Thursday, December 31, 2009

Where there's a whip, there's a way

I've been rereading "Lord of the Rings" over the past week or so, and something occurred to me that I don't think anybody else has ever talked about. I had just finished the chapter at the beginning of "The Two Towers" were Merry and Pippin were taken prisoner by the mixed band of Isengard and Mordor Orcs.

To me at least, the Orcs are easily the most likeable race on Middle-Earth. Their dialogue is snappy, punchy and to the point, and they have a lot of humor. When the Orcs complain about having to move through sunlight, their leader urges them with, "oh, don't worry, you'll move fast enough with me behind you." There's another sequence where one of them asks if they should stop to rest while in the territory of the Riders of Rohan, and one of them says, "Oh, of course! Then let's invite those cursed horse-boys to a picnic afterward, while we're at it?"

After all the rhymed poetry and poncy speeches...someone actually used sarcasm in "Lord of the Rings!" It was such a breath of fresh air. Maybe the reason I respond so well to the Orcs is because they sound so American. It's interesting how in Hollywood, an English accent adds to your villainy, whereas Brits make their evil forces sound and talk like Yanks.

Anyway, it's hard not to find amusing a song like "Where there's a whip, there's a way."

The Orcs are tough, skinny and capable of sudden, stabby violence for very little reason. They remind me a little of the Nazi villains from "Inglorious Basterds," who were werewolves in human form.

Incidentally, speaking of Rohan, you know who Peter Jackson originally wanted for Eowyn? Allison Doody, best known as the Nazi double-agent from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If you were to ask me what her nationality is, the list would be very, very, very long before it gets anywhere near Irish.

I don't know the circumstances, but shoot...if you look like that, and you can't get a part as a Scandinavian warrior princess, it's time to give up acting forever.

The one and only thing that I think Peter Jackson's otherwise extraordinary film version did wrong was that it explicitly made a character as grandiose and terrible as Saruman a mere puppet of Sauron. Saruman and Isengard was more like a very dangerous third factor at play, a second deadly enemy that wanted the power of the Ring for himself, who, perhaps because the characters actually interacted with him, was actually a more dangerous and interesting figure than even the otherwise dull Big Bad Sauron himself. Saruman was the closest these movies got to a "Doctor Doom."

As a consequence, some scenes just don't make sense. For instance, in the book version of Fellowship, when Saruman offers to use the One Ring together with Gandalf, that "together we can be the Lords of the Ring," Gandalf rebuffs him by saying "there can be only one Lord of the Rings, and he would not share power" (referring to the innate evil, jealousy and corruption of the Ring that makes it impossible for more than one to possess it).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Steve Gerber Loves Cubans

The only time most North Americans think about Cubans or Cuban Americans is if they like cigars or baseball, so it's something of a rarity to see Miami or Cuban culture portrayed in the broader culture...usually by Miami novelists like Dave Barry (who has a Cuban wife) or Carl Hiaasen. Hiaasen must look so weird and surrealistic to people from other parts of the country, but yes, Miami really is like that. I think that may be why film versions of Hiaasen's stuff are such creative disasters, notably Striptease.

I am constantly surprised by Dave Barry's national popularity, especially since his humor is of such a local character that I have trouble understanding why other people "get it."

It's even more fascinating to see Miami and Cuban-Americans in adventure comics. The one and only exception is Steve Gerber, who if his work is anything to go by, is as interested in Cuban culture as much as Englehart was interested in Native American stuff.

Steve Gerber created El Gato, the mind-control villain of Omega the Unknown #4-5, as a brujo of Santeria - explicitly stated in those very terms. Gerber didn't exactly do his homework on Santeria: for instance, brujo is a term most Santeria practicioners consider denigrating, though it may be possible El Gato called himself that out of self-conscious irony. Likewise, animal totemism is as out of place in Santeria as Norse runes are. Black cats are traditionally used for sacrifice to the Orishas, though, which is why a lot of civic ordinances in (where else?) Hialeah had to be removed to make it possible. Jesus Christ, only in Hialeah.

It's worth noting that this is light-years ahead of how embarassingly Hollywood Gerber portrayed Voodoo in Tales of the Zombie.

When Gerber, arguably adventure comics's greatest writer alongside Englehart, died painfully and senselessly last year, no one mentioned that Gerber created superhero comics's first and to date only mainstream Cuban-American superhero, Poison, in Web of Spider Man Annual #4.

Poison was one of those supernatural horror characters Gerber loved to write, ever since his time on Man-Thing. If the two Steves had a weakness, it was their embarassing fascination with the supernatural, something more obvious with Englehart than Gerber. Stainless was fascinated by acid, astrology, and Native Americans to the point it verged on sheer Cherhonkeeism.

To Gerber's credit, Poison made a superpower as traditional as flying seem new: she didn't soar or swoop but instead eerily levitated while standing up, Exorcist-style.

Poison's origin was that she was in the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, immortalized by Brian de Palma's Scarface. Amusingly, she was rescued at sea when her boat sank in a way that was creepily reminiscent of the weird folklore that later came up around Elian Gonzalez, who was saved by either the Orisha Yemaya-Olokun, or dolphins, or both.

She is also one of the few single mother heroines I can think of, the other being the title hero's girlfriend in Star-Brand. I was always amused that this bit of male chauvanism was never pointed out by the always-wrong "grrrrls" at Women in Refrigerators, the absence of single mothers. Ask any guy you like: the one great unjust prejudice in the dating world isn't against age or weight but against women that already have kids.

Poison showed up in a Web of Spider-Man annual set in Miami, during the eighties, the cocaine cowboy days when this sleazy, corrupt, decadent and compelling town brought in a trillion dollars of drug money...yes, you read that right, a trillion, not a typo. The villain of the piece was a grotesque Miami druglord called the Slug, who was so fat that he executed people by choking them in the folds of his body.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Female of the Species is Worse Than the Male

When it comes to science fiction fans, the female of the species is far more irritating than the male, and the website Fandom Secrets proves it.

Visit it here. Work-unsafe and sanity-unsafe.

From the sexual fixation with Doctor Who and Heath Ledger's Joker, the worst element has to be the hot man-on-man action. Not because gay stuff is icky, but because of the irritating insistence on out of character pairings.

As weird as fanboys can be sometimes, at least most will admit to wanting a good old fashoined shag with Jessica Rabbit or Talia from Batman comics. Fangirls, though? They're often too hypocritical to admit sexual desire. The way they idealize their objects of affection to a crazy degree gets under my skin. I had the experience of meeting one girl that insisted that "Jason Behr from Roswell doesn't smoke!" (He does.)

If you've ever been a guy that wanted a girl that could talk with you about Dungeons and Dragons, Tron, or the collected works of L. Sprague de Camp, this sort of website will sharply disabuse you of that notion forever. "Fandom Secrets" performs the valid public service of scaring men straight into (once again) dating shallow, bosomy blondes that like John Hughes movies.

I will admit, there is one that actually did catch my eye as being quite wonderful and charming:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Science Fiction Roundup: Eando Binder's Adam Link Stories

Asimov has the bad luck of two works that have titles similar to others: John W. Campbell wrote his story "Nightfall" years before Asimov, and the title for Asimov's anthology of robot stories was chosen by a publisher in 1950, unaware that a work had already been written with that title back in 1939 by the Binder brothers, Earl and Otto. The name they used together was the essence of compromise: a solution that leaves no one happy that results in an extremely fake-sounding name.

"I. ROBOT" is an illustration of two things:

1) Yes, there were differences between the "scientifiction" pulps, which were not all a giant undifferentiated mass of robots and rayguns as people unaware of science fiction seem to think;

2) In every brother writing team, there was always one with the disproportionate part of the talent, that carried their collaborations.

The three short stories that make up the I, ROBOT collections were written just before the 1939 cutoff point of the collaboration between the brothers, where Otto took over writing full time and Earl became his literary agent.

The story is extraordinary for its time as it has a robot as a main character as opposed to just a monster or wisecracking sidekick.The titular character Adam Link is a robot built by a scientist and like van Vogt's Slan, the theme of the stories is prejudice. Adam Link terrifies his creator's housekeeper the instant she got sight of him, and after his creator is killed by accident by a falling object, she assumes Adam Link is responsible. Adam flees for his life, a murder rap on his head and armed gunmen on his trail. When they see the "monster," they shoot to kill. They murder Dr. Link's dog, which provokes Adam and makes him use his great strength. Adam starts to discover the hysterical prejudice against him when he finds the scientist's copy of Frankenstein, which was hidden away from him.

Of course, it doesn't end there: Adam gets his day in court, naturally, where in shades of Data in "Measure of a Man," argues for his sentience and status as a living being. (This short story, "The Trial of Adam Link" was incidentally, modified to be an episode of the Outer Limits.)

Like the Slans or perhaps the X-Men, Adam Link is strange but special, an angry, misunderstood outsider. What I think is especially interesting about the Adam Link stories was that Adam Link was in fact, very frightening. Every time the story makes you get on Adam Link's side and tut-tut the people in Binder's stories for being hysterically afraid of a robot, Adam Link does something shockingly savage and with incredible strength that shows just how frightening a machine with his physical power would be. There is nothing similar in the Binder brothers' stories to the Three Laws of Robotics, and Adam Link is capable of murder, something he debated many times to preserve his liberty. In short, even though you were on Adam's side you were never really comfortable around him.

It's easy to blame Otto Binder becoming the sole writer for the subsequent post-1940 decline of the Adam Link stories...and I will! Just take a look at these b-movie titles:

Adam Link, Champion Athlete
Adam Link, Robot Detective
Adam Link Saves the World

...and it just gets worse from there. I never thought I'd get nostalgic for Breastica, Amazon from the Naked Future.

The younger Binder brother, Otto, when working alone, gave Adam Link a wife and family. Adam's wife's name was - and prepare to be totally blindsided here - Eve. The absolute worst was Adam Link Goes to War, which features Adam against the Sirius Confederation. It's a commonality of writers hacking out material that they turn what ought to be a great premise into a dull one. Just like ERB turned the unbelievably cool-sounding Tarzan and the Leopard Men into a stale story involving the antics of a funny monkey mistaken for a god, Adam Link Goes to War was a concept that was unfuckupable: just have Adam Link flip tanks over, baby! And what's more, there's some juicy potential inner conflict there with Adam as well: Adam is a pacifist, but are there circumstances where it is moral to wage war and take life?

The defining angst and alienation of Adam Link was replaced by goofy gimmickry, robot kids, and a robot dog (which makes as much sense as it sounds like it does), and it's no coincidence that this creaky, sitcom means of creating "zany" plots ("Who ever heard of a robot playing soccer?" Oh, Otto, you nut, you) began as soon as Earl left to become Otto's literary agent, which is like George Harrison and John Lennon leaving the Beatles to design the band's posters. Incidentally, Otto Binder would, two decades later, export this hideous model of a superhero family over to Superman and ruin him for an entire generation, before Julie Schwartz came on and his stable of competent writers treated the humiliating Weisenger Era as an aberrant hallucination.

The first work I ever read by Binder were several fill-in stories during the exemplary Jim Shooter and Curt Swan run on Adventure Comics. More than anything else, the younger Binder brother struck me as...well, sad. The contrast could not have been greater between Jim Shooter's rebellious, characterization-centered stories with huge stakes and the often trivial, irrelevant stories Binder told. The shocking part is that Binder was just doing what he always was doing - there's little difference between "The Eight Legged Legionnaire" and the stuff he did in the forties, when he had a top-selling comic. It was comics that changed, not Binder.

God, must it have been tough to have been utterly overshadowed by a fourteen year old kid like Jim Shooter! For this reason any feeling I have toward Otto's lesser Adam Link stories are tempered by pity and sympathy: Otto Binder was, towards the end, a sad old man that time passed by.

As easy as it is to blame Otto Binder for the terribleness of the later Adam Link stories, it has to be remembered he had an editor to satisfy who may partially bear the blame for them.

Amazing Stories, where all the Adam Link pulps were published, was the first scientifiction pulp magazine, created by Hugo Gernsback all the way back in 1926. However, by 1938 it had been bought by the Ziff Davis publishing company, who put Raymond Palmer, a diminutive hunchback, in the editor's chair.

Whereas John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction explored the human stories behind science and ushered in one of its peak periods, for the majority of SF's "golden age," Amazing Stories was downright peripheral, a holdover from a time when science fiction was about "sex and shooting," with lurid, naked covers. Few of the stories originally in Amazing Stories are reprinted today.

It's often forgotten, but Space Opera was originally a derogatory label, meant to distinguish the Campbell type science fiction from the Palmer type.

It was in this magazine that the Adam Link stories were originally published. So maybe it's editorial tinkering that led to the shark-jump.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Piltdown Man

A while back, I said that the magical view of the process of reason and investigation in Sherlock Holmes stories, were intimately connected to Sir Arthur’s own personal irrationality and incredulity, which led him to be suckered by one spiritualist after another.

Perhaps it comes from growing up in the photoshop generation, but I find it hard to believe anyone was ever convinced by something as silly as the Fairy pictures.

But if a few scientists and historians are right, Sir Arthur’s crimes against rationality may go a lot deeper than even I suspected. There is a hypothesis that Sir Arthur played a role in, and perhaps even masterminded one of the greatest scientific frauds in history!

The case of Piltdown Man is a great example of the self-correcting nature of science, in that a cunning fraud was eventually exposed. It’s also comforting proof that even experts can be bamboozled by a con-game. The reason Piltdown Man was as successful as it was, was because it gave paleoanthropologists exactly what they wanted (a humanlike skull with an apelike lower face) so they were all the more likely to fall for it because they wanted it to be true. Boule, for instance, theorized that a large braincase came before the loss of apelike dentition and jaws, so Piltdown Man met expectations perfectly.

In short, “Piltdown Man” was a skull of a prehuman discovered in 1916 at the Piltdown quarry that pushed a lot of smug self-congratulatory buttons because of the idea that the missing link might have been English (take that, France!). The fossil was everything scientists expected and then some: a human brain and noble brow with an apelike jaw. As the picture of human evolutionary history became more complete with the 1924 discovery of Australiopithecus Afarensis by Raymond Dart and more fragments of “Java Man” (Homo erectus) were found, Piltdown Man was pushed to one side, ignored, and thought by most reputable scientists to be a forgery after only a few years of its discovery. Eventually, Potassium-Argon dating resolved the matter for good and found that Piltdown was the skull of a normal human with the altered, filed jaw of an Orangutan, both of which were only a few decades old.

Boy, it must really have stuck in the English’s craw during those heady nationalist days: all the prehuman fossil remains were found in places like France, the Pyrenees, Austria, and Germany.

It also helped to sell the hoax that, at least in the 1920s, the picture of human evolution was woefully incomplete. As Creationists (another group of professional bullshit peddlers) would later discover, the secret to selling your weak scam is to lunge on an area that science knows very little about and make outrageous claims about it, like the idea the Cambrian fossil explosion was miraculous and happened overnight. Likewise, Piltdown Man is another example of two other all-too-familiar bane to science: a sensationalist-seeking and scientifically illiterate press that overhypes and misrepresents a discovery, which results in an end-run around the traditional system of peer review.

A few scientists (like a John Winslow article in Science magazine) have floated the hypothesis that Sir Arthur played a role in the Piltdown Man fraud. He certainly had a motive: he was extremely bitter about science debunking his favorite psychic, and he often railed about how the scientific establishment didn’t know as much as they think they did, and pretty soon someone would show them up.

It helps that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the next door neighbor of Charles Dawson, the discoverer of Piltdown Man. And the very year that Piltdown Man was discovered, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World, which contains a scene of scientists leaving a prank faked fossil for others to find. What’s more, Doyle was one of the few people in Britain that could have obtained a 500-600 year old Orangutan jawbone, and a few months prior to the discovery, Doyle’s personal museum had received an extensive gift of fossils from Malaysia.

Personally, I always found the idea Doyle pulled Piltdown Man to be an interesting idea, but the thought that anyone other than Charles Dawson did it was something of a stretch. It's hard to imagine even a single other suspect. In real life, as opposed to Sherlock Holmes stories, the person that did it is usually the MOST likely to have done so in almost all cases.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Star Trek: A Second Look

It occurs to me that the praise I heaped on the most recent Star Trek film was a little lavish, and that was due to my enthusiasm and excitement at seeing Star Trek on the big screen again. Likewise, I tend to like almost every movie the first time I see it. Like little kids, I’m just so darn thrilled to be at the movies that I like everything the first time I see it.

Because it was Star Trek, and because it was J.J. Abrams, who did incredible work with Lost and Cloverfield, I am a little embarrassed to say that, prior to ever seeing the film, I wanted to like it. At some level, I had an emotional investment in liking the film.

Now that the hoopla and excitement surrounding the film has gone away, and it seems Star Trek is back and here to stay, my personal enthusiasm has dimmed and I can look at the film a lot more objectively. First, let me be as clear as possible: the Star Trek movie wasn’t bad at all. It wasn’t a terrible film outright the way, say, Star Trek V was. I would not, however, call Star Trek one of the best of the Trek movies, and I’d put it in the same category as the “middle” Star Trek movies, like Star Trek III.

Incidentally, this is pretty similar to my reaction on seeing The Incredibles for the first time. I went into the theater wanting to like it. In fact, a few months after the movie came out, there was a list I wrote of all-time great superhero movies, and I very comfortably posted The Incredibles at the top of that list. Nowadays, of course, I’m a lot harder on the Incredibles and the flaws of that film are apparent to me. For example, I don’t find the main character, Mr. Incredible sympathetic because almost all of his problems are his own fault, of his own making. Consequently, moments based around sympathy for the character ring very, very hollow, like when Mr. Incredible believes his family was destroyed on a plane. And who’s fault was that, you ass? You lied to them for months and placed them in a lethal situation for a reason as selfish and childish as the desire to continue playing “Cowboys and Indians.”

As for Star Trek, there were some flaws, some of which were very, very large.

The biggest is the lack of an internal conflict. I remember when I saw Star Trek: First Contact, and as enjoyable a film as that was at times, it didn’t feel like a Next Generation film. The sight of Data and Picard packing giant laser rifles to blast Borg felt very wrong and out of character. All that movie needed to feel more wrong would be Picard strutting away in slow motion from an explosion. First Contact was all external and the internal conflict was something of an afterthought.

Regrettably, the newest film is very much like that. Watching Star Trek again, I realized I kept on waiting and waiting to learn what this movie was really about. A villain shows up and blows up planets and the crew must stop them. Is that it? Really?

The most troubling manifestation of this bigger problem, the lack of an inner conflict or character development, is shown with Captain Kirk. Kirk is the exact same character at the beginning of the film as he is at the end. He doesn’t grow, change or assume responsibility. When I first saw the film, the scene with Kirk stealing a car made him look like a rebel and a thrillseeker. I thought the reason this scene was included was because later on in the film we would see Kirk change into the person of responsibility that we know him to be. But alas, the movie didn’t go there.

The movie’s emphasis on action resulted in gratuitous scenes that just made no sense. For instance, the scene where they had to parachute to the mining drill. I understand the drill jams transporters, but why attack it with an away team at all? Couldn’t the Enterprise have just blasted the drill, as it ultimately ended up doing in the film’s last act?

Also, watching the Kobiyashi Maru was not as interesting as hearing about it. You never got the feeling this was a matter of pride for Kirk. In fact, he was just eating an apple casually.

The biggest, most major flaw was the villain, Nero. When I heard about him, I thought it was an exciting idea. Usually when we encounter Romulan villains, as in TNG, they are members of the secret police or military (the distinction between the two is vague, which tells you something about the Romulans right there) and Romulan stories tend to be games of chess, with move and countermove against a subtle, cryptic enemy that very seldom show their face (as seen in the three definitive Romulan episodes, “The Mind’s Eye,” “The Enemy,” and “The Defector”). The idea of a “working class” Romulan is just something we’ve never seen before.

But Nero’s motives are unclear and confusing. He destroys Vulcan and tries to destroy Earth for no good reason that I can detect. The destruction of Romulus was an accident, and Spock was trying to HELP the Romulans, so I don’t understand the bitterness toward the Federation, who weren’t even involved. The idea of Nero just waiting around for 25 years for Spock to show up from the time hole doesn’t ring true to me either. For one thing, what reason would they even have to think that Spock survived?

My mentor, novelist John Dufresne, often urged me to improve with this criticism: “Son, where’s the characterization? Is it out the window? Where? Cause it sure ain’t here!” I ask that of Nero. Where’s the characterization? Is it in the window? As I said, his motives don’t make any sense and he’s such a flimsy character.

(And this is such a minor fan complaint, but if Nero had a mining ship, why is it there were no Remans, the master miners of the Romulan Empire, on board? In fact, after seeing the deliberately dark interiors, I expected to see at least one or two.)

Finally, Simon Pegg’s Scotty got on my nerves. The standout member of the cast was Karl Urban as McCoy, who was just about perfect. But Simon Pegg’s Scotty was so different from the original, so obviously “movie comic relief” that he felt like a totally different character. Uhura was given a meatier role, but at least she was still recognizably Uhura.

I don’t like to go after techie scientific errors, but this one is a such a biggie I can’t wrap my head around it: Red Matter. I don’t understand how it works. Sometimes it destroys planets, but other times it creates portals to allow time travel, and it’s not clear when it does one, or when it does the other.

All in all, I hope this article, together with my previous one, give a more balanced view of a movie that was overall, not bad. It could have been a heck of a lot better, and hopefully all the errors that I have with this film will be fixed in the inevitable sequel.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Toffee is her name...

"Toffee was enough to make any man dizzy--without seeing her through X-ray eyes!"

A dull ad exec's literal "dream girl" who emerged from his subconscious full-grown and sprang to life, the various sexy and comedic Toffee short stories published in the sf pulp IMAGINATIVE TALES got the cover far more often than the works by writers like Ed Hamilton and even the Grandmaster himself, Robert Anton Heinlein.

More often, the Toffee stories were a type of "spicy" comedy, with clever rapid-fire dialogue and a type of ribald, daring humor. Surprisingly, they hold up well even today and still crackle with a breezy kind of sexy, playful fun. The wit of the Toffee stories is a credit to the diversity of the material published in science fiction mags. Read the complete collection of all eleven Toffee stories here on Google Books.

For FREE. Sure, you have to tolerate the occasional missing page, but man, I am really loving this Google Books service. Now dozens of full texts chock full of discredited 19th Century Hollow Earth theories are lovingly available to the approximately three people that will read them, of whom I am one. You know, I remember out of sheer boredom I wrote my name, full address (at the time) and dozens on dozens of analytical notes all over a "Lost Race" text, a 1978 reprint of a 1904 book called "Cast Away At the Pole." Periodically when visiting my library I go to see if anyone's written "back" in the book. So far, no dice.

The Toffee stories are worth reading for the main character, one of the more interesting science fiction women until the coming of Schmitz's Telzey Amberdon and Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars. Toffee was a brassy, wild, fun redhead, that lives life with gusto with an extroverted personality, playfully exhibitionistic, flirtatious with nearly every male she meets, but also incredibly vain and adores being the center of attention. She had a sweet disposition, until she was provoked and a scrappy temper emerges. She was willful, defiant and thoroughly endearing.

Best of all, Toffee was unpredictable. It was impossible to guess what wild thing she would do next. More than anyone else, she reminds me of "It Girl" Clara Bow. Still pictures never did justice to her energy and boldness, how she would just do things like jump on top of her boss's desk and lay herself out against it in the middle of an office scene, and it was obvious her behavior was just as much of a surprise to the other actors as it was to the audience.

Toffee came from the subconscious of the world's most uptight man, and seemed to live for getting him into trouble. She was living, walking trouble, and seemed custom-made to boldly upset conventions in what always seemed like an era as stiff, conformist and uptight as the main character. Toffee appears when needed and disappears only when her purpose is accomplished, which often ends with the main character going to prison or various patience-trying comical misunderstandings.

Toffee was (and I hate to use this term), feisty. When a nurse gets a little grabby, she actually bites him.

"You bit me!" The Intern wailed. "You bet I did! And next time you come groping around where I'm dressing with those great hammy paws of yours, I'll gnaw 'em off clear to the elbows!"
This was, naturally, after Toffee did one of her favorite activities, changing clothes in a public space. When Toffee got stares and was told she was indecent, she laughed and said, "Yes, I know!"

More than anything, the Toffee stories, like the television series Mad Men, features the go-go world of the fifties, back when Americans still had balls. Every office had a fully stocked bar and sexual harassment was rampant.This was the era of grotesque sloth like the three-martini lunch. The Toffee stories just took it for granted that a boss ought to have an affair with his attractive female secretary. In general, reading these office-humor centered stories feels often like visiting another planet. A cooler planet.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A.E. van Vogt's Slan

What's incredible about van Vogt's Slan is that unlike almost every single other work written during science fiction's golden age, it is still read (and cared about) today and periodically discovered by new fans. Take for instance Slan's page on Television Tropes and Idioms, or the fact that the basic plot of Slan was borrowed by the recent film, Ultraviolet with Mila Jovovich. In fact, while watching Ultraviolet, friends were astonished that I could make predictions about the events of the story. How did I know? "Well, that's what Slan did."

What's even more sensational is the fan-support that exists online. Check out the near encyclopedia-complete guide, "Slanology," available online from an eager-beaver fan who put an impressive amount of work into it, including detailed analysis of the Slan world, history and technology.

Part of the reason Slan is still read today is that it isn't about any of the other silly themes of the Golden Age. It isn't about a monster of some kind, like Theodore Sturgeon's Killdozer! It isn't about a Heinlein or DC Comics style cigar-chomping badass father figure that solves his problems with a dubious engineering concept.

Slan is a story about prejudice. In the distant future, Slans emerge, a race of humans with tendrils on the foreheads with greater intelligence and telepathic powers, who are hunted and pursued by normal humans. The book opens up with a young Slan child, Jommy Cross, who watches as his parents are murdered by the secret police. Jommy Cross has to grow up alone.

The most fascinating part about Slan is the world background. Unlike other novelists, van Vogt doesn't lay it out flat before the reader, but there are conflicting tales, outright lies and propaganda, and Jommy has to discover it all for himself. Part of the reason Slans are so hated is because of the widespread belief among humans they capture human babies, for instance, which Jommy refuses to accept as true. There were also rumors of human/Slan wars that ended in human victory, but the true history of the world is entirely unknown to the characters, who have to unravel it for themselves.

There's one great reason to read A.E. van Vogt's Slan, and that's for it's villain, the absolute dictator of earth, Kier Gray, easily one of the greatest villains in all of science fiction. I don't feel this character receives enough respect. Since when does any review of Slan ever spare any praise for what an extraordinary creation Kier Gray is? It is true that Kier Gray is the reason to read this book, just like Captain Nemo is the reason to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

A magnetic, awe-inspiring and tigerish man of obvious and keen intelligence and animal magnetism, Kier Gray is a master tactician and thinker that is almost always several steps ahead of everyone else, with contingencies in case things go wrong, as well as a master manipulator and orator. Kier Gray operates mentally at almost a totally different level than anyone else in the series. While many of his underlings engage in unthinking anti-Slan prejudices, these attitudes are far too petty for a pragmatist who thinks big-picture like Gray. At one point, he wonders what it would be like to have a few Slan scientists on his side. Unlike the others in earth's government, who believe their own propaganda thickheadedly, Gray has a more realistic view, that most likely the Slans will win in the conflict unless they get a leg up.

When the aptly named chief of his secret police, John Petty, shows ambitions to take over, Kier laughs off his plan. "He is only feared. I am both worshiped and feared." The sequence in Chapter 3 where Kier Gray prevents a coup to dethrone him is one of the most awe-inspiring sequences.

Incidentally, it's worth mentioning that, found among A.E. van Vogt's papers, there was actually an outline for a sequel to Slan, known as Slan Hunter. If ever there was a standalone novel crying out for a sequel, it would be Slan. Personally, I'd prefer to think of Slan's sequel as one of the great unfinished science fiction novels ever written, including the last of E.E. Smith's Lensman books. Supposedly, Robert A. Heinlein, who near-worshipped Smith, knew all about the last Lensman book, but refused to give details even after his friend's death because "it was his story to tell, not mine."

Nonetheless, after the mania that were the posthumous Herbert Dune prequels, a publisher with half a brain, when hearing about the story did a ca-ching ca-ching cash register sound and rustled up some ghost writer to actually create Slan Hunter, an unmade sequel to one of the most famous science fiction novels ever written. The story actually has an air of tragedy, as van Vogt actually contracted Alzheimer's and couldn't finish it.

To my great astonishment, I didn't absolutely hate Slan Hunter, as it had a few great twists, like having a character be a woman that gives birth to a Slan baby, who goes on the run to protect it. But there was so much there that I didn't like. Kier Gray was easily overthrown, and it seemed as if everyone's IQ dropped substantially. John Petty the Slan Hunter was a vicious bigot, but he was nonetheless competent and this novel, he needed very basic things explained to him. And there were elementary details about the world that were changed, like the notion of Kier Gray, instead of being a ruthless dictator, was a democratically elected president. (WTF?).

Friday, September 4, 2009

Kill Your Idols: Overrated Characters


It doesn't surprise me in the least that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an easily bamboozled, crackpot believer in spiritualism, because if the Sherlock Holmes stories are anything to go by, he had a belief that human reason worked in an almost mystical, intuitive way. Because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle controls the world, Holmes is always inerringly right the very first time he makes a deduction, never finds evidence too ambiguous to use, never needs to revise his theories or take into account new proof, and Holmes's single interpretation of multiple possible explanations is always correct. Holmes is only infallible because Doyle wrote him that way.

For instance, in the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Holmes discovers a hat, and guessed the owner was once rich but recently fell on hard times, was having problems with his marriage, was of great intelligence, and had bushy hair of a certain style.

Holmes guessed that the hat's owner was having marital problems because of its poor condition. Well, what if the hat's owner was a bachelor?

And he figured out the hat's owner was once rich but fell on hard times. What about the possibility the hat was stolen, lost and found by someone else, or given away?

Apart from the magical, intuitive view of the process of reason, there's very little else to like in Sherlock Holmes stories, as for most of them Doyle just doesn't play fair with the reader and doesn't present all facts to the audience.


You know, I often say this or that movie is "formulaic," but with the James Bonds, it's literally true!

With the exception of the excellent Casino Royale, the assembly-line plot never varies, the characters are the same but with different names. There's never an attempt to do anything new or different. Even the actual events of the plots are constantly recycled. It reminds me of how Taco Bell tries to convince us they've combined their five ingredients in a totally new way! Always the scene on skis, always the scene in the casino that establishes that establishes how gigantic James Bond's testicles are.

In general, if you've seen one James Bond film, you've seen them all.

Worse, James Bond movies are either the originator or the perpetuator of almost every action movie cliche: the bomb with the digital countdown, the car chase, the ability of characters to run from explosions, the entire creation of scenes as setups for "witty" quips.

I remember when I was about to see my first James Bond movie at age ten or so on television. My Mom, who was not by any means a prudish woman at all, decided to watch it with me because she wanted me to know that women didn't really act that way. At the time I thought that was an overreaction (not to mention quite a buzzkill), but I have since come to the conclusion that Mom was right. Women don't really act that way, and saying the Bond movies are a fantasy doesn't get them off the hook. Lots of people have, frankly, embarassing fantasies and I'd rather not watch them, either.


The idea that Wonder Woman is as important a superhero, or at least as interesting, as Superman and Batman is pure wishful thinking.

I would do an article here, but the funny cats over at Topless Robot did it with much more panache and I have really nothing to add:

Top Ten Reasons Nobody Cares About Wonder Woman

Disney Buys Marvel

I hate to be the guy that says they saw this coming. And the truth is, I didn't. It was so out of the blue you'd have to have been Nostradamus to predict Disney buying Marvel.

But the other day I was analyzing Disney's business pattern, and I noticed that while they were strong with girls thanks to their tween programming and Princess merchandising, they were pretty weak with boys, and a very likely business plan would be for them to buy a boys' media company. I thought (already too strong of a word!) that perhaps Marvel might be one such acquisition.

It was just that, a brief speeding speculation that ricocheted in my noggin and barely registered. I never dreamed it would actually happen!

The thing that really grinds my gears about all this is that Disney bought Pixar for more than they bought Marvel! Sure, that purchase was done in a different economic times, but still.

The one thing I find amusing is how all the publicity related to the sale says that Marvel has "a library of over 5,000 characters." Sure. There are probably only 500 great characters like the Thing, Doctor Doom, and Namor, but 4,500 losers and Gene Colan creations like Stilt-Man, the Matador and the fabulous Frog-Man.

Unlike other fans that insist the sky is falling, I don't think Disney would have spent 4 billion on something to change its operation. Would you spend uncounted billions for Pepsi-Cola and rename it "brown bubble water?"

Disney is a huge entertainment conglomeration and they have many branches that produce things that don't always perfectly fit the Disney image. For instance, did you know Disney owns a production company that makes porn?

Whether the ultimate effects are good or bad, I can't help but shed a tear over Marvel's loss of independence as a company and the increasing conglomeration of the entertainment media into the hands of a few small groups. Right or wrong, Marvel always guided its own destiny and their characters and properties were an end in and of themselves.

As of right now, it seems Marvel is not really changing. The comics are coming out as scheduled, and the Disney purchase isn't altering Marvel as a studio or trying to fix the deal with Fox and Sony for X-Men, FF, and Spider-Man movies, and because of the Marvel deal with Universal, Marvel Super-Heroes Island isn't ever leaving Islands of Adventure, and likewise, the Marvel heroes will never come to Disneyworld.

(I have never, ever in my life been to Disneyland. And why should I? I live in Florida, son!)

At this early time I hesitate to speculate about anything, but it is true that because DC was always cushioned by its parent company from losses, in general, DC had a greater tendency than Marvel to keep in print critically praised but low-selling books. Not since the cancellation of Star Trek has any termination been greeted with as much rage and curses as the end of Dan Slott's THING series.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Try this recipe for a Brazilian Avocado Shake

A Brazilian friend of mine introduced me to the idea of the avocado milkshake, which is a great summertime food in his country.

Blend at high speed the following ingredients:

  • 1 Avocado
  • Milk, 3 cups
  • Ice, 1 cup
  • Sugar or Sweetener, 6 tsp.

If you'd like to kick it up a notch, just melt some semisweet chocolate and dilute it slightly with milk, and then drizzle it on top!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Robert Novak dies; Simon Belmont and Abraham van Helsing wanted for questioning

Robert Novak died today, which I refuse to believe until I see the stake through his heart.

The Dick Cheney of the pundit class, as we know, played a big role in the outing of Valerie Plame, the sleaziest hit operation of the sleazy Bush years. Further, Novakula debased the role of political commentary for liberal and conservative alike with his insider status and beltway chumminess, and played a large role in the transformation of the political journalist into employee of political parties.

Boy, I hate looking at Novakula's mug. The best way to get it out of your head, you ask? Why, yes, I do happen to have some pictures of international vixen Melissa Ford on hand for this very purpose!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Julian Perez Goes to the Movies: District 9

The entire audience I saw District 9 with removed our jaws from the floor. What an extraordinary, thoughtful science fiction picture. I would say it's the best science fiction film since Blade Runner.

The thing that is so extraordinary about District 9 is that it is not predictable, and you can't predict where it is going, and your feelings about characters change from moment to moment.

Take for instance, the introduction, where we hear about the arrival of the "prawn" aliens to Johannesburg. The aliens are physically revolting, malnourished, believed to carry disease. They are (with respect to Victor Hugo) Les Miserables. There's a point at which pity transforms into disgust, particularly when we see the aliens start riots in JHB, eat cat food (a delicacy to them), and root through peoples' trash. I started to be as physically revolted as the people of Johannesburg, who want the aliens far, far from them. I started to mentally imagine what it would be like if one of these prawn creatures moved next door to me, and I will say, I was revolted.

People are tired of the proximity of District 9, the walled off alien slum, and it's easy to understand helps at a visceral level, these things are just plain gross: they are deliberately designed to be distasteful to be around, a combination of an insect and a shrimp. The movie does a good enough job that despite our liberal, humanitarian instincts we see pictures like the above picture with suspicion and as near laughable examples of useless idealism that doesn't solve real problems. I suppose that must be how racists and reactionaries see "multicultural" and "can't we just get along" types...a very disturbing comparison the movie doesn't let us forget.

We are then introduced to our hero, a white South African that works with the mercenary and arms dealing corporation (MNU) that is working to evict the aliens from JHB into another slum, District 10, 200 miles away. Van de Merve is an over-eager, perky and loathesome desk jobber you instantly hate: he got his job because he's married to the boss's daughter. While we have no love for the prawns at this point, he comes off as infuriating and patronizing, "talking down" to the aliens, and exploitatively getting them to sign the Eviction notices that would make MNU's mercenary transplantation to District 10 "legal."

I should mention at this point that this review has some spoilers, but it's necessary to do so for descriptive purposes that others can understand exactly why I was so impressed with this movie.

We also learn that part of the reason that the MNU has such an interest in District 9 is because of the alien weaponry, which they want to exploit as it is both high-tech and unusable to humans. Apparently the reason that the aliens don't often use the weapons to protect themselves is because (and this is barely touched on but important) it is speculated the majority of the aliens are members of a "worker-class" that are lost without a leadership, which may explain their malaise. While raiding the slum den of a particularly intelligent-looking mantis (named by the humans "Christopher Johnson") and his young son, van de Merve is exposed to a strange alien liquid which Christopher Johnson had been collecting for over 20 years in the trash and landfills that make up the area.

Van de Merwe starts to transform into a prawn, and because of his transformation it is noted he can use alien weaponry. Being the truly greedy corporation that they are, the MNU immediately sets to work on killing van de Merwe, who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Van de Merwe escapes, and hides in District 9.

All the while, you're thinking, "ha ha, van de Merwe, you sure got yours, didn't you? Somehow the fact you're 'punished' like this is poetic justice."

That feeling instantly changes when the friendless van de Merwe, rejected by his wife, comes to District 9 and hides in a slum shack with a rotting cardboard box as a cover. Suddenly your feelings turn from distaste to pity, and this is not the last time the movie makes us change our mind about characters. There's more to come, of course.

Van de Merwe hides out in the very shack of Christopher Johnson, who immediately understands why the human is changing: he was exposed to the chemical, which Christopher needs to return his race home.

What was effective about this film was how utterly it reverses our earlier view of the "prawns" as monsters with the character of Christopher Johnson. Sensitive, intellectual, and with a young son that wants to go home, he emerges as the most sympathetic character in the film. It was amazing to see this happen, because instead of the Prawns being monsters, surprise! They're people like us, with a family.

One of the great dangers of adventure movies is, it's possible to fixate so totally on action and adventure stunts, that you forget that part of what makes them work is not the hero being in peril, but the fact that we like the hero so much that we actually care whether or not he lives or dies. It is this sense of something being at stake that makes our hero's peril truly alarming and involving.

My blog's regular reader and commenter, David Morefield, once did a routine on why Errol Flynn's movies were so fantastic, and as evidence, he points to his dramatic fight sequences, skillfully done by a great athlete and choreographer. Now, I do agree that Flynn's fight in the Sea Hawk is dramatic, but all the great choreography and fencing skill in the world won't matter if we don't actually care enough about the hero that we feel there's something at stake if he loses.

In Errol Flynn's defense, he usually played his characters with enough likeability and his great personal charisma and style that we did indeed care what happened to his character. But that's the trouble with a lot of action-adventure movies: so much is focused on delivering great exciting stunt pieces and fight scenes that it is sometimes easy to confuse their entertaining flash and style with what really makes them exciting: the sensation of experiencing real emotions when the hero is in peril and the relief of knowing whether he will survive.

Despite the fact Raiders of the Lost Ark had the most exciting scenes ever captured on film, none of it would have mattered if we didn't have an emotional investment in the likeable and unique character of Dr. Henry Jones, Jr., because otherwise we'd just be looking at the pictures instead of involved.

What makes District 9 extraordinary is, it isn't an escapist film, so there isn't the guarantee that our characters will survive or that there will even be a happy ending, which heightened every emotion. This is what, at times, makes "dark" movies so much more emotionally challenging in a way "light, escapist" movies aren't: because the outcome is necessarily in doubt, we the reader are that much more involved in seeing our hero win. When I started watching District 9, I had a feeling that it was the sort of movie that wouldn't have a happy ending, so for that reason I was very anxious and totally interested.

I am a big fan of adventure stories, superhero comics, and yes, even dramatic battle sequences, which sounds very much at odds with my insistence on believeable characters, realism, and the necessity of a sense of peril. But I don't see it that way at all. If anything, it is even more important for genre action and adventure films to do this. People throw around talk of "believeable" characters all the time but often forget why it is so important to have them: if we don't like them and believe in them, we don't care what happens, and consequently the movie is less engrossing.

I apologize for going on that tangent, but I think it was a spectacular element of District 9: we actually cared about the characters and there was a very real sense of peril. The story gave us stakes, and made us emotionally invested. I cared about what happened to Christopher Johnson, and when it looked like he might die (a real possibility at many points) I was literally at the edge of my seat cheering he'd make it through, and when I say "cheering" I mean it quite literally...and I wasn't alone.

First, we see Christopher Johnson's son looking at a globe of their home planet, and wondering wistfully what it must be like there. The little guy is cute, and we like him right away: when he sees van der Merve and his alien arm, he sets it side by side with his own and says, "we're the same!" When the chemical is taken and it looks like the aliens won't go home, the Dad is crushed to tell his son they won't see their home planet again, and rather, they point to one tent in the District 10 brochure and say, "if we're lucky, that one may be ours."

Your heart breaks. Suddenly the matter of getting the aliens off the earth becomes a matter of real desperation.

The goals of the heroes converge, as on the ship, Christopher Johnson can make van de Werke fully human again, so he can see his wife. Stealing some alien weapons, the pair go after the chemical.

Now, this is one thing I love about this movie: despite the fact it has an action sequence, there's a reason the action scene takes place and we the reader care about the outcome. That's a problem with a lot of movies that gratuitously use action scenes. I never understood why the chase scene with the Bat-Tank wasn't cut from Batman Begins, since all Batman needed to do was to have some antidote on his person to give to Rachel; the whole scene was gratuitous. Likewise, in the 2008 Hulk, it was never entirely clear to me exactly why the Hulk and the Abomination were exactly fighting about. This is what I mean when I say there is no distinction between being a fan of adventure and action and insisting on traditional storytelling values like characterization. In this film, we know exactly why Christopher Johnson and van der Merve are attacking MNU research offices.

As soon as the two return to District 9, they are immediately hunted by MNU's mercenaries. Suddenly our feeling changes on the human characters. The MNU becomes villainous, but an entirely human kind of villainy: they're dirty, ruthless men of the kind entirely believably capable of violence, who enjoy their jobs "killing prawns" sadistically, and who in general are greedy brutes capable of violence. Likewise, we also learn that Nigerian gangsters are also in District 9, brutally exploiting the prawns. They are evil in all-too-human and tragic way: the superstitious belief that if they eat prawn body parts they get their spirit inside them and get their powers. You really, really get involved in the film and boo and hiss the baddies. You feel like shouting at the Nigerian gangster, "you stupid, stupid superstitious brute, it doesn't work that way! Nothing will happen if you eat van der Merwe's body!"

This was another part of the film I liked: the way it makes humans into the heavies for tragically all-too-human reasons: greed, bloodlust and superstition. I really, really dislike movies featuring alien invasions, because they're all about our fear of the Other, or People Not Like Us. It at times frustrating to find people that dislike things like pure politics in their escapism, as in "I don't think we should trouble ourselves about seeing political and other issues in movies, I go to them for escapism."

This attitude frustrates me because, like I've said before, built in assumptions and attitudes ("politics") are a part of fiction, even escapist fiction, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Like I said, alien invasion films, even escapist ones, are based on an anxiety that I don't think come from admirable instincts.

What's even more extraordinary is, District 9 first presented the prawns to us as disgusting bottom-feeders, and then so totally reverses our expectations and gets us to root for them over the human race. If the aliens had been presented as likeable first (and perhaps something cute or cuddly), it wouldn't have been as thoughtful a film and invite us to challenge our assumptions.

When van de Merwe learns that Christopher Johnson can't come back for three years to cure him after he activates the ship, the naturally panics and steals the ship's command module, all with Christopher's son inside. Van de Merwe lies to his son, and tells him his father will soon be coming while he takes the ship. This was an interesting reversal, because we had just gotten accustomed to liking the previously jerky van de Merwe. When he steals the command ship, Christopher Johnson is captured by mercenaries, and van der Merwe gets the command ship - the very thing necessary to the aliens to return home, is shot down by his actions. It is quite literally the darkest part of the film.

If I could digress from the summary one final time, I find it interesting, very interesting, that the alien technology, while advanced, is still vulnerable to human weaponry. The command ship is downed by artillery, for instance, which makes us very anxious.

(On a related note, I find it a great tribute to reality that in a floating city, there is ground-to-air artillery and even attack aircraft. If there wasn't, it would reaaaaally strain disbelief.)

Finally, in the darkest moment, when Christopher is about to die, van de Merwe runs away from the dangerous mercenaries with gunfire. This is a totally realistic thing to do for a pencil-pusher desk jockey like van de Merwe. But to everyone's surprise, he returns to save Christopher and his son, along with the aliens' dream to return home.

This was really the high point of the film, because up until then, while we didn't dislike van de Merwe after we were filled with pity for him, nonetheless he was driven by entirely sympathetic but ultimately selfish motives, the desire to become human and see his wife again, and nonetheless had trouble acknowledging the prawn as "human." When he goes back, we see the character as totally different: someone that changed from the start of the story to the end, and ultimately became a "bigger" person. It was very impressive.

I won't say how the film ends, but the thing I liked about the ending was that it had a degree of ambiguity. In fact, the ambiguity is a little maddening for the same reason feelings of suspense or mystery are maddening. I stayed in my chair like my booty had superglue and watched the credits hoping for more.

Like I said, District 9 is one of the best science fiction movies of the past thirty years. I'd even put it in company of movies like Blade Runner. Perhaps the best advocacy I can give for this movie is that, here I am at home after catching a showing with some friends, and not only did we talk about the movie all the way back home, here I am at four in the morning on a Friday night, polishing off a blog entry about it the very night I saw it.

I know how silly it can be to try to give yourself a catch phrase, but I'd like to close this movie review, and all my future reviews, with a statement that I think is not only apt for this particular movie but summarizes my feelings toward all stories, novels, comics and the like, especially in the when we're encouraged to 'enjoy' something as "mindless fun:"

Never, ever, ever turn your brain off.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Julian Perez Conquers the Kitchen

I wanted to write a few of my thoughts on cooking a while back, and it occurred to me that I really didn't have much in the way of concrete recipes, but more like a list of a few essential things to keep around the kitchen for sudden improvisation. The one thing I always loved about Italian food was the sense of spontaneity.

That's one thing that always bugged me about the introduction most people have to Italian cooking, the books by Marcella Hazan. Hazan is to Italian food what Julia Child is French cooking, and everyone's read her Marcella's Italian Kitchen. The thing with Marcella is, she brings the kind of precision of French cooking over to Italian. Not that I have anything bad to say about French cooking, but rather, there's a certain kind of exactness about her work that bugs me.

Let me give you an example: she has a recipe for risotto which involves a very specific vintage of Italian wine. Marcella wrote the following statement: "You can use an inferior wine, of course, and you might create a great risotto. It will not, however, be this risotto."

See what I mean? Now, thank goodness for me I live in a larger city, so I was able to find the vintage just fine. The wine she gave as totally necessary for this recipe cost well over $50 per bottle. I couldn't believe it. Now, I've had some recipes that call for pretty specific liquors in my wonderful recipe for leg of lamb requires a basting in dried fruit, mint leaves, pomegranite juice and an Iraqi liquor named Arak, which I finally found after going to six Asian groceries...but shelling out fifty bucks for a wine? Now that's just crazy.

Also, Marcella Hazan popularized balsamic vinegar in the United States, to which I owe her a hearty 'fuck you' as it is now the single most overused condiment ever.

Salads, though, are the ultimate improvisational food. It's really hard to mess it up, and it encourages you to keep fresh veggies around.

A few things to always have with you if you're a salad lover:

  • Dark Greens. I'm talking about arugula, romaine, and (especially) spinach. The darker the green, the better it is for you and the less chance it has of being invisible a taste in the salad. Let me tell you a dark greens story: I remember being in the cafeteria at the New York Museum of Natural History, when another goofy tourist that I rightly sized up as being either an Iowegian or Ohiowegian, asked them to take back the arugula and romaine salad because the greens had "gone dark and wilty."
  • Dried Cranberries. I've found them to be much, much better than raisins for that sweet touch.
  • Shredded butter-nut squash. Yes, it's not just for soup anymore. I've found it is actually a lot better than the usual carrot slices.
Never buy store bought salad dressings if you don't have to. For one thing, it's much easier to make your own. Asian or Thai peanut restaurant sauce is basically three parts peanut butter, one part soy sauce, one part tap water and one part lemon juice.

Here's a special recipe of mine for a special kind of Tofu, Blue Cheese and Walnut Salad:

4 cups spinach greens
1 cup cilantro tofu
1 cup white mushrooms
1/2 cup sliced cucumbers
1/2 cup butternut squash, diced
1/4 cup walnuts
1/4 cup of blue cheese, crumbled

Try a raspberry vinaigrette for salad dressing, or a combination lemon juice and (Marcella's favorite), balsamic vinegar, a mixture weighted toward the lemon juice.

On a different tack, here's a recipe for a healthy, low-fat one-person wheat and yogurt dessert salad.

1 Banana, sliced thinly
3 tbsp wheat germ
1 tbsp walnuts, crushed
1 cup plain lowfat Kefir

(Kefir is a type of Middle Eastern sour yogurt drink. It's become quite trendy these days, so you can probably get it in any supermarket.)

Toss the sliced banana, wheat germ and walnuts together on a bowl, then pour the kefir. Stir it until the wheat germ and the fruit are mixed.

Monday, August 10, 2009

L. Sprague de Camp's Viagens Interplanetarias, the Krishna Stories

"Tarzan" was nothing short of an extraordinary creation. No wonder he was so popular: he went down a feral path that made him different from the rest of the human race. A lot of effort was spent by Burroughs getting us into Tarzan's inner life, his attitudes and prejudices to mankind, animals, religion. When I was a kid, I ate and drank Tarzan; his stories were pure romance and adventure, with hordes of Arabs, spy saboteurs, Tarzan hunting beside beasts, and images like Tarzan smoking cigarettes and drinking absinthe while going to art galleries in Paris, just before tossing aside his fancy duds to swing on a streetlamp to escape police.

John Carter of Mars, on the other hand, was a dud; a boring 11th-level Fighter with a nonexistent personality besides alpha male valor, an irritating Gary Stu. It's no wonder Tarzan went on to fame and fortune as a pop culture icon, whereas the duller J.C. is far less famous.

It wasn't just that John Carter was a total bore, but that his world of Barsoom was downright insane. Guns were available, but everyone fights gallant duels with cutlasses and sabers. There were a few occasions where it was just a little too "Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a half Century" to possibly be taken seriously: for instance, the idea that to avoid intrusion, at night houses on Mars have giant columns that raise their homes up hundreds of feet into the air (!) and how the mass transit system of Martian cities were based on shooting people out of giant guns (!). There was even one scene where, God help me, I couldn't stop laughing at the mental image: in Warlord of Mars there's a tower that turns into a giant magnet, which despite the best efforts of Burroughs's baroque prose sounds like nothing quite so much as a gigantic free-standing dildo. The giant tower magnet, when turned on sweeps a whole fleet from the air, all the battleships stuck to the surface like fridge magnets!

As a Heinlein-loving kid (Heinlein being a guy that, like all good science fiction writers, realized suspension of disbelief had to be earned and so he concerned himself with science and plausibility), I always had a feeling there was something screwy about John Carter's world and physics. For instance, his improbable hundred-foot leaps into the air "under Martian gravity." This is the kind of misunderstanding that happens when you barely hear an idea, like how when you were a kid, you heard that you would only weigh 1/5th your current weight on the Moon, and you actually thought you would lose weight! Not to mention the absence of armor from Martial society; even Stone Age people use coconut husks and tortoise shells for shields! And finally, most implausibly of all, John Carter had a baby (an egg!) with his Martian wife. Ask any genetic scientist and they'll tell you it's easier to cross a human with a geranium than an extraterrestrial.

So, along comes one of the most talented writers of science fiction's Golden Age, L. Sprague de Camp, with the determination to do a "Sword & Planet" story, but to "get it right," without technological or biological absurdities, a world that is every bit as exciting as Barsoom but which actually makes sense. And lo, the Krishna stories were created! While reading the Hostage of Zir, I have to say I was delighted for nearly every moment.

Krishna is a planet with technology in the Middle Ages range, whose primary inhabitants are antennaed green-skinned humanoids. Because of the dangers of exposing a warlike, primitive planet high technology, explorers and other human visitors are limited to the local weaponry, bows and armor and sailing ships. It's interesting to note that FTL travel is impossible in the universe of Krishna; it takes eleven years (in "real time, " though not relativistically) to jaunt to the planet and back, although because of the increase in the human lifespan that isn't a catastrophic absence. I always thought this was a great touch of realism; in many ways the freewheeling ability to zip through the cosmos in a lot of space opera really makes you forget how huge and overwhelming space actually is.

My all-time favorite of the Krishna stories is the Hand of Zei. In it, Dirk Barnavelt, a ghost writer ruled over tyrannically by his aged mother, is sent by the publishing company to find the actual explorer their works are based on, who disappeared on the low-tech world of Krishna while searching for a group of pirates that smuggle janru, a narcotic that makes men subservient to women.

What's especially interesting is that the planet Krishna has actually changed as a result of contact with human beings. At dive bars on Krishna, the singer was heard performing earth songs like "Jingle Bells" and the latest pop hits. Worse, one of the more popular games on Krishna is Chinese Checkers, although the natives call it "Chanichekr" or "Chanichekash."

To reach the legendary Sunqar, a floating island made entirely of giant mats of seaweed like the Sargasso, Dirk Barnavelt traveled in disguise as a legendary to Qirib, a country ruled by amazon warriors, with a horrible old virago of a queen that reminds Dirk of his domineering mother. In one memorable scene, he rides the mass-transit rail system linking cities and countries, which instead of locomotives, on the low-tech world are instead pulled by gigantic bishtars, two-trunked alien elephants.

The Princess Zei of Qirib is captured by the pirates, which means Dirk has to rescue her whether he likes it or not. I love the Princess Zei. She has a big nose, talks with her mouth full, and gets off on men telling her what to do, and yet somehow she is far more fascinating and loveable than the flawless and boring Dejah Thoris.

Dirk Barnavelt leads a ship into the Sunqar, a pirate realm nearly the size of a kingdom who live on a floating island of giant ship choking seaweed mats. Someone call Doc Savage, that's the plot of the Sargasso Ogre! What's interesting is that as an American raised with ideas of equality, he has real moral problems with being the kind of brutal, authoritarian disciplinarian sort of sea captain that is required in that kind of society in order to maintain order. In addition to possible mutiny, he has to face a gvam, a hideous sea monster that is a cross between a swordfish and an octopus.

When he arrives at the Sunqar, Barnavelt finds the leader of the pirates is an alien from the planet Osiris, a giant velociraptor like creature with mental hypnotic powers, who far from being a sinister mentalist, is portrayed as a nervous, high strung hypochondriac. Dirk is able to rescue the Princess, only to find his ship beached in an escape attempt against a haunted island. The origin of the haunted stories are revealed to be brutish tailed men, who are related to Krishnans the same way Neanderthals are related to Homo sapiens.

(This is another thing I like about the Krishna books: L. Sprague de Camp's broad knowledge of everything, including paleontology. Krishna, unlike other Sword & Planet worlds, had a definite prehistory. Indeed, Krishnans themselves have a taxonomic category: Krishanthropus Sapiens, and the tailed men are Krishanthropus koloftus. There is even a Linnean explanation for why some creatures on the planet have six limbs and others four, as both families left the sea at different times.)

What I find most interesting about the burgeoning relationship between Dirk Barnavelt and the Princess Zei is, the problems that keep them from being together are real problems. One of the more irritating thing about Burroughs females, especially that useless pain in the ass Jane, is their tendency to do things that are illogical and wildly out of character for no other reason than to create the requisite conflict for the story. By contrast, in Zei's amazonian country, the husband of the queen rules for a year and then is ritually cooked and eaten. This could have just been another little side-gag to emphasize this planet's barbaric exoticism, along with the Krishnan love of attending public executions, but it is actually a major obstacle to their relationship. In fact, when the two are stuck in the Sunqar without food and are starting to starve, Dirk looks at his Princess and starts to shudder. When the two are necking, Dirk laughs and asks her if she's trying to get a little taste of him first.

In the end, Dirk returns with Zei a hero and leads a gigantic fleet against the Sunqar pirates, all of which will wear skis so they can run over the terpahla seaweed. Krishnan warfare is a beautiful thing: reconnaissance is done with hang-gliders given temporary boosts by explosive chemicals, who land on a flat-topped ship rather like a modern-day aircraft carrier with a rubber band like device for launching the gliders.

Dirk leads the army of amazons and gliders to victory, causing the pirates to honorably surrender. But when the virago Queen Alvandi, the mother of Zei who only wanted to go after the pirates as they cut into her percentage decides to maroon them, Dirk switches sides and teams up with the pirates. He thereafter discovers that his lovely Princess Zei is - surprise! Also an earthling in disguise, captured by the Queen Alvandi from slavers in disguise. The Princess knew Dirk was an earthman all along too. How? He had a belly button! As the people of Krishna lay eggs, nobody on Krishna has a navel.

Dirk Barnavelt in the end leads the pirates against the Qirib monarchy and restores equal rights for men. By standing up to Queen Alvandi, it's like he's stood up to his own mother too and declared his personal emancipation. Shortly thereafter he takes Zei, and forms a company in the Sunqar dedicated to soap production.

There's even a little sarcastic aside where Dirk Barnavelt's buddy, Tangaloa, a grossly overweight, tail-chasing Polynesian Anthropologist, warns him about the dangers of his Warlord of Mars dreams, which might as well be a chastising tut-tut to fans of all Sword & Planet stories:
"Ahem, Dirk, you know these earthly adventurers who run around backward planets exploiting the natives tend to be inferior types that can't compete with their own kind back home. They take advantage of earth's more sophisticated culture, which they themselves do nothing to create... " "Oh, foof! I've heard that lecture too. Call me an inferior if you like, but here I'm quite a guy. npt a shy schizoid Oedipean afraid of his Ma."

My summary above doesn't quite get across the marvelous sense of humor the stories have. I wouldn't be comfortable calling them parodies, the way some other analysts have, because they are first and foremost very boyish, fun adventure stories. But they do reverse expectations in a very amusing and wonderful way, and set about breaking the formula of the Burroughs narrative. The alien leader of the pirates that rules over them with mind control powers is a nervous, easily excitable velociraptor hypochondriac.

One of my favorite parts was when, as Barnavelt returns from the land of the tailed beast-men, his anthropologist friend chastises him for the destruction he wrought on a society anthropologists would like to study. Barnavelt rightly points out they were cannibals about to eat him. Tangaloa says that many Polynesian tribes in the South Pacific only became "savage to outsiders" because they were preyed on by slavers. This is an interesting observation since many tailed Krishnans were in fact, seen in the book series as slaves!

That's what I like about L. Sprague de Camp. Any other writer would have just stuck in some savage cannibals because that's what the story needs. He thought through exactly why these guys are such jerks, what would lead them to be this way historically. That's why Krishna fascinates me: this is obviously written by someone that is a world traveller, that has undergone the experience of going to a bar in Asia and then hearing the latest Top 40 song on the intercom, who knows what they're talking about when it comes to weapons and antique sailing ships.

The chapter where Dirk Barnavelt reconfigures his sails is so full of antique sailing terms that it is nearly incomprehensible jargon. Still, you can't help but be impressed, just as you would be with Tom Clancy's rapid-fire use of military acronyms and terms, because it shows this guy knows what he's talking about and has clearly thought it through.

I can't mention the Hand of Zei without mentioning how the interior illustrations are done by master pulp illustrator Edd Cartier, who also did most of the art for the original Street & Smith Shadow magazine. I tried looking for some Edd Cartier Krishna art, but none of it was online, so I scanned some from my copy and put them up here.

Man, mentioning Edd Cartier's name has got to at least double my google hits. So, here goes: Edd Cartier. Edd Cartier. EDD CARTIER.

The other Krishna stories are hilarious, full of eccentric, weird kings with unusual hobbies like clockwork toys. One of the best was the king of Kalwm in The Prisoner of Zhamanak.

In it, a big black Nigerian named Percy Mijpa hears of an earth girl xenologist held prisoner by a Krishnan. Despite being a black African, he looks down on Krishnans like a Victorian Englishman does on "the natives," and vows to rescue Alicia Dykman.

In one of the best scenes of the book, Percy and Alicia are captured by the ruler of Kalwm like zoo animals, wondering if the Caucasian and African races on earth can interbreed together. He even has their clothes removed as they're placed in the cage. This is made all the funnier by Percy's natural uptightness and attitude of devout monogamy to his fat, jolly little wife that he left back at the spaceport. Obviously the sheer awkwardness of this scene makes it to nearly every single cover of every single edition I've seen.

All in all, the Krishna works are science fiction classics and worth reading. In the words of Reading Rainbow's Levar Burton: "You don't have to take my word for it...but I'd be pretty pissed if you didn't."