Friday, April 30, 2010

The Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited Service and Illegal Downloading

Because my mother reads this blog, I am not going to say whether I have ever downloaded comics online illegally or not.

Still, I have friends that do it and it's a good example of how distribution and an entire market changes as a response to the internet. It's also a sign of the good health of the comics industry, since apart from megahits like Harry Potter, science fiction novels and comic books are the only two examples in the print industry where people are actually passionate enough to illegally download the material.

Illegal downloading was often the only way to get mp3 files of music recordings: everyone I know in the year 1999 had Napster, an occasion where the pirate industry was bigger than the real thing.

All of that changed with Apple and the iPod: illegal music downloading became fringe again because with the cheap 10 cent to 99 cent singles, it was easier NOT to download music illegally than it was to download music illegally. For that reason, something like the a pay service like Marvel Digital Comics service that gives good, complete and legal access to an archive that offers comics cheaply can easily replace something as haphazard and time-intensive as illegal downloading.

Stan Lee was once asked in an interview if new technologies would ever replace comics, and Stan said no: new technologies can only add to their appeal. The Marvel Digital Comics service would be a good test-case to see if Stan the Man was right.

The Marvel Digital Comics Service is extremely reasonable in price: about ten bucks for a whole month of access to as many comics as I like in the Marvel back-catalog. This is where it gets problematic, in that there's a real paucity of selection.

Sure, I got to read Avengers Forever again, and some of the John Byrne Fantastic Four. Yet the FF comics were extremely limited in that mostly what was offered was the first 50 issues of FF. Sure, guys. Name me one comic book fan that can't list the villains in the first 25 issues of FF by memory. It seemed like they only gave access to the most over-read, over reprinted comics: for example, the only comics they had in the Thunderbolts series were #1-4 and the Avengers/Thunderbolts special, which oddly enough are the only Thunderbolts comics that have ever really been in trade paperback form!

Now, let's compare that to how, on Pirate Bay, you can illegally download all 560 issues of Fantastic Four. As the scans are made by collectors this includes all the comics without exceptions, including issues that have never been reprinted and the annuals, and they also include (usually) advertisements and (more importantly) letters pages, neither of which are available in the downloaded version from the Marvel Digital Comics service.

I do not believe that illegal downloading is morally right nor do I support it, but the fact of the matter is that people will continue to do it as long as it is just plain more complete, effective, and provides a superior service than the pay service offers. (Seriously? No letters pages, Marvel?)

If I can download more comics illegally than legally (the only issues of Nova that are available for download is just the #1 issue), if I can download more complete comics and collections than the shallow selection offered by Marvel itself...why sign up for a service like this at all? Why is it that pirates can offer better downloads than Marvel itself? Why is it I can't get the 1990s run of New Warriors from Marvel's supposed "unlimited" service, but I can do so from a pirate website easily?

Marvel's pay service isn't even in the same league as pirate downloads, and the opposite should be true: Marvel should yes, require payment for access but should provide content that is greater in selection and without worms or viruses. Despite the fact that bootlegs are often available of movies, people still prefer to wait for the legal DVD releases for one simple reason: legal DVDs are of superior quality.

Some questions have to be asked about the purpose of something like the Marvel Digital Unlimited Service, and they have to proceed from these premises:

People want completeness. If you're signing up for a pay service, you do it not because you want to read Fantastic Four #3, but because you want to read FF #198, not available elsewhere or reprinted (yet). If this isn't provided or made available by Marvel, the pirates will do it. The 1940s comics that Marvel has up are a step in the right direction. The idea that Marvel's own digital comics archive should be anything less that totally complete, whereas those of the pirates are, absolutely baffles me. Why? Marvel isn't making any money off of them, Marvel owns the rights to all of these old comics in totality and perpetuity. If they're made available online, they can be put to work for the company instead of just sitting around - for instance, something like the 1970s Ka-Zar comics are not going to be reprinted anytime soon. Why not just put them online and improve the digital service?

The purpose of a service like this is not promotional. For instance, the character of Firestar is getting a big push from Marvel, with her original miniseries from the 1990s available from the service. While it's smart and good marketing to synergize in this way, the function of an archive like this is not to push new comics or media: the archive is an end in and of itself, not to support trade paperback or comics sales, and anything else is just backward thinking: eventually this will be the comics industry, just like electronic publishing has almost replaced the world of printed academic, engineering and scientific journals. In other words, Marvel can't put up a few issues and then say, "hey, if you like this, go buy the TPB." That's not only aggravating, but shows a limited understanding of the central function of an online reading pay service.

People that read comics in one form are not necessarily going to read it in another. One of the movie industry's complaints about VCR was that it would steal people away from going to the movies. Different formats just don't work that way. If you're some punk that's never set foot in a comics store, you're not going to buy a comic if it isn't available online, and using the service to point people to "real" comics isn't going to work. Likewise, if you're a "late adopter" (another marketing term for an old fart), you're not going to stop buying Marvel Masterworks and Marvel Essential trades because they're suddenly available for reading on the internet. The fact that a show is available online to watch on Hulu does not affect the ratings for a series when it airs.

In conclusion, the Marvel Digital Comics Service is a step in the right direction but it fails to identify 1) the central role this service going to take in the coming years, 2) the fact that as of right now, what Marvel offers in terms of content and selection are just not as good as people that aren't Marvel. In other words, the Comics Service is right now, something of an afterthought when it should be the chief priority.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Avatar: you loved the movie, now read the books!

In a world of people that make movies as products without passion, it's great to see someone like James Cameron. With Titanic and the Abyss, it was obvious he had a lot of enthusiasm for the ocean, marine biology, and for history. With Avatar, he showed a real and profound love for science fiction to the point where it is actually able to trace the geneology of some of his ideas.

MANTA'S GIFT. Timothy Zahn.

"Manta's Gift" is the story of a quadriplegic that is placed into the body of a flying manta-ray like creature that lives in the dense atmosphere of Jupiter, with the secret mission of observing them and reporting their technical secrets.

Manta's Gift has various elements in common with Avatar: a quadriplegic given a second chance by the opportunity to become an alien, an earth company that wants a spy to get something they want from extraterrestrials, an emphasis on creating a well-developed and thought through ecology and biology as opposed to an emphasis on physics and new gadgetry. It's really hard to talk about Manta's Gift in a spoiler-free way, but like Avatar, it deals with a problem of conscience.

What's interesting and extraordinary about "Manta's Gift" are not the similarities to Avatar, but the differences: the quadriplegic hero was actually placed into a body in the womb and so he "grows up" in this race and later learns of his connection to earth.

Leigh Brackett's Mars Stories

Brackett's stories are like a reverse War of the Worlds: humans go and conquer Mars. They're stories about the colonial experience and the resentment of have-nots for haves, the resentment of ancient traditional societies for new arrivals and corporations and vice-versa. There's a lot of influence in Brackett of Clark Ashton Smith and the Weird Tales writers, in the sense that her Mars is atmospheric, dead, and eerie. For instance, Brackett's Mars has a winged race, a staple of adventure science fiction, but instead of awe-inspiring they're creatures of terror: batlike night-shadows that live in a crumbling city.

As much as the premise of Leigh Brackett's Mars stories sound like Avatar (mining companies against native people) the differences are even more interesting. For one, while, Brackett's Martians look human in the time-honored Burroughs tradition, her Martians are too weird to possibly be jack-off fodder for nerds the way Zoe Saldana's character was. Heroines of the stories tend to be gutsy earth-women. And it should be said, Brackett's females were very interesting, more like tough two-fisted girl spies that can shoot a gun if called for.

H. Beam Piper's "Little Fuzzy"

"Little Fuzzy" has many of the themes of Avatar: a scientist trying to protect the dignity of an alien race against a company that wants to exploit the resources of a world and deny the humanlike status of the primitive natives. Because whether the Fuzzies are sentient or not is a real question that has to be successfully argued and communication isn't possible, the hero has to prove their rights as beings...a common science fiction theme going back to Isaac Asimov. At some level, science fiction is about affirming the dignity of beings different from ourselves. The applicability to the real world speaks for itself, and it's something that always made me argue that SF is a forward-thinking genre.

It's actually pretty shocking that, considering the paucity of the public domain, that something written in the 1960s would already be expired, but "Little Fuzzy" is available entirely online. Though the reason is actually quite hideous: HBP committed suicide in the 1960s (supposedly to screw his ex-wife out of his life insurance by voiding it) and so his copywrights were allowed to lapse.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

You know, "Star Wars" was actually pretty cool once

There was a time when "Return of the Jedi" was considered the worst of the Star Wars movies. I can only bitterly laugh at how naive we all were.

I've been angry at Star Wars ever since the prequels were released. They came to symbolize for me everything that is wrong with our current film culture: showy, grotesque, bloated movies that emphasize action and special effects over characters and story that the audience can get emotionally involved in.

It took a while, but recently, on one of my quieter days, I saw the original Star Wars movies again. And you know something? They were actually something! I can see why my brother's generation thought they were the greatest things of all time, especially in an era when nobody made escapist, smart adventure films aimed at teenagers and adults, let alone science fiction movies! They weren't b-movies either...Star Wars had a way of making their imitators look like shabby copies.

The movies were incredibly smart. They didn't have any cute little kids, which doom the ability to take anything seriously. There were no comic relief characters. Wisecracking Han Solo and the dry, deadpan Princess Leia were funny enough just by being who they were. Sure, there were those two lovable gay robots, R2-D2 and C3P-0, but the humor came from them being who they were: C3P-0 was timid, cowardly, and fussy, whereas R2-D2 was a spunky, courageous little runt firebrand that followed orders from humans, but the way he thought was best.

It was possible to love the characters because of what close friends they were. Han Solo and Luke were friends that risked their lives for each other; and C3P-0 and R2-D2 fought each other constantly but they needed each other.

The dialogue was quotable. Huge swaths of the Empire Strikes Back are watchable not just because of the special effects, but by another element that is even harder to do: the chemistry and witty, confrontational rapid-fire repartee between Han Solo and Princess Leia. My favorite was this great scene from "Return of the Jedi"

HAN SOLO: "Hey, kid! How are things?"
LUKE: "Oh, same as always."
HAN SOLO: "That bad, huh?"

A few insights that I had when watching the films:

1) Most characters in the original series were human beings.

This was one example of a place where the limitations of money became a strength. In general, if there isn't a really compelling reason to make a character a non-human alien...don't do it! In the prequel films, to say nothing of science fiction in general, some characters are aliens or monsters or robots just because. This is a problem because there is much, much more to creating a likable or distinctive character than just making them a weird alien race. The use of makeup, prosthetics, and worst of all, CGI, became a crutch. Why give someone distinctive mannerisms or a personality the audience can like when you could just give them a squid's head or make them a cartoon rabbit or a four-armed fat-ass running a fifties diner?

The fact that the majority of characters in the original Star Wars were humans also lent some believability to it all. Aliens were used sparingly, or to used for specific effect heighten the exoticism of certain moments (like the cantina scene or Jabba's palace), but the fact that the characters were all humans instead of cartoon rabbits gave Star Wars a real maturity and believability. Yoda and Chewbacca were both weird creatures, but that was done with a point in mind: Yoda was a small, weird little thing because that subverted our expectations that a great warrior would be someone mighty and physically imposing. Likewise, Chewbacca's character is a big scary animalistic monster, but who is also strong, friendly, loving, and loyal. They were aliens, but there was a reason for that.

2) Lightsabers were used sparingly.

I hadn't realized this before, but Luke Skywalker and others use the lightsaber amazingly rarely, and it was typically his last resort - even when confronted with something as scary as the rancor in the "Return of the Jedi," he defeated it entirely by his wits instead of by pulling out his laser sword gadget. It also made me think about what exactly made the lightsaber cool in the first place.

The lightsaber was a cool and wondrous science fiction device because it was underused. It flickers on the screen for brief moments through most of the film, and really builds up to the sensational duels that typically happen at the end. One of the problems with the prequel films is that constant use of lightsabers, so not only does this weapon seem debased and ordinary, but ultimately, all action scenes end up looking alike.

3) Boba Fett was awesome.

Boba Fett was a minor character that immediately set our imaginations on fire. He dressed like an Ancient Roman. He had more gadgets than Iron Man and Batman combined. He had an aura of quiet coolness. And best of all, he went down in Star Wars history as the bounty hunter that outsmarted Han Solo.

The character was obviously based on Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name," who also dabbled in bounty hunting. It wouldn't surprise me if the notes in the script were for a "Clint Eastwood type." It also goes to show that despite the fact Westerns have disappeared it's impossible to understand 20th Century film without them.

4) Darth Vader was frightening.

Like Tarzan and Superman, Darth Vader has been weakened by familiarity and his transformation into a pop culture icon and a symbol just like the Coca-Cola logo, to the point where it's almost shocking to go back and discover what a supremely awesome creation he was. Watching Darth Vader in the original movies is like watching Godzilla 1985 or the 1954 film: a reminder that this character was meant to be terrifying, surrounded with an aura of unstoppability and dread.

Before his helmet was a pez dispenser, Darth Vader was a frightening figure of pure intimidation, a hideously disfigured, ruthless evil sorcerer. During his battle with Luke in "Empire Strikes Back," Vader was toying with him: he could have killed Luke at any time. Darth Vader's hunches are always right, and he is absolutely unforgiving of failure. With his unnatural powers, he can choke and kill and even render the attacks of heroes superfluous. Who can forget the tantalizing scene where Darth Vader's bald, hideously disfigured head was seen briefly? Darth Vader and his personality totally dominates the action of "Empire Strikes Back." The interesting thing is that "Empire Strikes Back" is sort of like a reverse-Lord of the Rings: the good guys never win once.

Here's something I always wondered about Darth Vader: how come they never really used or mentioned again, after "Star Wars," that he was a supremely skilled, ice-cold starfighter pilot? That was always one of the most distinctive things about him: he wasn't above getting his hands dirty. In fact, Darth Vader was like a cross between Doctor Doom and the Red Baron.

The revelation that Vader was Luke Skywalker's father was so shocking, so effective, that I have trouble believing it was entirely Lucas's idea. In several interviews in 1980, Lucas flat out said it was Leigh Brackett's idea...though the more distance was put between him and that cool old lady's death, the more the story changed. Vader being Luke's father turned the character around and made us see him in a totally different light: instead of an uncomplicated embodiment of evil, he was a person with a connection to others.

People like to say that it's good when a character is "complicated," but what does that actually mean? Complexity is when someone is a combination of characteristics, some of which are contradictory - like when the Rutger Hauer cyborg in Blade Runner showed compassion, or when Nazi villains in war movies are shown as good fathers.

By the way, I was absolutely shocked that Vader actually died a hero, something that I had totally forgotten.

5) I actually liked Princess Leia.

Here's what I think is genius about the casting of Carrie Fisher Simon: she was not a knockout babe blonde bombshell, or a sexy exotic Latina or something like that. She was petite and slim, more like Audrey Hepburn than like, say, Kim Basinger or Elle MacPherson. She was such an oddball casting choice it had entertainment value for that reason alone. Carrie Fisher has an ethnicity that is undisguisable, like Joe Pantoliano, who never plays just guys, but always Italian guys. Even in a galaxy far, far away Carrie Fisher is almost comically Jewish.

Princess Leia could have been the campiest character in movie history: a snotty, entitled princess that uses the royal "we." Instead, she was almost like a gutsy female spy, good with a blaster, with a dry, caustic, sarcastic sense of humor. There are only occasionally moments that anything like haughtiness comes out, which they did with a great light touch, like when she calls Han Solo a scoundrel. It was little, subtle things that made Princess Leia memorable: at the beginning of "Empire Strikes Back," for instance, she was running a computer console along with the working stiffs on the hellish Hoth base. She gave off the vibe of a dedicated, competent and professional person with good organization and management skills.

Above all, the key word to her characterization is subtlety, yet she never feels like she doesn't have any personality. I was amazed at how much I liked her character.

Margaret Thatcher, Conspiracy Hatcher

Et tu, Margaret? Et tu?

Don't tell me that you, too - one of the few politicians with a science background and a degree in chemistry - are supporting all that lefty claptrap and sinister conspiracy to promote global warming!

(I hope Bruce Coville will forgive me for borrowing the title of his book, Jeremy Thatcher: Dragon Hatcher.)

Here's an exerpt from a great speech given by Margaret Thatcher in a speech to the Royal Society in 1988:

For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world's systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.

Recently three changes in atmospheric chemistry have become familiar subjects of concern. The first is the increase in the greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons—which has led some[fo 4] to fear that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability. We are told that a warming effect of 1°C per decade would greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope. Such warming could cause accelerated melting of glacial ice and a consequent increase in the sea level of several feet over the next century. This was brought home to me at the Commonwealth Conference in Vancouver last year when the President of the Maldive Islands reminded us that the highest part of the Maldives is only six feet above sea level. The population is 177,000. It is noteworthy that the five warmest years in a century of records have all been in the 1980s—though we may not have seen much evidence in Britain!

The second matter under discussion is the discovery by the British Antarctic Survey of a large hole in the ozone layer which protects life from ultra-violet radiation. We don't know the full implications of the ozone hole nor how it may interact with the greenhouse effect. Nevertheless it was common sense to support a worldwide agreement in Montreal last year to halve world consumption of chlorofluorocarbons by the end of the century. As the sole measure to limit ozone depletion, this may be insufficient but it is a start in reducing the pace of change while we continue the detailed study of the problem on which our (the British) Stratospheric Ozone Review Group is about to report.

The third matter is acid deposition which has affected soils, lakes and trees downwind from industrial centres. Extensive action is being taken to cut down emission of sulphur and nitrogen oxides from power stations at great but necessary expense.

In studying the system of the earth and its atmosphere we have no laboratory in which to carry out controlled experiments. We have to rely on observations of natural systems. We need to identify particular areas of research which will help to establish cause and effect. We need to consider in more detail the likely effects of change within precise timescales. And to consider the wider implications for policy—for energy production, for fuel efficiency, for reforestation. This is no small task, for the annual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide alone is of the order of three billion tonnes. And half the carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution remains in the atmosphere. We have an extensive research programme at our meteorological office and we provide one of the world's four centres for the study of climatic change. We must ensure that what we do is founded on good science to establish cause and effect.

In the past when we have identified forms of pollution, we have shown our capacity to act effectively. The great London Smogs are now only a nightmare of the past. We have cut airborne lead by 50 per cent. We are spending £4 billion on cleansing the Mersey Basin alone; and the Thames now has the cleanest metropolitan estuary in the world. Even though this kind of action may cost a lot, I believe it to be money well and necessarily spent because the health of the economy and the health of our environment are totally dependent upon each other.

See what I mean? That's just the kind of crazy talk that I'd expect from a loony liberal like Margaret Thatcher!

It all goes to show that the left vs. right discussion on global warming is fundamentally flawed in nature, because physical reality is inarguable. There is no discussion or dispute within science itself whatsoever.

The conflict over global warming and global warming deniers isn't one between left and right. But rather, between science and anti-science.

Friday, April 16, 2010

"In Search Of..." style series used to promote "Lost"

To promote the final series of "Lost," several episodes were made of an "In Search Of..." style late seventies/early eighties unsolved mystery/paranormal mystery series.

Holy crap! Holy crap! This is GREAT! As a fan of the original "In Search Of..." I must say, they totally nailed it. From the buzzing, shrieky music, to the droning narration based around eerie implied threats, to the aged 1970s film look, to the use of ancient frescoes and shots of random crowds.

I finally realized why I love "Lost" so much, incidentally: it reminds me of "In Search Of..." in that what is interesting about it is the weird, subtle awe and fear, as well as the sense of ambiguity about the mysterious. In many ways, "Lost" is like a real-life "In Search Of..."

This one, incidentally, is my favorite because it explains something that I've wondered about for some time: why is it that the Dharma Initiative used, of all things, submarines?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Jungle Girl Art Gallery

It's frustrating sometimes to know people with a singleminded devotion to a single topic, because it's all they ever go on about.

On the one hand, it is sometimes helpful to know people like this...for instance, I've had some friends that are autistically obsessed with trains who come in handy when I need some information on historical trains.

Another example would be this guy, who has an entire gallery devoted to the collection of "jungle girl" art. His need to collect is something that we all can profit from. Not only do we have some great comics art from the forties and fifties, but also sketches by some of the greatest artists that he meets up with at conventions: Amanda Conner, Darwyn Cooke, and so on.

My personal favorite artist in the gallery is, natch, Frank Brunner - possibly my favorite comics artist of all time. He's also one of the few that drew a glamorous but sufficiently intense jungle girl that looks absolutely believable as a scary fighter, but also pure and uncorrupted. Frank Brunner's work was always mystical, stylish and dreamlike, muscular and awesome: some of the best art that I've ever seen in comics anywhere are his issues of Savage Sword of Conan. Whenever I think of Elric, I always think of Brunner's Elric comics in Heavy Metal, which gave Elric a glare and malevolence. I have no idea why he even slummed it in comics; he could do interior illustration for books, the way Gary Gianni and Frazetta did.

My least favorite is Frank Quitely. As you can see, his sketch gave his jungle girl a terminal case of man-face. Which is nothing but typical for the guy that made Wolverine look Mexican for some reason and made Superman look like Jay Leno. All the high profile work he's gotten (We3, X-Men, All-Star Superman) have one thing in common: he got that job by working with current fan-fave Grant Morrison...another guy that is inexplicably popular, thus creating an Ouroboros of terrible. He's wrong for superheroes, wrong for jungle adventure and sword n' sorcery, and as his overly busy designs are in We3, wrong for science fiction. Is there anything that he can do? At least Don Heck's romance and western comics were surprisingly good.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Long-Dead Cliches That Are No Longer Used

I was recently reading Edmond Hamilton's "Star Kings," a pulpy novel that is easily one of ol' Planet Smasher's best, when I realized that this story pretty much had the same exact plot as "Prisoner of Zenda."

"Star Kings" made me want to go back and read "Prisoner." What startled me about "Prisoner of Zenda" is that this book was the starting point of cliches, but cliches that are no longer referenced or used today. As surprisingly humorous and complex a book as "Prisoner of Zenda" was, it was oddly melancholic to read now...perhaps because the idea of something as crucial and influential to adventure novels, that spawned so many imitators, has mostly evaporated from the pop culture stage. It goes to show the short lifespan of adventure and escapist fiction.

For every adventure writer like Jules Verne that is constantly discovered by new fans, there are others that have been forgotten: J.H. Rosny, for instance, the pen name of a pair of brothers that were once considered in their native France to be the equal of Verne in the development of science fiction, best known for three books: "The Xipehuz" (which featured some of the most frightening, non-anthropomorphic, incomprehensible and otherworldly aliens ever), "The Death of the Earth" (mostly worth reading only for the moving last three pages, which describe the last being on earth winking out of existence) and "Quest for Fire" (best known for becoming a truly awesome film by a visionary genius director like Jean-Jacques Annaud).

There are other examples of cliches that were once exasperatingly universal but now are nowhere to be seen:

The Small European Country Adventure Story

In this story, typically identified with "Prisoner of Zenda," a tiny postage stamp sized central European country is under threat, and there is usually a problem with succession to the throne, a position that is offered to a foreign adventurer (who usually looks like one of the royals). There are lots of picturesque Disney castles and gallant fencing duels. One of the best such "Zenda" imitators is "The King Maker," one of the greatest of the Doc Savage novels, where Doc is offered the biggest bribe of his entire career: the throne of a tiny country. One can even argue that Doctor Doom's tiny nation of Latveria owes a lot to this now-forgotten subgenre.

It's not particularly hard to understand why this genre isn't seen much anymore. There aren't any more tiny European nations with royalty.

The Evil Chinaman

The mystery and crime novel market was once so utterly and totally choked with Fu Manchu imitators that by 1929, a prominent mystery guide wrote that "in a mystery, no Chinaman should be involved." It's not hard to understand why this cliche went by the wayside: it was mean-spirited and racist, paranoid about an immigrant ethnic group. It's hard to understand how hysterically paranoid white people were in the early 20th Century about an impotent non-power like the Chinese, surrounded on all sides by colonial rulers. Typically, the evil Fu Manchu character was such a genius, with such great planning ability and Oriental style, that he totally dominated the books that were written about them. Typically, the Fu Manchu genius had a sexy daughter, who was usually implied as promiscuous and sexually perverse, as warped and evil as Dad himself. One can even see Ming the Merciless as a sort of Evil Chinaman, in a sense: he certainly had the facial hair for it.


Like Fu Manchu, an entire library could be filled with nothing but books that are inferior imitators of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, the title character that was the beautiful, brainy and hypnotic sorceress of H. Rider Haggard's jungle adventure novel She (incidentally, Sigmund Freud's favorite novel). The beautiful, immortal, intelligent Ayesha was a white queen that ruled over an African tribe. She inspired a diversity of characters including Tarzan's archnemesis, La, High Priestess of Opar.

Startlingly, the evil, forbidding native queen has mostly vanished off the radar of pop culture. Perhaps she went offstage, hand in hand, along with the only man truly worthy of her: Fu Manchu.

The Stone Age Regression Novel

The best known example to modern audiences may be Jack London's "Before Adam. " The essence of this sort of book is one where a modern person, typically through the dubious mechanism of past-life regression or the collective unconscious, re-experiences the experiences and memories of a person alive in the Stone Age. Professor Challenger did this as well in one of the more ugh-inducing of the Lost World sequels - a series that jumped the shark pretty laughably when Arthur Conan Doyle converted to spiritualism. A better known example may be "Allan and the Ice Gods," featuring Allan Quartermain...incidentally, it was this book''s use of the past-life regressive hallucinogen Tanduki that suggested to Allan Moore that Quartermain might become a drug addict, a big plot point in "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

The Lost Race Yarn

This one took quite a bit to die out, but the Lost Race Yarn typically featured protagonists that discovered a hidden or secret society or civilization that is long thought extinct in a distant, unexplored region of the world: the Himalayas, the African Congo, the Antarctic, etc. The civilization that is most commonly found in Lost World yarns are almost always Ancient Roman, to the point that a lost city of Ancient Romans that survive to modern times is practically a sub-sub-genre in and of itself.

The best written book of this type, though not the most famous, is easily A. Merritt's "The Moon Pool," which I wholeheartedly recommended for its horror and humor.

Sometimes, though, the Lost Races aren't even human. Inspired by crackpot beliefs in cosmic evolution like Theosophy, many stories feature a hidden or underground cavern world. The most famous of these is Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "The Coming Race," about a blond race of superpowerful giants. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, incidentally, is best known as the writer who actually invented the cliche opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night."

What happened to the Lost Race Yarn? Well, the world became so well explored that the belief in a lost race or two became downright implausible to people in the later years of the 20th Century. So much is the pity. Of all the reasons for a story to go out of style, this troubles me the most: a story type that died because our world is mapped, explored and understood totally and completely.

The 13th Century Ebstorf Map

Now this is something that is downright fascinating.

It's a map of the world, but from the Middle Ages, which is interesting because it showed the structure of the world as medieval people saw it.

A few things to notice:

  • Jerusalem is at the center of the world
  • The earth is divided into three parts, just like the Classical Greek view
  • Africa is circular. Come to think of it, nothing about Africa is even close to right: from magical animals like the manticores and mirmicaleons (what the hell is that?) to Meroe, the land of midgets that ride crocodiles. Don't forget the dog-headed men, the people with four feet, and cave-dwelling giants. I guess it goes to show that wildly making shit up about Africa was a time-honored tradition centuries before the days of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
  • The Garden of the Hesperides is in Africa, marked by a winged serpent guardian
  • The location of the Garden of Eden is marked, watered by 11 rivers
  • Up around the Caucasus, you can see the homeland of the terrible cannibal giants Gog and Magog
  • If you look in Northern Asia, you can see where the mapmakers wrote in the homeland of the Amazon Women
  • Colchis, the city on the Black Sea that was the legendary home of the Quest for the Golden Fleece, is clearly marked
  • In Israel, you can see the Tower of Babel and Mt. Ararat, where Noah's ark landed
  • Mostly the map of Europe is right, but it's fascinating to see things like ant-dogs on the map, to say nothing of the total absence of anything like Switzerland.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Yeah, I saw that episode of "In Search Of..." too!

Anti-science climate-change deniers have a wonderful habit of interpreting out of context discussion within science itself. The fact that science isn't monolithic and explores various possibilities, to them, is a sign of weakness instead of a function of the process of science, where for entirely career oriented concerns, scientists in the peer review process jump down each other's throats to tear one another down.

In the 1970s, there was a theory that earth was going into a new Ice Age, a theory so dubious, sensationalistic and borderline fringe that it qualified for an "In Search Of..." episode, a series that dealt with serious scientific discussion about major issues of the Pyramid Power, the curse of the pharaohs, and whether or not the Mayans had the secret of space travel.

I mean, sure, "In Search Of" is the greatest show ever, but I wouldn't exactly look to it to determine the latest trends in science.

To exaggerate an "In Search Of" topic into something that was a real consensus of real science is a slimy interpretation of scientific history. Those nutty climate scientists - why can't they make up their minds, huh? Is it going to be an Ice Age or not?

This video responds to the claims that "climate scientists in the 1970s thought we were headed to an Ice Age" pretty well.

Some things just transcend the realm of politics. Politics is about changing value judgments into a course of action for society. This is different from science, which analyzes and describes the physical world around us. While we can disagree on courses of action as well as on value judgments as thinking human beings, physical reality is non-negotiable.

Just because something is inconvenient does not make it untrue.