks, not just because he can shoot scary eye lasers.

Thanos's origin is eerie and poetic: Death appeared to Thanos as a young man, a woman so beautiful she made other women look like horrible hags. To win her over, Thanos wants to present the Universe as a gift to her. It's like something out of Herman Hesse or Ingmar Bergmann, magical realism you're not sure if it really happened or if what we just saw was a metaphor.

There's also an element of pathos in Thanos's motivation, too: no matter what he does to honor Death, she doesn't give him the time of day. Thus far, Death has never even spoken to him. No matter how many successes he has or how many triumphs he has. Even when Thanos tried to get over Death and form his own evil Pantheon of Gods in Avengers: Celestial Quest, you could tell he hadn't gotten over her and his behavior was upping the ante overcompensation.

Thanos has a sense of humor and dry wit. 

Voltaire said, "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh." Thanos is very much the same way: one of the most amusing things about the character is how his dry humor is wasted on people terrified of him.

For instance, remember in the Avengers movie when, after being told the Avengers "court death," he gave a wry, dark smile? Is it even conceivable for Darkseid to appreciate wit or wordplay like that?

Or, remember this interaction in Dan Slott's She-Hulk?

"You're the Mad Titan. You bring death, pain, and destruction wherever you go." 
"I see my reputation precedes me."

Thanos even got off a bit of sly mockery there due to his respect for his enemy, Captain Marvel.

Oh, that reminds me of the next point:

Thanos had respect for his greatest enemies. 

Even Doctor Doom, for all his nobility, thinks of Reed Richards as a less talented clown.

Thanos, on the other hand, appeared to Captain Marvel as he was dying from cancer to actually HELP him accept the inevitable, feel no fear, and pass into another world. He even showed up in Captain Marvel's mind to fight him, simply because he felt someone like Captain Marvel, dying of cancer, deserved to go down fighting. This wasn't some evil plan of his; Thanos showed up to ease Mar-Vell into dying at peace because he wanted to help.

So great was Thanos's respect for Captain Marvel, he was horrified to see Quasar become Mar-Vell's replacement and pretender, and beat him pretty brutally for it.

Likewise, Thanos helped his other great enemy, Adam Warlock in the Infinity Watch against the power of the Magus.

Thanos actually came much closer to winning. 

Thanos is a much more effective villain because he not only obtained infinite power once, but several times. In the first Thanos War, he obtained the Cosmic Cube, and all of reality was his plaything. Not only that, but in the Infinity Gauntlet, he obtained the Infinity Gems. Among other things, he killed one out of every four life forms everywhere in the entire universe just to make a point (someone wished them back later, but what a gesture).

All this was not only in-continuity, but in some of Marvel's most important stories.

Darkseid on the other hand, only got his precious fucking math problem solved in alternate universes and possible futures. Remember Rock of Ages?

Thanos is more terrifying and intimidating.

Perhaps because Thanos has a way higher success rate (and again, an origin that doesn't involve solving an evil math problem), Marvel treats Thanos the way Doctor Who treats the Daleks: they only come out when they aren't messing around. Thanos is never used gratuitously, and certainly isn't overused, something that can be said about Darkseid.

Perhaps because Thanos has a much more lively psychology than Darkseid, it's interesting to note it's implied part of the reason Thanos lost was because of his own inner doubt; he's uncomfortable with totally winning. In short, nobody really beats Thanos except Thanos.

Thanos is always drawn dynamically. Darkseid is always sitting in a chair. 

There's a tumblr that's nothing but images of Darkseid chillaxing on a couch.

Why is that even a thing at all? I'm going to get into trouble for saying this, but it's absolutely true: Jack Kirby's art got lazier the instant he stopped working with a plotter. If you don't believe me, count the panels for yourself: the average issue of Fantastic Four had 33% more panels than the average Fourth World comic. Kirby's splash pages went from pop out action sequences, like in Fantastic Four: scenes of people just chilling in rooms.

Thanos's poses, on the other hand, suggested confidence, megalomania, and arrogance. And Thanos certainly never stands around with his hands behind his back looking bored.

In the end, this crucial difference seems to summarize the distinction between the two characters. Thanos is a dynamic character with a vivid inner life and Darkseid does the same thing over and over. As a result of lessons he learned in battle with Akhenaten in Marvel's The End, Thanos found conquest and destruction inherently futile, a realization that's been with the character ever since, for example.

When asked who is more interesting, it's no contest.

Monday, September 30, 2013

TV Review: "Agents of SHIELD"

I am very cynical about non-animated TV doing superhero comics correctly, and for a pretty good reason: it's never done superheroes correctly before.

Ever. No exceptions, no wiggle room. Every panel I've seen on superheroes on TV asks some variation on "why can't they get it right?" It's not just the limits of special effects, although limited special effects and budget do unquestionably play a role: remember George Reeves's door knocking? Rather, the problem is one of attitude. There's embarrassment of superheroes' high concept traits that reflects a kind of chickenshit, play it safe conservatism.

Arrow would be Exhibit A: a dead serious procedural where the hero doesn't wear a costume.

Agents of SHIELD is only superficially similar to Arrow, and may require me to re-evaluate the view TV doesn't get it. I had a list of reservations about this show a mile long. I was initially worried it would be a genre spy show that runs away from its comics origins. I was pleasantly surprised to see it didn't. I knew it would call back Avengers and the Marvel movies, but I didn't know it would THIS MUCH. The MacGuffin in the first act is leftover Chitauri tech from Avengers (yes, a big plot point in the series is alien superscience). Extremis from Iron Man 3 is not only referenced, it's the center of the pilot's entire third act.

Best of all, the series captures the Marvel movie tone perfectly: wiseass, rapid fire pitter patter, based around self-awareness and funny timing. It's FUN and funny – something the trailers did not successfully get across. I give it the highest praise I can think of under the circumstances: it feels like a 45 minute Marvel movie.

As for playing it safe with high concept oddities…there was a goddamn flying car.

In addition to that, the greatest strength of SHIELD is it has a leading man, Agent Coulson, an unlikely wildly popular fan favorite character entirely because of the performance of Clark Gregg, who surprisingly, is more of a writer and director than an actor. In the age of the dark TV antihero, Agent Coulson is someone you instinctively trust, who, when given an "easy" way out of a problem (shooting and killing an innocent man to prevent an explosion), refuses to take it as it'd leave a child an orphan and instead chooses a third way. When confronted with a whistleblower, Agent Coulson's reaction is to bring them in and make them a part of the organization instead of cracking down and closing ranks.

When told all secret agent G-Men do is lie and make examples out of little guys that don't fall in line, he rebukes that idea to give a guy going through hard times a second chance. In an age when we're afraid of shadowy observers, I like that, at least Agent Coulson is there to lend a hand, and not place a boot to the throat. The show realizes some people are just creeped out by secret government surveillance and has to make the good guys people with integrity to earn our respect.

Agent Coulson reminds me of Captain Picard from Star Trek: the Next Generation. A leading man of integrity who refuses to accept the only way to solve problems is violence, who's most distinctive physical feature is his hairline, who somehow manages to be bigger than life and commanding despite being of medium height, and who has a dashing, action oriented second-in-command.

The sidekick is always created to be a foil for the main hero. If the hero is sophisticated, the sidekick is more "rough and tumble." If the hero is happy-go-lucky and carefree, his ally will be rocksteady and reliable. And in the case of this show, if Coulson is a nontraditional, outside the box thinker, his second in command is a more reactionary type who trusts a lot less.

This brings to mind maybe the biggest misstep of the pilot: the central intercharacter conflict is between a female whistleblower/hacker who hates secrecy and deceit, and a way more reactionary SHIELD agent. This is a great idea, because in the wake of domestic spying scandals along with the revelations of WikiLeaks and Snowden, a show about a heroic government agency designed to keep would be, well, creepy. The moral issues there have to be acknowledged.

It reminds me of how the biggest problem with the original 70s Battlestar Galactica is the conflict between civilian and military authority, with the noble military struggling against cowardly, treacherous civilian government, like something out of Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. So a character was added in the reboot (civilian president Laura Roslin) to do this complex conflict justice.

A whistleblower functioning as group conscience would be a great conflict and topical. Unfortunately, they sabotaged and underserved this conflict by making the hacker girl a cute, ditzy fangirl into the super business because she's a groupie. Imagine if someone smart, someone made of fire and steel, was cast in the role, someone like a young Sigourney Weaver or Michelle Forbes, who'd really fight against her reactionary SHIELD male counterpart! Of all the characters to not make a "Major Kira!" They neutered the central conflict by making She-Snowden into Doris Day.

The Moonlighting dynamic is cliché, but it's cliché for a reason: it works. But Moonlighting only worked because Bruce Willis was paired up with Sibyll Shepherd.

This is surprising because Joss Whedon, like Chris Claremont, has a rep for writing badass babes and warrior women. In the case of Whedon, I'm not certain this rep is deserved. Apart from the obvious exception of Buffy, his writing is overrepresented with vulnerable, wounded, "cute" everywomen in need of a hug. If Whedon really did deserve his rep as an amazon-lover, he'd have used Storm in his X-Men run instead of Kitty Pryde, who he made his POV and main character. Claremont, on the other hand, wrote the Invisible Woman and the Wasp like Storm. In the case of Agents of SHIELD, someone wrote what should have been Storm like the Wasp.

Apart from the whistleblower vs. secrecy conflict, the other big, topical idea in Agents of SHIELD is best personified by a hard on his luck single Dad. At the end, this Dad talks about a general feeling a lot of us have since the financial collapse of 2008: for the little guy willing to work hard, America doesn't live up to its end of the deal, and little guys are screwed and stepped on by the big guys. To even get by, you have to be a giant, super…and where does that leave the rest of us?

I was very worried Agents of SHIELD chose to make the show about nonpowered agent characters to "run away" from superheroes, but this assured me that they made this show from their point of view for a reason, to make a point: the little guy's eye view of the Marvel Universe, like something out of Busiek's Marvels or Astro City.

Agents of SHIELD deserves special praise for having a pretty realistic and up to date take on nerds, too. The traditional, Peter Parker style awkward nerd in glasses is not really in style thanks to geek-chic, and the latest reboot of Spider-Man reflected that, making him more an alienated loner and less the traditional nerd. The biochemist and engineer on this series are an equally up to date take on nerds. They remind me of all the people I used to see in my science classes and still see posting minutiae about cave snails and Florida orchids on my Facebook wall: not outwardly antisocial, but with bizarre interests that bore most people, and easily excitable by little, gross arcana.

The cast's "secret weapon" might be Ming-Na Wen. Yes, the mighty Mulan herself is on this show, and why that isn't a selling point I'll never know. She's silent, intense, clearly an experienced combat vet (no little girl, the actress is over 40), a crack pilot, and she gave a breathtaking smackdown with her spy fighting skills. The implication of the pilot is, she's a character very much like Garibaldi from Babylon 5: a chequered past, this is her last chance to make good. Like Garibaldi, I'm guessing her past involves alcoholism or PTSD.

Agents of SHIELD is so very Marvel: it's got the humorous, fun tone that made the Marvel movies infinitely more watchable than DC's dead-serious efforts (I admire the Nolan movies a lot more than I like them). It certainly isn't Arrow, afraid to use its universe and running away from wild things like costumes and boxing glove arrows. Heck, remember the single-Dad superhero? He didn't have a costume, but at least he acted like one: hell, he saved one more innocent citizen than Superman did in all of Man of Steel.

In short, it's a success…maybe one of the first decent attempts to translate comics to television. And I'll be watching this week, too.

Things to Ponder: 

  • How great is it they use the term "superhero?" Most shows run away from that term.
  • Project: Pegasus apparently exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Does the Thing work there in between attempts to get his pro-wrestling career going? My Spidey-sense tells me this will be a plot point.
  • All of us True Believers caught the reference to Forbush-Man, right? If not, turn in your Merry Marvel Marching Society card!

  • Everyone caught how they slipped Journey into Mystery in dialogue, right? Before you think that's nothing special, that's one more fannish, Easter Egg reference than was in all of Man of Steel, that's for sure.
  • What gets everyone excited here are the hints there's more than there appears when it comes to Phil Coulson's mysterious resurrection. Here's a possibility a friend told me: what if Coulson is, and always has been, a SHIELD life model decoy? Explains why he seemed to be in several different places at once during the movies. 
  • This is a small nit, but couldn't they have used ONE canon SHIELD character as a regular on this show? Would it have been so hard to dig up Clay Quartermain, or Jimmy Woo, or Jasper Stiltwell, or the Contessa, or Bobbi Morse?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: E.E. Smith's Lensman Spin-Off Novel, "Masters of the Vortex"

Imagine if math whiz Nate Silver was the hero of the movie "Twister," and you've basically got the premise of E.E. Smith's Lensman spin-off novel "Masters of the Vortex."

Our nuclear engineer hero uses his math skills to ride out and destroy atomic vortexes, or swirling, constant atomic explosions that, in terms of natural disaster plausibility, only barely beat out "reverse meteors." In the pulp SF universe of the Lens, if you have a slide rule and some all-American gumption, there's no natural phenomena you can't lick!

To his unbelievable good fortune, "Storm" Cloud lives in the one science fiction setting ever where the ability to do math in your head superfast practically makes you a superhero and isn't rendered superfluous by computers: the Lensman universe, an interstellar civilization anachronistically based on vacuum tube electronics, where the writer's imagination could conceive of planet crushing superweapons and faster than light travel but not an integrating computer any smaller than several tons. Eventually, you realize when the book talks about a "master computer" it means a person.

"Storm" Cloud is not a Lensman himself, which I'm sure made E.E. Smith breathe a sigh of relief, considering how impossible it must have been to come up with challenges worthy of the most ludicrously supercompetent heroes in all of fiction. Imagine if MacGyver was a telepathic dragon and you start to get the idea.

"Storm" Cloud has a different superpower: math. For instance, he uses "statistical analysis" to predict criminal behavior and figure out the lair of drug dealers (Zwilniks), indicating that the Universe of the Lens might not have an internet, but it easily beats our world when it comes to applied sabermetrics. He also uses mathematics to take on the house at gambling: he's even able to figure out how to win when the dealer cheats and stacks the deck. Since the dealer always does it the same way, you can figure out the pattern.

When Cloud's family are killed by an atomic vortex, his character turns vaguely suicidal, and with the mania of a person with a death wish, he leaps to figure out the correct, ever changing way to make an atomic vortex go bust, figuring if he's wrong, he has nothing to lose. When he ends up figuring out the first ever way to destroy vortexes, he becomes an intergalactic celebrity and hero, and his life acquires a new purpose. Imagine if someone figures out a way to destroy hurricanes or tornadoes and you'd get the idea.

Soon, Dr. Cloud is joined by an eccentric crew of oddballs and misfits who assist him in his rocket in "Vortex Blasting," and with who Cloud discovers a new purpose. The fact our hero is recovering from the loss of his family and is depressed and borderline-suicidal is a new angle, one that gives this character an arc. After all, due to the death of his family, Cloud is a much bigger misfit than the Lensmen were.

This is also an interesting look at the much older E.E. Smith, returning to the Lensmen universe in 1960 after a pause of close to 15 years (he would tragically, die five years later). Middle aged family men are prone to two very dark fantasies: one is faking their own death successfully, and the other is having their family die in some accident, which makes them going off on some exciting new life away from them. I'm not saying they want their family to die, only that there's a longing for freedom.

Some history is in order, here: Smith wrote the short story that formed the kernel of this novel, "The Vortex Blaster," in 1941, in the magazine "Comet." The original short story from 1941, "The Vortex Blaster," is actually the opening few chapters in the novel, "Masters of the Vortex." Smith wrote a story in the Lensman universe (unlike Triplanetary, this one was always in the Universe of the Lens) as a favor to F. Orlin Tremaine, the pre-John W. Campbell editor of Astounding, an act of loyalty to help out Tremaine's new pulp mag "Comet." But since Smith was publishing the Lensman stories in Campbell's Astounding, he couldn't get a true Lensman story in "Comet," and only published a story in the Lensman universe. In 1960, Smith blew his short story up into a novel.

This makes sense. The Lensman Universe is big enough to have a thousand more stories inside of it.

That said, though Masters of the Vortex is a great new direction showing the more psychological SF of the year 1960, it's just plain GOOD to be back in the Lensman universe. I'd compare it to when Star Trek came back after years away in the new Trek movie. Hearing about Lensmen, speeders, tractors, dureum, Boskonians, Bergenholm drives, space axes (though the less superhuman and ordinary Cloud uses more of a "space-hatchet") fill you with the same charge as the familiar phasers, photon torpedoes, Klingons, and Starfleet Academy did when Trek returned.

There are even hints after all this time, Smith wants to play around and have fun with the conventions of the genre he helped create.

For instance, there's a subplot where Cloud, doing what engineer-scientists always seem to do in old space opera, comes to the rescue of an alien princess unjustly captured by a dictator, but it turns out the princess in need of rescue is not exactly in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold: she's a dome headed, elephant-legged creature. She might be called "elephant princess" and would be right at home beside the Adventure Time oddballs like Slime Princess and Hot Dog Princess.

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen: a space hero would rescue a princess who isn't exactly screwable. This kind of Princess rescue is nonetheless an important job for a wisecracking Anglo-Saxon addicted to cigarettes and alcohol who loves explaining things to others they already know.

Maybe because the Lensman books were a girl-free zone, Doc Smith overcorrects here, and the ratio of men to women in Storm Cloud's crew is like something out of a harem anime or She-Ra's planet Etheria. We see a lot of races only mentioned in dialogue in Lensman: the doctor is a mute, telepathic Manarkan with a legalistic worldview, the cook is a cute brick-pink Chickladorian, the linguist is Vesta the Vegian, a cat-girl who speaks 50 languages with a battle cry of "tails high, sisters!" and my favorite, the engineer, Tommie, a Tomingan, a race also called "squatties" for their heavy-gravity shortness and stout diesel truck builds; Tommy loses her temper and loves to smoke huge cigars.

The love story is basically an REO Speedwagon song: emotionally "damaged goods" people who learn to love again. One of the most amusing and revealing details about the time when it's written is that when it's revealed one of the female characters is over 30 and not married, the immediate question is, "what's wrong with her?"

The love interest is Dr. Joan Janowick, a 34-year old, a slightly chubby integrating computer engineer, cyberneticist, and telepath with a few streaks of gray. Dr. Janowick has a PhD in Cybernetics, and it took me a while to figure this out from context clues (just like when they say 'computer' in this story they mean a person), but in 1960 "cybernetics" didn't mean robot parts, but mathematical systems and patterns. Everyone is a mathematician in this story!

Cloud does have a power/competence gaining arc similar to the Lensmen, though, at a vastly reduced scale. At times, the Lensman novels feel like a Dungeons and Dragons game where the Game Master is way, way too liberal with the experience points and loot. Here, Cloud practices nonstop with his guns until he becomes a lightning quick draw. This is another sign of how, like Star Wars, the Lensman books were oddly Western-informed, with dive saloons and crusty meteor miners.

Some unique aspects of the Lens Galaxy were explored in this story. Language in the Lensman novels was a non-issue because of the Lens's universal translator ability. This is the first to tell us what language was like in the galaxy of the Lens, and…here's a surprise: the most widely used language in the galaxy is Galactic Spanish (or "Zpanidge," as aliens pronounce it), since the vowels are softer and it's more logical in grammar and spelling. Doesn't it just turn everything upside down when you find out everyone's been speaking Spanish all this time?

Spaceal, the universal pidgin lingua franca, is good for two things; engineering concepts and lewd swearing. It has to be experienced to be believed. It's somewhere between 60s Stan Lee teenager talk and a stroke:

"Stacked? She's stacked like Gilroy's Tower, Buster – an honest to god DISH, believe me, and raring to go. We were on one of those long weekend jaunts around the system, one of those things things were apt to get off the green at times…"

Things to Ponder:
  • Amazing Stories reference: one of the planets is named "Palmer III."
  • Thing I will never get tired of: people adding emphasis by saying "…and you can check me to ten decimals on that!" A gorgeous or unique woman is called a "real prime number." Is everything math-centered in this civilization?
  • What a relief it is none of the crowd-pleasing characters from the Lensmen books show up here. It'd feel like what it is, like when Ted Danson shows up on Frasier: "oh, hey! Nice spin-off you've got here…"
  • The Lensman universe is a deeply problematic world in one way, because you have to really write around the "call the cops" problem: any scenario that can be solved by calling the cops. Multiply that usual issue in stories by a billion if it's the LENSMEN. 
  • If there's one thing I hate, it's grammar pedants. If there's another thing I hate, it's wrong grammar pedants. Believe it or not, there are some words with multiple correct plural forms; both "octopuses" and "octopi" are correct. So are "vortexes" and "vortices." The book prefers vortices, on the grounds that it's way less clear what they're talking about that way.
  • There's one potentially very dark interpretation of the fact "Storm" Cloud, a scientist studying vortexes, had a family home that naturally attracted a vortex by its construction. Look, do I need to spell it out for you? Stormy had them killed! I can't possibly be the only one this thought ever occurred to, can I?
  • Everyone knows that the original idea behind licensed Star Wars novel villain, the Saruman-like evil Jedi Master Joruus C'Baoth, is that he was originally going to be an evil clone of Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Lucasfilm nixed that idea as going too far. Is it possible D.D. Cloudd from the David Kyle Lensman novel "Lensman from Rigel" was originally going to be "Storm" Cloud from "Masters of the Vortex" finally having a proper team up with the 2nd Stage Lensmen heroes, but the idea was nixed at the last minute for licensing reasons? The characters of D.D. Cloudd and Neil Cloud are practically identical and have the exact same character arc: they are non-Lensed civilian science experts who work closely with the Galactic Patrol who went into their research because of a death of a family member that fills them with a self-destructive deathwish, which they overcome because they find a new meaning and purpose surrounded by other misfits.