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Tuesday, January 6th, 2009
10:43 pm
Paul Auster, Man In The Dark

"I lie in bed and tell myself stories," says August Brill, the main narrator of Man In The Dark, going to add that they "might not add up to much, but as long as I'm inside them, they prevent me from thinking about the things I would prefer to forget." The fact that storytelling serves up a cocktail of escape, denial, and consolation is is nothing new for readers of Paul Auster -- if Joan Didion hadn't already poached the title We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live for her massive brick of collected work, I have no doubt Auster would have pounced on it for his own complete novels or another volume of the series he curated for NPR or something -- and neither is the fact that Brill is the latest in a long list of author-protagonists learning to live again after some form of devastating loss, but, as with Murakami and Carroll (continuing on this previous post; god, it feels like only a few days have passed since writing in here last), in each new book the author builds on his past works with a new blend of familiar elements. So the core of this novel, the heartbreaking incident that haunts Brill, is the image of the death of Titus [1] Small, his granddaughter's fiance, and of course Brill is attempting to work through Titus' death using his storytelling, with results that are as measured and uneasily accepting as to be expected (Auster tries to turn "as the weird world rolls on" into a catchphrase illustrative of this mentality, though it's not nearly as euphonic as he seems to think it is). The question that remains unanswered is the same one left by his tight, unsettling previous novel, Travels In The Scriptorium, in which an author-analog is isolated, cared for, and repeatedly interrogated by characters from other Auster books. Here, August Brill comes up with a story wherein protagonist Owen Brick is tasked with assassinating August Brill, the man deemed responsible for creating the fictional world into which Brill finds himself hurled. Why is Paul Auster trying to kill himself?

Man In The Dark and Scriptorium share the theme of failed authorial attempts at self-annihilation, but while Scriptorium may have been most masterful book of Auster's career (or the one with the fewest egregious flaws, at least), much of Man In The Dark fizzles. Part of this is due to the nature of the plot, which necessarily entails an assassination attempt that is casually dismissed, never having had a chance at success in the first place. Part of this is the uneven prose, which frequently grasps for the nearest sense of unreality with no regard for what sort might be most appropriate for the circumstances:

The mind that created the war was going to belong to someone else, another invented character as unreal as Brick and Flora and Tobak and all the rest, but the longer I went on, the more I understood how badly I was fooling myself. The story is about a man who must kill the person who created him, and why pretend that I am not that person? By putting myself into the story, the story becomes real. Or else I become unreal, yet one more figment of my own imagination. Either way, the effect is more satisfying, more in harmony with my mood -- which is dark, my little ones, as dark as the obsidian night that surrounds me. (p. 102)

"My little ones?" Really? He's going for nightmarish and ending up with Count Floyd's Monster Chiller Horror Theater. Compare this to the chilling final section of Scriptorium when the trap shuts tight and Fanshawe clinically describes Mr. Blank's fate, capping it with the genuinely creepy "getting what he deserves -- no more, no less." But Scriptorium is superior not only for consistency of tone and prose quality, not simply because it's unabashed in its existence as a thought experiment [2] and shorn of the cheap sentimentality that has all but completely taken over Auster's books, but due to Man In The Dark's political conception. Auster is afflicted with Acute Post-9/11 Anxiety, and by God, he wants you to know that he's been grappling with it in his fiction.

Somewhere in Auster's Collected Prose, he approvingly quotes Georges Bataille, noting that "[he] speaks of "a moment of rage" as the kindling spark of all great works: it cannot be summoned by an act of will, and its source is always extra-literary. "How can we linger," he says, "over books we feel the author was not compelled to write?" (p. 325)." Auster comes down on the side of books born of necessity as opposed to books written for the sake of experiment. I consider this to be something of a false dichotomy, but I can see why he draws the distinction; all throughout his career, Auster has faced criticism for the distance he keeps from his creations, for sterile inventions, a lack of memorable, recognizably human characters, and a bag of increasingly stale verbal tricks -- in other words, for the sort of sins accused of pretty much every postmodernist writer. But postmodernism is a dead end in understanding Auster [3]. Yes, his persistent themes are primarily those considered postmodern (the lack of answers / objective truth, the collapse and failure of systems / language, etc.), but Auster lacks the stylistic gifts of, say, Beckett or Kafka (from whom he lifts those major themes). Auster is closer to a pre-modernist in his approach to literature; he constructs novels the way Thomas Sutpen thought he could assemble morality, as if the ingredients of a novel were "like the ingredients of pie and cake and once you had measured them and balanced them and mixed them and put them into the oven, it was finished and nothing but pie or cake could come out."

Thus Auster attempts to make up for the chilliness in his mediocre Kafka homage Mr. Vertigo, for example, with heaping globs of sentimentality, and then tries to balance *that* out with a generous dose of vulgarity. What you get isn't the bittersweet tale of fatherly love and loss he was hoping for; the characters are stock, the relationships are crudely drawn, the swearing doesn't make the sappiness any less treacly, and it all ends up rather empty. This approach reaches its apotheosis in The Brooklyn Follies, one of the most infuriatingly dumb books I've ever read. It winds its way through a nauseating plot about characters escaping unhealthy relationships or existential despair and meeting and finding love, and all through it in the background the narrator is writing a "catalog of human folly" which goes nowhere, and eventually everything works out for everyone (except the lovable doomed gay con artist bookstore owner, whose tragic death clears the way for everyone else's happy ending) and then, on the last page, 9/11 HAPPENED and truly, it were the greatest folly of all that this was right around the corner. As if the implications of the last sentence change anything at all about how to receive the story before it; if I changed the last scene of the Sex In The City movie to five minutes of shots of corpses in Darfur, it would justly be considered stupid and pretentious beyond belief. It might be an artistically challenging move -- OMG, he's indicting the audience and reminding them about the reality of the world they live in!!! AND THE PILE OF SKULLS YOU'RE STANDING ON IN THOSE MANOLOS -- and it might even raise awareness about an important subject. But it would still be a laughably dumb and awkward-to-the-point-of-inappropriate-and/or-counterproductive way to raise the issue. Which leads me back to the political genesis of Man In The Dark.

Auster has gone on over plenty of interviews (here is a good example) about how the Iraq war is unjust and was sold to the public under false pretenses, how Gore was the legitimate winner in 2000, how Bush stole the election, how living through the Bush presidency has felt like living in some sort of scary alternate history, and other political opinions that I more or less agree with (or at least am sympathetic to). The story-within-a-story in Man In The Dark takes place (mostly) in an alternate universe where, due to a Supreme Court ruling on the presidency in 2000, America has been torn apart by civil war. Thankfully, Auster has enough writerly sense to resist any didactic urge he might have to stump for his position in the AU; Owen Brick's alternate world is not a liberal wet dream, but a nightmare transplanting aspects of the war in Iraq to American soil, reimagining a variant of the de Vega story from Scriptorium into something that is specific to current events. This is not in any sense treated realistically; the other world, with its half-baked noir thriller feel and the (intentional) sense that it's being made up as the author goes along, is meant to contrast with the reality, as Brill and his family grapple with the emotional costs of loss and pointless war. Because (SPOILER ALERT, as if you can spoil an Auster book because the resolution to the mystery is always that there is no tidy resolution) Titus Small, driving trucks for a contractor in Iraq, was captured and executed, and his execution was filmed. That's it. That's the unimaginably horrific thing that happened. That's it?

I don't mean to imply that the thought of that happening to a loved one wouldn't be ghastly beyond belief, but I don't buy how Auster handles this, a story element that blatantly references Daniel Pearl but alters the circumstances to make a political point. It makes sense for the AU to feature tableaus recasting iconic moments and images from the war, because it's informed by the things stewing in Brill's mind, but by removing a layer of artifice and placing this reference in the "real world," as well as giving it the majority of the narrative weight, Auster lays bare his moral purpose. That is to say, I'm sure that the Pearl murder is the real life event that kindled Auster's moment of rage, the one that forced him to write this book. The entire story is built around this incident. But the choice to make Titus work for a contractor -- thus making him a relative innocent who is nonetheless complicit in America's economic exploitation of Iraq -- instead of a journalist -- unambiguously innocent, opposed to the narrative promulgated by the power structure and martyred in the pursuit of truth and justice -- means that his death functions as a harsh form of karma: America has sinned, and look who pays the price. In other words, we do it to ourselves -- hence the civil war in the metafiction, cutting out the middlecountry (as it were) and spotlighting the misery born of the country's internal divisions. This is where Auster's solipsism and self-obsession becomes a problem for me -- when it's not simply about literary aesthetics, but commenting directly on the world. The emphasis is on what America is doing to itself and not on the effects it has on others, as if the worst part about mismanaging a war and hopelessly fucking up another country isn't that we got busloads of innocents killed, but rather that it hurts us, too. Or, the really bad part about having done those bad things is that now we feel bad about being bad people [4]. This is moral narcissism, reducing complex issues of agency and responsibility to the lens of a single perspective.

This isn't a bad book, just not one whose central concept grabs me the way it should. At least it proves that Scriptorium wasn't purely a fluke, and that Auster seems to have worked past the self-parody of Oracle Night and The Brooklyn Follies [5]. It's just that... well, Orwell says, "Where I lacked a political purpose… I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” For Auster, it seems to be the opposite case; his style suffers and he falls into those bad habits when he hits on an urgent point he wants to make. Meanwhile, I expect the theme of authorial suicide-by-character to be developed further in his next novel, because although I couldn't say which direction he's headed, he's definitely going somewhere with it.

[1] The reference in the name is to one of Auster's pet obsessions, Rembrandt's son, whom he outlived, which leads down a road of associative meaning which isn't really a fruitful road for discussion. Same with the obligatory nods to Thoreau, Hawthorne, etc. BUT REST ASSURED, IN CASE YOU WERE WORRIED. I CAUGHT EVERY REFERENCE.

[2] And uniquely for Auster, who has been justly criticized for asking simple questions to flatter his readers' cleverness (even the New York Trilogy, though well-executed, was essentially as much of a retread of / sloppy blowjob to Beckett's trilogy as Superman Returns was to Donner's Superman films), it's a thought experiment posing questions worth asking about the process by which an author-surrogate (or self-insertion) becomes differentiated and fixed as a character.

[3] Even moreso than genre fiction, where he's at least comfortable borrowing the surface-level trappings and the cliches to play with, though little more than that (his pseudonymous first novel was fairly typical detective fare, though he seems to think he was working beneath his talents and cleverly tweaking the tropes of the genre). He's certainly far less familiar with and more removed from genre than Murakami or Carroll.

[4] This also irks me with respect to Moorcock, whose recurring theme of "you can't truly betray anyone but yourself" is one with which I fundamentally disagree.

[5] God, those are some truly terrible books, using toothless, insubstantial surrealist touches in a doomed attempt to spice up turgid, simplistic melodramatic plots. The most embarrassing passage of Auster's career may be the moment in Oracle Night when the narrator decides that the premise of The Time Machine is flawed because he is convinced people would rather visit the past than the future.
Saturday, November 22nd, 2008
1:13 pm
Happy birthday, briancub! You are my sunshine: rarely seen, but always a pleasure when you surface.

Also, a happy pre-birthday to the lovely and multi-talented denay.

Actual update to come soon. It's been busy.

Saturday, November 8th, 2008
1:51 pm
more like the ghost in SUCK well no not really
Jonathan Carroll, The Ghost In Love

Jonathan Carroll is one of our greatest living writers. This is by far his weakest novel.

First off, the title is the worst of Carroll's career. It's so bland and generic! This from the man who brought us Kissing The Beehive, The Land Of Laughs, The Marriage Of Sticks, and Outside The Dog Museum, and actually provided in-story reasons for those titles rather than just coming up with something haunting and vaguely poetic and slapping it on the front. But beyond that aesthetic choice, the novel is a pretty blatant misstep. I know, I know, it's important to evaluate a work of art on its own terms. But there's a lot about it that sucks, and the fact that it's out of place in the context of Carroll's oeuvre does explain why it's a little more difficult to overlook the book's flaws and flimsiness. It's simple, perfunctory, and lifeless.

Like Haruki Murakami and Paul Auster, contemporaries [1] who have also spent the majority of their careers engaged in blending genre [2] and surrealist elements with literary fiction while trying not to get all middlebrow about it [3], Carroll's novels are best understood not on their own, but in conversation with each other. His masterwork, the six novels (his third through eighth) that have been termed the "Rondua series" or the "Answered Prayers sextet," take variations on samey plot structures to explore their subjects (love, family, art, the creative life, the unconscious, death, etc.) from the perspectives of different characters, coming to varied and contradictory conclusions (e.g. a seemingly harmless lie told to protect the feelings of a loved one may be a necessary mercy in one book, while it poisons the relationship in another). Although their stories are complete and stand-alone, their effects turn on how they vary from the other stories, so Weber Gregston's chilling choice at the end of A Child Across The Sky, for example, gains more power coming after the endings of Bones Of The Moon and Sleeping In Flame. Carroll's most recent two novels, White Apples and Glass Soup, are more directly connected in plot and character, the first focusing on the father of an unborn future savior, the second focusing on the mother. The end of Glass Soup, when little Anjo is born and slated to change the nature of reality, set the stage for another volume centered around the child.

The Ghost In Love is not that novel, even though it does revolve around changes to the rules of life and death. Instead, Ghost is most akin to The Wooden Sea, the concluding volume of the Crane's View trilogy and what until now I would have considered Carroll's most flawed novel. While packed with good moments, the odd time travel elements of the plot of The Wooden Sea are awkwardly handled and, though I do like the idea of adding science fiction to Carroll's bag of supernatural weirdness tricks, the mixture feels more quotidian and less unsettling than it should. But the conceit of The Wooden Sea, where protagonist Frannie McCabe is confronted with versions of himself at different times of his life, each of them essentially an entirely distinct individual, is a good one, and Carroll mines it well. Ghost has a similar central idea, but it's handled way, way worse. Let me get into the premise to explain.

The titular Ghost In Love is named Ling. Ling is in love with schoolteacher German Landis, who used to date Benjamin Gould until they broke up after Ben kinda died. He was supposed to die, at least, but he didn't; this is because he's arbitrarily special because of some random bureaucratic error made in Heaven (he's not the only one; others show up later on, including a woman named Danielle, to whom Ben gains a psychic connection). But his ghost was created, and that's Ling, who is named Ling, by the way, because all ghosts have Chinese names, since way back in the day, a Chinese farmer came up with the idea of ghosts to explain what happens when people die, and God heard this and thought it was a grand idea and had his angels implement it. A lot of the book is like this, taking short tangents to spew out personal data and historical information and rules (so that they can be broken, of course), and because almost all of this is irrelevant to the plot, all of this lives or dies by how intrinsically entertaining each bit is. German has a dog named Pilot, and dogs can see ghosts and talk to them in the dog language. Plus they can see cancer bounding down the street on its way to infect people. The dog material in this book is thinly justified by the narrative, contributing to the more general feeling that this is Carroll-by-the-numbers (because Carroll's that guy who does the magic talking dogs, right?), and there's such a constant undercurrent of sickly-sweet cutesiness that it threatens to tip the line into self-parody, especially when some nebulously magical creatures called verzes show up and all I can think of is Lady In The Water. The villain, meanwhile, is lame and nonthreatening and serves solely to prod the characters in whatever direction is necessary, and I know that beating him is intentionally anticlimactic because it's not the real conflict, but if we're supposed to believe that Ben's psyche is boundless in its expanse, then there's room for his negative side to be something more than a stock baddie.

Carroll's gift for sketching character through carefully chosen detail deserts him here; these are by far his most shallow leads, distinguished only by a few dull quirks and neuroses. Ling's love for German by necessity does not include the physical (great way to portray a woman loving a woman in the most safe, sanitized possible way!), so it's based entirely on her barely-existent personality and what she does, which is very little. Wow, German is a strong, confident, gutsy, impulsive woman! What makes her unique in this, exactly? German falls for Ben, again, for no other reason than because he's, you know, strong and confident and gutsy and impulsive. Carroll has a rare talent for handling complex, believable romantic relationships. This is not in evidence here.

The plot is simple and negligible -- weird, semi-arbitrary things happen to German and Ben, leading them to get back together to figure out what's going on, which is revealed to be all about Ben, as it becomes clear that fragments of his own identity are behind everything. Here's where the connection to The Wooden Sea comes up; where in that book the infinite variation was to be found in an individual at different times in his life, here the concept is that at any given moment, the being we call "you" is a combination of an infinite number of different selves, which is some well-traveled territory, but not necessarily a bad idea. Unfortunately, Carroll uses this in the service of a bland self-actualization message: recognize the limitless potential you have as a human being! Resist the negative aspects of yourself! You can be a devil or a saint! Yeah, I've played the Persona series, too. But here's where the real problem comes in. In Persona, the alternate selves found in people are figures from legend and mythology -- gods and fantastic beasts, thoroughly classified by tarot arcana, with very specific significance ascribed to each. When you see that Katsuya's starter Persona is Helios (and that Helios is a cat), that tells you something about his personality. When we meet a crowd consisting of aspects of Benjamin Gould, we get nothing but surfaces. Why is the bitter Ben female? Is there supposed to be something female about bitterness? What is it supposed to mean when some of the worst parts of Ben are identified as black / asian / etc.? There's an essentialism on display here, however unintended, that is kind of appalling. Sure, there is nothing blatantly offensive here, such as Ben coming across a kindly overweight black woman who represents the matronly part of him who loves cooking and cleaning and serving or something. But if you're literalizing a personal characteristic of feeling in the form of members of minority groups, you can't avoid the implication that you're associating those characteristics or feelings with that minority group. This is creepy and not okay. It would be enough to make me dislike the book even if the surrounding material were strong enough to compensate, but that's not the case.

The prose is well below Carroll's usual standard, and each new chapter feels the need to summarize the situation and point out how WACKY and OUT THERE it is; this might be intended as a concession to non-genre readers [4] who might have trouble keeping track of the odd metaphysics (which aren't all that odd; instead of the new agey "lives as part of a grand universal mosaic" model of White Apples and Glass Soup, the cosmology here is a fairly standard non-denominational Judeo-Christian framework that he adopts in order to subvert everything about it), but it has the effect of making the novel feel as though it were serialized and stitched together into a novel (and I don't think it was), or perhaps written round-robin style. Weirdly, Carroll plays a pronoun game with Ling, referring to her as "it" for a really long time until, for no apparent reason, he switches to referring to her as female. The constant attempted profundity of the third-person narration is at times hard to take, too. At one point, the narrator makes some rather inflammatory generalizations about the nature of bums; if Carroll had placed these in the mouth of Harry Radcliffe or any of his other narrators, I would be content, but framing them as universal pronouncements from the perspective of the omniscient makes them hard to take. All in all, an additional round of revision could have done this book a great deal of good.

This is Ben's story, and Carroll doesn't care about anyone here but him. Everyone else is marginalized; German is reduced to being Ben's motivation, and Ling and Pilot gradually disappear entirely. At one point, the inhabitants of a building are transported into their own happiest moments (in a way that might be deadly or soul-imperiling or something) by the influence of the supernaturally powerful selfishness of Danielle; our heroes observe this and move on, doing nothing to help. They don't care about the lives of anyone outside their own special magical clique, and neither, evidently, does the author. And when I recall the singularly unbearable and arbitrary asshole Death in Carroll's earlier From The Teeth Of Angels, I can't help but be disappointed with the much more conventional personification of the Angel of Death here, a cosmic functionary who serves mainly to go, "wow, those humans and their amazing potential" and congratulate humanity for taking its destiny into its own hands at the appropriate points. Teeth was a small-scale end to the Answered Prayers sextet with a simple, razor-thin conclusion about mortality. Ghost may be intended as a similar coda to the last six books, but the Crane's View trilogy and White Apples / Glass Soup don't work together as a part of the same cycle (there's a significant difference between their moral perspectives, to my mind, and a teasing reference to Ben's origins in Crane's View is not enough to bridge the gap), and Ghost is not a successful companion piece to The Wooden Sea despite the thematic connections. I hope that a proper conclusion to the White Apples / Glass Soup series is forthcoming, but more than that, I hope that Carroll is somehow capable (in his subsequent output) of retroactively justifying having written this book at this time. Good authors can write bad books. It's not an unpardonable sin. But when an author forges meaning through context and dialogue with his other works, a subpar book weakens the other links in the chain.

ETA: John Clute weighs in with praise and an explanation for the fact that "as soon as a Slick Fantasy convention about who ghosts can talk to is laid down, it is demolished." His position makes sense, but it sounds as though he really felt the central literalized metaphor of the novel where for me, it clunked. So it goes.

[1] Jonathan Lethem may be worth talking about in this context, too, despite being a generation later. Certainly the boring reddish comic book-y cover of this book brought to mind the boring reddish comic book-y cover of Lethem's You Don't Love Me Yet, which I should write something about. Though that was a move towards horror, and this is another of Carroll's moves away from it.

[2] Science fiction for Murakami, detective fiction for Auster, horror for Carroll. Most of the time, at least.

[3] I know, loaded statement, but I don't feel like unpacking it right now. I will say that in my opinion, Murakami has been generally the most successful at this; Auster, consistently the least.

[4] Carroll's marketing, at least, has tried for mainstream sales / recognition ever since The Wooden Sea. It's conceivable that the problems I have with this book are intentionally caused by some misguided attempt to court a mainstream audience. But I doubt it. I mean, I hope Carroll is smart enough to realize that writing watered-down books would do him no favors with any readership or critics.
Tuesday, November 4th, 2008
9:37 am
So I've emerged from my Mother 3-based seclusion just in time for the IMPORTANTEST ELECTION IN THE HISTORY OF EVER.

We're down to the last needle. It's time for Lucas Obama to pull it out.
Friday, October 17th, 2008
12:46 pm
Michael Moorcock, Sojan

"I ride towards Shortani," said Sojan, "but whether I shall for long depends upon circumstances."

The merchant knew better than to ask what 'circumstances' they were for privacy means life on Zylor and those who ask too many needless questions are liable to find themselves in an alleyway keeping close company with a knife!

The contents of this collection are almost identical to those of Elric At The End Of Time (with the notable exception of "Elric At The End Of Time" itself). Unique to Sojan are three additional stories set in Sojan's universe, and if you for some reason had a hankering for more barely-literate juvenilia, be warned that these come to maybe 10 pages total and don't even have any of the groanworthiness of the other Sojan stories (which at least have moments such as: "Not only men made up the barbarian army, their maidens rode beside them, armed with knife, sword, shield and spear. In their left hands they carried charm sticks to keep their men and themselves from harm. Most of these girls were extremely beautiful and the armour they wore did not detract from their looks in anyway, rather it enhanced them.") [all errors sic].

The only other thing here that's not also in End Of Time is another essay about the Elric stories, a magazine piece written while the component novellas of Stormbringer were being serialized. It's mostly short thoughts on Moorcock's creative process and his assessment of the merits of his work, with nothing substantive enough to make the book worth seeking out. In response to a reader who wonders whether the Melnibonéans who survived The Dreaming City would despise Elric, he says that he thinks of them as "accepting his treachery fairly calmly, and yet bound to do something about it if they caught up with him." This view of the Melnibonéan outlook, potentially a decent plot hook, doesn't square with the stories themselves, as the surviving Melnibonéans are never on Elric's trail (he always seeks them out), they're quick to help Elric multiple times even after he gets their leader and many others killed by dragging them into a revenge quest, and they never "do something about it." We learn that he considers "Masters of Chaos" (which I haven't read yet) his best sword-and-sorcery tale (as he sees it, it's closer to "swords-and-philosophy"), while Kings In Darkness is the worst of the Elric series and Black Sword's Brothers is "the dullest Elric story." The weaknesses he finds in both Black Sword's Brother and Sad Giant's Shield he blames on the fact that he revised them, something he doesn't normally like to do (at least with the Elric stories). These are opinions that I'm sure he has changed over the years -- he has certainly reversed his position on revision.
Saturday, October 11th, 2008
11:39 am
Vests, Zippers, Goggles, Gears
On Thursday night I went to SF In SF's steampunk reading, the only Litquake event I've felt like going to this week (nobody I know was interested in roadtripping to Palo Alto for Neil Gaiman. I miss Quan). Yes, the subculture is horrendously overplayed, the latest in a long series of embarrassing lifestyle choices for geeky fetishist types with a love of pseudo-Victorian garb (mixing styles from completely different periods without regard to how they clash). I came for the readings; the authors in attendance were Kage Baker, Joe Lansdale, and Rudy Rucker, and happily, none of them were particularly enamored with the subgenre (Lansdale in particular expressed his appreciation for Jules Verne and H.G. Wells but a distaste for cyberpunk, steampunk, and anything else called -punk). Stumping for the pro-side was some useless humorless convention organizer (with the ultra-gay name of Dick Bottoms -- that manages to be even gayer than the guy from Faith No More/Imperial Teen!) who had nothing to say besides vague comments about steampunk's essential optimism (oddly, there wasn't a mention of the strain of urban fantasy written by China Mieville or Ian MacLeod for the whole night, and only Baker briefly touched on the subject of Dickens) and plugs for his con.

Baker read half of "Speed, Speed The Cable" (available online here at the moment), a Company story which follows mid-19th Century agents of the Gentlemen's Speculative Society (including Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax) in their dealings with two footnotes to the history of technology: the trans-Atlantic cable (in its brief period of use before it was burnt out and wasn't touched again until after the Civil War) and Monturiol's wooden submarine. It's mildly amusing, although it contains little by the way of character, the attempt to draw a comparison to the Internet with respect to intellectual property theft is strained, and she brings no new perspective to a point about the inevitability of world-altering technological progress that has been made countless times before. Lansdale read an excerpt from some novel about Mark Twain and Jules Verne meeting a superintelligent seal who was created by the real life Doctor Moreau and hung around with the real life Captain Nemo. This was much less painful than the description makes it sound, and was helped by Lansdale's quick reading speed, pleasant Texas accent, and nice comic timing, though I'm pretty sure the novel would become tiresome if he didn't keep up the same level of invention throughout. Rucker read a momentum-killing section of The Hollow Earth and stopped just when he'd settled into the right rhythm for his drunken mooching Edgar Allen Poe.

As was to be expected, the Q&A session was inane [1], with such "questions" as, "Do you think there's any connection between steampunk and the New Weird?" The discussion kept being turned back to an incredibly pointless attempt to define steampunk despite everyone in the room having a different and conflicting idea of what's covered by the subgenre, and none of this was helped by host/moderator Terry Bisson, who seemed to be halfheartedly trying (and failing) to get an argument going between the panelists. But the venue was nice and comfortable, and Barry Malzberg is doing a reading next Saturday, which is probably worth checking out.

Meanwhile, Geraldine is reading tonight (Saturday) in the Mission (with Kim Addonizio, as part of the Litcrawl). Be there.

Richard Grant, Through The Heart

This is the only Grant novel I haven't read besides Another Green World (his most recent novel, and the only thing he has come out with in the past decade), so it made sense to check this out beforehand. A little background: Grant's career can be divided between his four mid-80s/early-90s SF fantasies, which are kind of post-apocalyptic (but in different ways) and all reference each other and may take place in the same world in a very distant sense (I know that certain phrases and songs definitely recur), and his three late-90s magical realist/urban fantasy books, which take place in the more-or-less modern day world and have character overlap. I don't know yet if Another Green World continues in this milieu or goes in a completely different direction, though the fact that it's from another publisher and appears to take place during World War II leads me to lean towards the latter.

On the future SF: I've bounced off Saraband Of Lost Time more times than I have bounced off any other novel. It took me almost a decade of regularly reading the first 50-100 pages, setting it down for 8-10 months, and starting over again before I finally soldiered through a little farther and found I couldn't put it down [2]. The momentum off of that helped me to get through Grant's Rumors Of Spring, which is longer and even slower to get going but still ends up magical. Views From The Oldest House is probably closer to Pynchon's Vineland than anything else I've read (way more than Tom Robbins, the most frequent critical comparison, for example) -- not to say that it's as good (Grant's prose is neither as pleasing nor as dense as Pynchon's), but the backwater countryside setting and the mix of idealism gone to seed and fascination with/horror of the power of demagoguery and fascism result in a similar feel.

As for the modern day books, Tex And Molly In The Afterlife takes a premise that could have been cheesy (an old hippie couple dies and sticks around to foil some evil developers) and treats it seriously (though not without a great deal of black humor), illustrating their worldview without snobbery or scorn and rendering the intimacies of a long-time couple -- their personal language, the minor or obscure things significant only to the two of them -- in a way that rings true and has all the weight of shared history it should have. In The Land Of Winter might contain the least supernatural content of all of Grant's books, despite starring a practicing witch. Pippa Rede is a wiccan single mother who manages to get by, and despite being new agey and rather dim, she makes a great, incredibly loving mom; when a conservative born-again mother and some dubious "experts" get the authorities to take away Pippa's daughter due to the standard witchcraft satanic abuse "harmful environment" allegations, Pippa is horrified and shattered, and she determinedly takes any and every step necessary to get her daughter back, supported by a few pagans, burnouts, and civil liberties wonks who are sympathetic to her plight. Kaspian Lost is a coming-of-age novel focusing on a minor character from Winter, Kaspian, the sullen, rebellious stepson of the fundamentalist bitch. He undergoes a mysterious disappearance that may be connected to leprechauns and/or elves and/or aliens, and in the wake of the consequences (he's shipped away to a special school for behavior modification), he works through issues of identity, morality, politics, and (most of all, as is to be expected of a teenage boy) sex.

Grant won the Philip K. Dick Award for Through The Heart, and he strikes me as a very Philip K. Dick Award-style author; he's interested in the ways technology affects and shapes people's everyday lives, he's politically liberal in a way that informs his fiction (ecological concerns, for example, drive many of his plots, especially with the enormous forest whose will manifests itself in Rumors Of Spring, not to mention the motivations of the dead hippie protagonists Tex And Molly) but rarely gets preachy about it, and he's generally an excellent, compassionate, sincere, and mildly but constantly experimental writer (Views, especially, does some surprising and fantastic things with narration). Another plus: all of Grant's books are filled with strong, rounded women and gay men (few lesbians, unfortunately) as main/viewpoint characters and in important roles.
And his chapters
tend to end
like this.

Through The Heart is the last of the future SF novels, and by far the most straightforward of the lot, mainly owing to the fact that it follows one viewpoint character instead of juggling the perspectives of a dozen characters with elaborate interlocking subplots (as Grant does in Saraband, Rumors, and Views). It's a richly imagined coming-of-age story about a young boy named Kem. Kem's father sells him to the Oasis, a vast city-size mobile mechanical landship (I remember one reviewer describing it as like a Jawa sandcrawler, which gives you the idea) inhabited by the Crew, who service the ship and keep it moving on its constant yearly circuit around the world (which is mainly desert), and Residents, who live on the Oasis because it provides some form of treatment for the crying, a deadly STD with all sorts of social stigma attached. Kem's circumstances change frequently; whenever he thinks he has an idea of his place on the Oasis, something changes and he's reassigned to a different job or forced to reevaluate something he considered to be true. He falls for a girl from afar, contrives over time to get close to her, and learns that she's similarly interested in him. When they do finally get together, he's disappointed when she turns out to be a human being, with her own interests and likes and dislikes. Yet Grant doesn't stop at the "Wow, Women Are People Too" point, and she doesn't just exist to provide this lesson for Kem; Grant takes stock figures (the gay best friend with a bit of a crush on the protagonist, the kindly old dying man, the boss who mentors Kem and treats him like a son, the mysterious intense stoic captain) and complicates them, fleshing them out with history and humanity. When Kem chances to meet his father and one of his sisters again, he comes to understand the economic realities of the lives of his family members, and how deeply the act affected them; there are no fireworks, no tearful reunions or apologies, just the gradual realization that like everybody else, Kem's father is a fallible human being with his own childhood, his own imperfect first love, his own compromises made for survival, his own soul-gnawing mistakes.

Other good points: the chilling sequence when Kem discovers a talent for manipulation when he is given one day to infiltrate a city, find an adolescent girl and boy with very specific qualities, and convince them to sign up with the Oasis of their own free will. Also, there's a moment when Kem's queer best friend seems to have come down with the crying and I remembered that this was from 1991 and thought, oh, no, painfully obvious AIDS metaphor ahoy; I was relieved to find that the scene was a total red herring (and, eventually, that it had an important function beyond Goosebumps-style he's-dying-no-he-isn't chapter cliffhanger shock), and that the crying plays a much more elaborate symbolic role in the world of the story that I would never spoil because it's great. I could see this book finding a wider audience if it were reprinted and marketed as YA, with its anti-bildungsroman revolutionary ending-that's-really-a-beginning. I mean, see here:

People were dying all over the place; the trail that Kem had followed here was a bloody one. This made him more angry than sad -- angry, he guessed, because he wanted all the deaths to make sense, to mean something, the way other things meant something. Sentences, symbols, crumbled fountains, lines on a chart, irises blooming in an old garden -- all of these things meant something other than themselves, and it seemed to Kem that death ought to stand for something too. There ought to be a pattern, as there were patterns in a story, the kind of pattern Tallheron had once talked about: how a disease in a story was not a particular disease but disease, the idea in its broadest sense, the whole pattern and not the part. When a character died in a story it was like that; it was not a single death but death, it stood for something and there was a reason for it. Death was not pointless, in stories. Kem wanted life to be like that. He wanted life to make sense the way stories made sense. He wanted to understand it, and he wanted to understand why people he had known and loved had died. (p. 317)

I would have loved this when I was young. I know that I love it now.

The author's note at the end reveals that in addition to having started work on Tex And Molly, Grant had at this point finished another novel, Ravens, about an aging motorcycle gang. Maybe he couldn't find a publisher for it? It's dispiriting to think that there are more completed Grant novels out there that will never see the light of day for no good reason.

[1] Here is the sole close-to-worthwhile observation of the night: in Dracula, they're fighting an ancient evil using cutting-edge technology. PROTO-SF HORROR!

[2] I must stress that there's nothing especially daunting about the book or anything; the experience was a personal fluke, and I wouldn't have even kept trying if it hadn't been interesting enough to continue.
Wednesday, October 1st, 2008
11:21 pm
This Should Have Happened
Speaker of the House: Then it's unanimous. We're going to approve the 750 billion dollar bailout and --

Congressman: Wait a minute. I'd like to tack on a rider to that bill: 30 million dollars of taxpayer money to support the perverted arts.

Speaker: All in favor of the amended bailout slash prevert bill?


Speaker: Bill defeated.
Sunday, September 28th, 2008
11:58 pm
Well, I missed most of the fun this weekend (made it to the new Academy of Sciences too late to get in), but on the plus side, there was a pretty sweet haul from the library's big book sale (Joanna Russ, Mishima, Vollmann, Lorrie Moore, Kate Wilhelm, Guy Gavriel Kay, Emma Donoghue, and Elizabeth Bear were among the best finds), and I was able to pick up a load of Octavia Butler, David Wingrove, and shitty Dune prequels/sequels for Jeremy.

Michael Moorcock, Elric At The End Of Time

I haven't yet acquired the last two White Wolf / Millennium omnibuses (they are incredibly expensive, and I'm willing to wait for a deal), so it's about time I got to some of the other assorted Moorcock I have lying around. Where better to start than an odds-and-sods collection?

Apart from the title novella itself, which really needs to be read in the context of the End of Time setting (it looks at its hero from a distance, and I would imagine that if you read it for the Elric content, you'd be disappointed), there's very little of interest. "The Last Enchantment" is a very short and out-of-continuity Elric story (originally intended to be the "last Elric story") in which the hero is forced to entertain the Lords of Chaos by creating something they cannot envision. He succeeds by forming the stupid sort of "paradox" (I think the author misuses the word) that Moorcock seems to think is profound. "The Stone Thing" is a swords-and-sorcery parody whose one joke isn't funny. There are some utterly generic stories written in Moorcock's teens and starring a hero named Sojan; despite the thinly veiled Conan-y name ("I'm an original character, like Rickey Rouse or Monald Muck!"), he might bear a closer resemblance to John Carter of Mars. Sojan is a boringly honorable sword-wielding mercenary on a tedious planet of airships and spaceships, warring kingdoms, steaming jungles, fantastic beasts, psychics, and lots of guns.

On the non-fiction front, there's some talk on the genesis of the Elric stories (he says that Stormbringer symbolizes "my own and others [sic] tendency to rely on mental and physical crutches rather than cure the weakness at its source" -- fair enough, that's a part of it -- and that when Stormbringer finally turns to slay its master it is "meant to represent [...] how mankind's wish-fantasies can often bring about the destruction of [...] mankind." Um, I wouldn't say that.) and an essay on the Jerry Cornelius stories that mainly talks about what it was like to publish New Worlds. Not having read the Cornelius books (though I'd like to get to those soon), I can't say if the piece says anything worthwhile about them, but when Moorcock says, "Unfortunately many critics have missed the serious points of the stories [...]. Sexual ambiguity, for instance, is taken for granted in the JC stories -- a fact of life -- but critics continue to see that element, among others, as 'daring,'" I don't think I have to have read them to observe that he might be missing the point, that perhaps the critics of the period found the act of treating sexual ambiguity as a fact of life to be the "daring" part. Moorcock goes on to praise bohemian-types for being the only ones who can "get" what he's trying to do because they "by and large do take certain things for granted which are regarded as shocking by the average middle-class person," which is really a useless echo chamber mindset to get yourself into (Great! Only people who share your mindset are properly equipped to appreciate your work!). He's defensive about the literary merit of his work, and his constant self-effacement carries with it an element of self-aggrandizement. He puts up an aww-shucks veneer, stating that all he's ever wanted to do is tell fun stories and anyone who finds literary depth in his books is probably reading too hard into it but they're free to do so and it's flattering, but then he insists upon a single, correct interpretation for his work and mocks analyses that differ from his own. He also grouses about "the millionth novel about a young advertising executive in love with a deb and involved with a married woman." This doesn't make me want to dig deeper into his nonfiction. In conclusion, like most odds-and-sods collections, this is really for completists only.
1:18 pm
Avram Davidson, Rork! / Mutiny In Space / The Island Under The Earth

Avram Davidson was one of the top-tier writers of clever and memorable cross-genre short stories (most could be classified as fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and magical realism) through the 60s and 70s, and all of the collections I've come across have been great, especially the greatest hits-ish Avram Davidson Treasury and The Other Nineteenth Century. Adventures In Unhistory was also a treat, sort of a slightly more in-depth version of the slim paperbacks on real-life hauntings, mysteries, and myth (they'd touch on pirate treasure on Oak Island, the Bermuda Triangle, the occult, secret societies, pyramids, etc.) I would pick up at those Scholastic book fairs in elementary school. But apart from scattered praise for an unfinished series involving the poet Virgil as sort of a magician, I've never heard any praise for Davidson's novels, so when I saw a cheap stack of them, I decided to pick them up to judge for myself. I started on the ones that looked less interesting (room for improvement, right?), and I hope I was right in my surface assessment, because if these are representative of his novel-length work, I can see why nobody talks about them. They've given me nothing nice to say.

Rork!: Ran Lomar, a fairly average middle manager, mild-mannered but talented and committed (with hidden heroic depths he never knew he had, of course), is sent by a galaxy-spanning company to a backwater planet which is noteworthy only for being the sole source of redwing, a plant from which certain medicines and treatments for rare illnesses are made. The production of redwing has steadily dropped for quite some time, and Ran has been tasked with reversing that figure within five years, which seems like an awfully generous time limit. When he arrives, however, he finds that he has very little power to actually do anything when he comes up against a fatalist bureaucracy that is stubbornly resistant to change; when Ran tries to sway the functionaries and bosses, they discount all of his ideas for improving productivity as unworkable and blame the Tocks, the planet's labor force. The Tocks, the planet's human but culturally distinct (we know this because they speak in a cutesy ungrammatical dialect peppered with slang and lame idioms) natives, are heavily oppressed, and the ruling class dismisses the host of problems plaguing Tock communities as self-inflicted, using the whole range of historical racial stereotypes as justification -- they're unintelligent and superstitious, they're lazy, they're drunks, they wouldn't know what to do with freedom if they had it, and so on. Ran is not so sure about this assessment, as observation reveals the main contributor to the drop in production to be a disease that afflicts the Tocks, a seasonal fever which worsens by the year.

Unfortunately, despite some focus on the roots and consequences of systemic racism and pressure to make minor percentage gains when major reform is necessary, Rork! is a run-of-the-mill adventure yarn, not a science fictional version of The Wire. While traveling to visit Tock community leaders in order to drum up goodwill and support for his measures and ideas, Ran is captured by a villainous Tock patriarch named Flinders who hates interfering offworlders and plans to incite violence and uprisings against the corporate leadership of the planet. With the help of a young Tock woman who wants to get away from an unwanted arranged marriage, Ran escapes and, stranded in the dangerous wilderness with Flinders on his trail, he decides to cross the dreaded Rorkland to return to civilization in time to warn his superiors.

Crossing Rorkland is unheard of. Nobody crosses Rorkland because it's infested with rorks [1]. Everyone hates and fears the monstrous, stupid, incredibly dangerous spider-like rorks. The vast majority of people have never seen a rork, but everyone has uncorroborated stories from cousins or friends-of-a-friend about horrific rork attacks or the disappearances of unattended babies. That's almost proof! It is no surprise when Ran and Norna (the woman he escapes with) learn that, yes, the prejudice is indeed unfounded, the rorks are intelligent and good-natured, they've raised the lost children on their own, they are in general all puppies and rainbows despite looking kind of scary. The rorks are also being hurt by the seasonal fever, and with this information, Ran is eventually able to piece together the source of the infection, a local animal whose lemming-like rampages spread the sickness. His solution is to make that animal extinct; this seems shortsighted to me, since I'm sure the creature plays a valuable role in the ecosystem, but no one questions his solution. To bring about this genocide, however, requires the cooperation of everyone -- Tocks and rorks alike. Thus, Ran must convince a populace with a deep-seated fear and hatred of rorks that everything they've heard is completely wrong. He does this remarkably easily. There's a little hitch -- Flinders' gang massacres the first rork-human diplomatic summit -- but the rorks are remarkably understanding and forgiving, trusting Ran's explanation completely and dutifully sending out more rorks who are happy to assist. Wrongs are righted, the status of Tocks is improved, and the ignorant are enlightened.

Each and every victory is quick, relatively painless, and has exactly the effects that are intended and nothing more. Because discrimination in Rork! is something that isolated individuals do, something that people will abandon when confronted with facts and evidence, the story is way too simplistic and grotesquely optimistic to portray anything resembling human behavior. When Ran finally dumps his shallow, bigoted fuckbuddy for Norna, the Tock woman who has displayed selflessness, loyalty, and intelligence through the several life-threatening situations they've faced together, it's supposed to affirm the values of open-mindedness and depth and rationalism. But there are no stakes here; Ran isn't risking anything important in making this stand. There's no implication that Ran's friends might be uncomfortable hanging out with him or that Ran and Norna would find it more difficult to find jobs or housing or that they might be the target of harassment or any of the things you would expect in a situation like this. The conclusion of the novel teases a unsettling implication -- yes, the problems are solved, and production is back on track to grow and grow, but the rorks feed on redwing, which means that eventually, inevitably, the needs of one group will come in conflict with the needs of another -- but immediately defuses it -- the rorks use a different part of the plant than the Tocks gather -- in such a way as to completely miss the fact that the rorks might need legal rights and protections so that the company doesn't just decide to wipe them out or take their land if it helps their profit margins. In trying to make statements so vague and positive as not to alienate anyone in the audience (prejudice is bad, brotherhood is good, fighting is cool as long as you're fighting bad guys), Davidson says nothing of value and undermines the points he's trying to make. These are not atypical flaws in genre fiction of the period (and they aren't exactly rare in genre fiction right now, of course), but they do make it difficult to find anything enjoyable about the book.

Basically, if you're really jonesing for a novel with an exclamation point in its title, I recommend Absalom, Absalom! Or Oil!, if you want everyone on the bus to think you're being trendy but hey, you can't help it if they made some big critically acclaimed movie out of it, you didn't even see the film, Magnolia you liked at the time but now you don't know what you saw in it because you caught it on cable a few months ago and it was borderline unwatchable and, call you crazy, an intellectual heart-wrenching Adam Sandler movie does not sound appealing at all, and Daniel Day-Lewis sucked in Gangs Of New York, which was some noteworthy suckage considering the suckiness of the rest of the movie, and it's like he's playing the same character, you've seen the viral milkshake videos, and you really just picked up the Upton Sinclair novel for the exclamation point.

Mutiny In Space
: Disappointingly, the mutiny (IN SPACE) has already happened as the novel begins. The captain of the starship Persephone and some assorted guys who were either too lazy or too loyal to have taken part in the takeover are sent out in a lifeboat (IN SPACE) by the greedy, mutinous crew members, who have no real plan or motivation other than to hock the starship in the nearby criminal quadrant and live large off the proceeds. Protagonist Jory Cane, Captain Rond, and the rest of the castaways (who are beneath mention; one goes on and on about his dream of starting a farm, cop-two-days-from-retirement-style, which is about as much characterization they get in total) are lucky enough to make it to a nearby planet, hoping to find it inhabited by a society that is technologically advanced enough for them to contact help (or at least to provide them with enough fuel to make it back to civilization). But soon, to their horror, they discover that they've been marooned on a low-tech world, and, even worse, the society is a matriarchal aristocracy. Look out! Something so evil cannot be permitted to stand!

Being outsiders (and giants in comparison to the locals), they quickly attract attention and supporters (due to a convenient prophecy whose requirements they happen to fulfill) but run afoul of the government, a bunch of xenophobic conservatives fearful of the sway these newcomers have over the public. All of this becomes moot when the mutineers show up again, having abandoned their original plan at the prospect of using superior firepower to loot the primitive planet, rape its warrior women, exploit the superstitions of the natives, and be revered as gods; the castaways resolve that they must fight off the invaders, and they succeed at destroying the Persephone and killing the bad guys, but the armies and their matriarchal leadership are decimated in the process. It's up to our valiant men to rebuild and reshape the society, and all of the sympathetic women agree that men should be in power. This comes from Jory's newly acquired girlfriend, who is pregnant and happy to be bearing a giant child (clearly she hasn't though of what labor is going to be like):

The people of the land needed the vigor of the Great Men. Their bloodlines were old and could only profit by the addition of fresh ones. [...] And the children of these unions, the men-children in particular, would be a further source of fresh and vigorous blood. Their sons must also take many wives. They would thus spread not only the greater physical vigor of the new men but also their greater knowledge. And, finally, but not least, by substituting polygamy for polyandry an absolute end could be written to the old aristocratic system.

Should I count the many, many disturbing and completely irrational assumptions here? It's especially creepy that Davidson doesn't give the men these ideas; they have to be talked into this by women who are insistent that only men can be trusted with power. I mean, sure, one woman momentarily takes a stand to make sure that equality is enshrined in the law and everyone keeps the rights of women in mind, but this is just lip service to the subject. The emphasis is clearly on the sexist wank material, with Jory's girlfriend being the one to suggest an additional wife for him. I especially enjoy the assumption that polyandry and polygamy cannot exist together, that it's either one or the other. And more on the implications of these changes in power dynamics: "They would unite in more than rule. They would unite in marriage. Breed a new race. Their children would marry among themselves, and only among themselves. Doubtless the male genes would prove prepotent and the male children would be of normal size. Any exceptions would be rigidly excluded." There's a recipe for harmony! This is pukeworthy.

The Island Under The Earth: Yeah, there's an island under the earth, and it's inhabited by humans and centaurs. They don't always get along very well. The humans, in fact, are rather prejudiced against them, stereotyping centaurs as drunken, savage hooligans who let their beast sides taken in control. These allegations are clearly so unfounded and voiced by such unsympathetic characters that when a bunch of people are brutally slaughtered, ostensibly by centaurs, no reader is going to think that the "sixies" (more cutesy slang) did it, and yet it takes almost the entirety of the novel's needlessly confusing time travel plot to lead up to this shocking reveal. I say "needlessly confusing" because although what happens is simple and comprehensible, there are haphazard point-of-view shifts into different time periods that throw in a rivalry between traders and a quest for a super-powerful magical artifact that goes absolutely nowhere. The whole thing feels like a much longer and more elaborate novel was thoroughly and incompetently shredded to ribbons by an editor who was told to bring it down to 50,000 words by any means necessary. I doubt there was a decent novel here in the first place. The bizarre climactic ending resembles a punchline, but, although I'm not sure I get it, I also don't think there's much to miss.

[1] I don't know why Tocks are capitalized and rorks aren't.
Wednesday, September 17th, 2008
10:34 pm
Michael Moorcock, Legends From The End Of Time: Pale Roses / White Stars / Ancient Shadows / Constant Fire / Elric At The End Of Time

Stories (two straddling the divide between novelette and novella, two definite novellas, and one very short novel) set during the events of the Dancers At The End Of Time books. Frankly, the Dancers trilogy is entertaining enough that just reiterating the same material with diminishing returns would still be preferable to dutifully trudging through yet another Elric story (not that there needs to be a choice between the two, as the last story of this volume indicates), but thankfully, Moorcock's ability to come up with entertaining prose riffs on pop culture's collapse in on itself (such as a description of a musical piece chronicling how "Casablanca Bogard, with his single eye in the middle of his forehead, wielded his magic spade, Sam, in his epic fight with that ferocious bird, the Malted Falcon, to save his love, the Acrilan Queen, from the power of Big Sleepy (a dwarf who had turned himself into a giant) and Mutinous Caine, who had been cast out of Hollywood (or paradise) for the killing of his sister, the Blue Angel") is seemingly limitless, and these stories have their own virtues to justify their existence.

This is no small feat, because there is a difficulty in telling actual stories about the inhabitants of the End of Time: there are no stakes for them because their immortality and omnipotence keep them from developing as characters [1]. They change, but whimsically (according to fashion) and not meaningfully -- anything they learn is understood as just more raw data to work with, and any alteration in their habits occurs at will and may be abandoned at any time. Their only constraints are self-imposed, their values are unexamined and not deeply held, and no peers of similar power levels exist, so Moorcock can't do what Banks does in the Culture books and examine the difference between his utopian society's expressed values and how it actually operates. The only major challenge that can be posed to the Dancers is a threat to their way of life -- the end of the universe. The only way for one of them to change meaningfully would be for one to leave the nest forever. Both of those concepts have been fully explored in the main trilogy. Here, the trilogy's stars, Jherek Carnelian and Amelia Underwood, are offscreen, but their presence looms heavily enough over these stories to make them (the stories) not so much standalone adventures as companion pieces meant to complement the main feature with more extensive explorations of certain themes and aspects of the worldbuilding. The trilogy mounted a defense of the Dancers' society, pitting them against characters motivated by the ethics of violent expansion, capitalism, pointless moralizing for its own sake, and fire-and-brimstone religion, and challenging the reader to find anything genuinely wrong with a life of limitless power (shared equally, mostly), frivolity and their constant reinvention; these stories, on the other hand, look more closely at cases in which the values of End of Time are genuinely tested: the exceptions to the equal sharing of power, the callous treatment of stranded time travelers, the damage the immortals can cause even with the best of intentions. These stories are about the rot at the core, and thus, shadow figures, inversions, and reflections for Jherek, Amelia, and Lord Jagged abound, with surface similarities which invite comparison only long enough to underscore key differences.

For example, Werther de Goethe, like Jherek and unlike the rest of the Dancers, has been gestated in a womb and born. In contrast to Jherek's resolve that love and the practice of virtue could provide meaning to an existence with absolute freedom and total control and no risk, Werther decides that only with permanent death and the possibility for committing sin -- something wrong and irreversible -- is it possible for actions to have significance. So begins "Pale Roses," where Werther chances by a young woman in distress (with the lovely name of Catherine Lily Marguerite Natasha Dolores Beatrice Machineshop-Seven Flambeau Gratitude, no less), and, seeing an opportunity to do something meaningful, he decides to become her new father. And mother. He enthusiastically throws himself into the roles of doting parent (creating for her a romantic fairytale idyll where playful gorillas nibble from her hands) and jealous parent (introducing her to his fellow immortals at a ball, he tries to shield her from their offers of what he considers hollow hedonistic thrills) but, naturally, he eventually commits a terrible crime against her (or what he sees as one) and kills himself in horror and despair. This isn't the end of the story, of course, as this is the End of Time; when Werther is revived, all of his friends applaud his performance and reveal the situation to have been a contrivance in order to allow him to feel genuine sin and guilt. Quite satisfied with the experience, he only wishes that his death could have been permanent, as this would have been the most dramatically appropriate conclusion. "If death," he is answered, "were permanent, how would we judge our successes and our failures?" The most tragic word in the English language is "again." [2]

In "White Stars," the Iron Orchid and the Duke of Queens, on a stroll, come across Lord Shark, the most self-obsessed and isolated of the immortals (a reflection/contrast to Lord Mongrove from the main trilogy, who is also isolated and unpopular, but directs his energies towards the cultivation of misery and gloom in a performance he discovers is pointless without others to witness), dueling his exact duplicate (the servants he has created are all copies of himself, as he has no creativity). The Duke agrees to fight a duel with him to the permadeath (it's a lark for the Duke, while for Lord Shark it's a chance to display the futility of all existence), though first the Duke must prepare by learning how to duel, borrowing a Lord Shark double with whom to practice. Due to the interference of some fearful, distrustful, desperate soldiers (with echoes of the Lat and some other wayward Earth time travelers from the main trilogy) from Earth's future (well, *our* future) who want to get home (despite that not being possible -- time travel is one-way only, and there are no exceptions to the Morphail Effect here), the duel doesn't go off quite as planned. Here, Lord Shark's complex personal code of honor is incomprehensible and nonsensical, pointing towards the pointlessness of any arbitrary or personally arrived-upon system of morality (and perhaps the hollowness of any moral framework that's not objective and universal? Certainly a great deal of Moorcock's portrayal of good and evil suggests this position), and his example takes the lifestyle of the Dancers to its extreme: if immortality and essentially limitless creative power is coupled with anything less than infinite imagination, you end up with a bore dueling himself, pure masturbation.

"Ancient Shadows" is the strongest piece in this collection, creating genuinely affecting drama out of the caricatures and parodies of parodies inhabiting the End of Time. It begins when Dafnish Armatuce brings her son, Snuffles, to the End of Time, hoping to show him the future triumph of their civilization. Their society, the Armatuce, is structured along the principles of pure functionality and efficiency; all art must have a purpose, and abstention and self-sacrifice are the greatest virtues. Dafnish, of course, quickly finds her time machine incapable of return, and is confronted with the fact that her philosophy and the efforts of everyone she has ever known have come to nothing; the Armatuce is an incredibly minor footnote in history, one dull fun-hating totalitarian dictatorship out of millions. Dafnish's response is denial (she refuses to admit that with the eradication of scarcity, there is no longer a purpose for the rules she forces herself to live by) and a jealous adherence to her own value system; she quotes Maoist-style maxims about the importance of self-denial and decries the abundance and easy lives of the denizens of the End of Time as sinful luxury. Snuffles, meanwhile, despite Dafnish's warnings and protests, rejects his upbringing, gorging himself on food and pleasures.

As new arrivals, Dafnish and Snuffles attract the attentions of several individuals, most notably Mavis Ming, former inhabitant of 21st Century Iowa and one of the less popular time travelers to have wound up at the close of history; she has all of the unspeakably irritating chumminess of your squarest co-worker who loves to go on and on about the most unimportant things, offering nothing but shallow observations, meaningless gossip, constant criticism and griping, folksy "wisdom" from her old friends, tittering references to lesbian dalliances, and self-aggrandizing anecdotes that go nowhere. She starts out by becoming sexually fixated on Dafnish, but, after being rebuffed, she transfers her attentions to the more responsive Snuffles. As Mavis Ming encourages Snuffles' slide into hedonism, Dafnish debates with herself whether she should declare her son mature enough to become an adult and, in granting him that status, to "put an end to her own misery." Lord Jagged, seeing Dafnish's discontent and soul-sickness, tries to convince her that life can be worth living the way the Dancers live, and makes an impassioned (and entirely convincing) defense for individual freedoms, self-determination, and the value of having the option of multiple paths towards fulfillment. But no intellectual appeal is enough to sway Dafnish when Mavis Ming leads Snuffles to cross a line with what she sees as a truly unacceptable betrayal of core values; despairing, Dafnish make a doomed effort to return to her own time, alone, with results that are predictable for her and unexpected for her son when the inhabitants of the End of Time learn that some of what they (and the reader) were led to dismiss as Dafnish's melodramatic moaning and preaching ("Our children are precious. We exist for them.") should have been understood literally.

This is a story about the pain of cultural assimilation whose one-note characters function as emblems of the ideas under consideration, but resist being reduced to stereotypes; Dafnish is a prude whose strongly-held beliefs are irrational and indefensible, but her pain and conflicted feelings are real. It's a brutal critique of the lifestyle of the denizens of the End of Time that does not rely on finding fault with a life of ease, carelessness, and frivolity, but with what a powerful group does when it imposes its norms and values (consciously or not; it doesn't matter, since power makes it happen even as it pretends it's only offering a choice or an additional option) on people from different societies -- in other words, cultural imperialism. It's the Look To Windward to the trilogy's Consider Phlebas or The Player Of Games, interrogating the status quo previously established by the author to reveal the disturbing assumptions underneath.

Constant Fire is the novel-length work (it's certainly no shorter than some of the Hawkmoon books), taking place shortly after "Ancient Shadows" and focusing on Mavis Ming, her patron, Doctor Volospian (a schemer and reflection of Lord Jagged, though Volospian hasn't done a very good job of emulating the benevolent Jagged, his former idol; deep down, he's out for himself, and, though he tries to play the mastermind, the Doctor knows less than anyone about what's going on, swindled while believing himself to be the swindler), and Emmanuel Bloom, the Fireclown (from The Winds Of Limbo), in a crossover shocker. After setting the stage by exhibiting Mavis Ming in full-bore action at a party, the Fireclown's spaceship shows up (melting the chef's painstakingly crafted jellied dinosaurs in the process, sadly) and things take a turn for the CAPSLOCK. Bloom, who was entirely unconvincing when he was supposed to be inciting revolution and social upheaval with his rhetoric, is a comic figure here; he's a bombastic blowhard, singing, "For I am GOD -- and SATAN, too! PHOENIX, FAUST and FOOL! My MADNESS is DIVINE, and COOL my SENSE! I am your DOOM, your PROVIDENCE!," describing himself as "all things! Man and woman, god and beast, child and ancient," and announcing, "I have no respect for customs, manners, fashions, for I am Bloom the Eternal. I am Bloom, who has experienced all. I am Emmanuel Bloom, whom Time cannot touch, whom Space cannot suppress!" It's all very DJ Berkley.

Bloom comes to offer the "salvation" of destruction and rebirth in fire, denouncing the existence of the Dancers as hollow. As the inhabitants of the End of Time already have or can create anything and everything the Fireclown has to offer, they are bemused or bored by him. In addition to unsuccessfully hawking his own rendition of the Resurrection and the Life, Bloom instantly and inexplicably becomes obsessed with Mavis Ming, who is not impressed at all with his declarations of love and insistences that her soul pines for his. He's a minor curiosity, one of many unremarkable zealots who have visited the planet and have not found a receptive audience for their preaching, until he torches My Lady Charlotina's palace and burns other projects and menageries; he soon becomes notorious for spoiling social events, a noteworthy annoyance. Mavis Ming, meanwhile, is disturbed by his refusal to take "no" for an answer, and so she requests that Volospian cloister her away. This he does, until Bloom convinces Volospian that the Holy Grail in the Doctor's extensive collection of religious relics from throughout the ages is a fake -- that he has the real grail on his ship, and he'll trade it if he is permitted to leave forever with his love. Volospian makes a deal, betraying Mavis Ming for the grail (it's fake, of course -- the true grail is mystical and incorporeal) and the chance to get rid of the two worst bores on the planet in one stroke. This is the clever part. The real ending, however, is distasteful enough to eclipse the novel's good points.

When Mavis and Bloom are alone together at last, it becomes clear that she is actually rejecting him because of her poor self-image. She doesn't think she deserves the attention. "If you loved yourself," he tells her, "you would love me." She resigns herself to being raped when -- OMG! -- the true Holy Grail materializes to prove that, despite all of his buffoonery and cluelessness, he was actually completely right about everything. He scourges her with fire, she realizes her love for him, and there's rebirth imagery, physical and spiritual healing, and marriage to cap everything off. It's heartfelt, but you know what? I reserve the right to be creeped out by the things you think are genuine and important and beautiful. I don't think Mavis Ming is terrible enough to necessitate a forced redemption; in "Ancient Shadows," her monstrous selfishness leads her to acts of callousness and cruelty, but here? Yes, she thinks and speaks almost entirely in a mishmash of jargon and feel-good sloganeering. Yes, she's socially inept and not very intelligent and she doesn't realize that nobody around her cares what she has to say. Other than that, her sins seem mainly to consist of enjoying Tolkien, A.A. Milne, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, After all, those are all essentially equivalent and appeal only to shallow, stupid people!

The funny thing about rape and sexual assault: they have a tendency to overpower any metaphoric or symbolic significance you try to pile on top of them. It's not funny when she tells Bloom "no" over and over again and he doesn't accept her answer and she can't get him to leave her alone and she begs the authorities to protect her (because they won't give her the power to protect herself) and they don't and they hand her over to him and have a good laugh about it. It's not funny to suggest that she deserves this for being an irritating loser. It's not funny that the "twist" is that her stalker really did know what was best for her all along. Constant Fire fits thematically with the other stories, pointing towards something better and more satisfying than the world of the End of Time, but it really doesn't work for me.

Finally, there's "Elric At The End Of Time," which begins when Una Persson notices a disturbance in the Force time streams. Elric, in his wanderings shortly before "The Dreaming City," has been yanked through time and space to the End of Time, which he thinks is the realm of Chaos (and may not be too far off in his assessment). The novella alternates between the perspectives of the Dancers, who see Elric as a petulant child; Elric, who mistakes Una Persson for Xiombarg and the constantly shape-changing Dancers for the capricious Lords of Chaos; and the knowing, cynical perspective of Una Persson, who just wants to get Elric back to his own plane and knows that Lord Jagged would know how to set things right -- if only she could track him down.

As the immortals find that their guest is rather incapable of simply relaxing and having a good time with them, they try to entertain Elric by giving him what he wants (or expects): a generic adventure, with things to kill (they are attacked by deadly parrots, which the Dancers have conflated with pirates and pierrots) and a damsel to rescue ("Duke of Queens, what can we do? Those parrots will ransom her savagely and mishandle her objects of virtue!"). Una's mission succeeds and Jagged appears to Elric as Lord Arioch, claims his vassal's loyalty, and sends the champion home -- but is Jagged's imitation too perfect to be just an act? It's a cute idea [4], but not one that really adds anything to the whole extended multiverse or holds up to scrutiny (I'm sure you could come up with an explanation for what Jagged-as-Arioch might be up to in Corum's world, for example, but what would be the point?); the structure of the story itself works against this, since though Elric wildly misinterprets what is going on, the actions of the immortals are perfectly comprehensible. The novella is a bit of a strange note on which to say goodbye to the setting, as it's purely comical and unconcerned with the the ways the End of Time actually kind of sucks, but it does fit with the common theme of something that seemingly couldn't possibly be true turning out to be true.

[1] Not to say that you can't write a story about omnipotent immortals who do develop as characters. It's just that these immortals happen to stubbornly resist development.

[2] Quentin Compson, of course, is free to disagree on this point.

[3] In response to this elaborate introduction, Mavis Ming tosses off a particularly well-timed "funny -- he doesn't *look* Jewish." It would make Mel Brooks proud.

[4] Which is more than I can say for Captain Jack being the Face of Boe. God, that is so frustratingly dumb.
Friday, August 29th, 2008
11:40 pm
Kage Baker, The Children Of The Company

The worst sort of fix-up novel, stringing together disparate stories under the flimsiest of pretenses. It offers starring roles to two characters who have been mainly background to this point: Facilitator General Labienus, supreme evil genocidal master of shadowy behind-the-scenes manipulation, and Victor, morally conflicted lackey and double (triple? quadruple?) agent. Neither of them do much beyond what readers of the series are already aware they're responsible for; mainly, the book looks at important events from different perspectives and fills in a number of blank spots that didn't necessarily need filling in. For a "novel" that is in no sense a standalone and would not hold the slightest interest to anyone who hasn't read the previous books in the series, there's an astounding amount of redundancy, with each story going through explanations for what the Company is, what the cyborgs are, what they do for their employer, how they operate, and so on. At this point, Baker's refusal to progress a single one of the plotlines she's juggling in this series goes beyond worrisome to straight-up frustrating; I can still believe that she knows where all this is going to end up, but if she plans on resolving anything at all, the last two Company novels may be so crammed with collisions and pyrotechnics that there won't be any breathing room for the characters, and for what? So Baker can tell me for the thirtieth time that -- get this -- chocolate has some crazy effects on immortals?


The framing material is completely unsalvageable. Basically, Labienus sifts through transcripts, files, reports, and found diaries for no real reason while we learn of his god complex, his desire to completely exterminate humanity, and his connections to almost every immortal major character we know. This is meant to establish him as the big individual villain of the series (as opposed to the impersonal wickedness practiced by Dr. Zeus), which is not exactly something the books were begging for. But even if the novel succeeded in portraying Labienus as a powerful, intelligent, and dangerous foe whose machinations have given our heroes good reason to hate him (and I don't think it succeeds at this; he's not vividly evil enough to pose a threat worth caring about, and despite his purported charm, he doesn't make for an entertainingly slimy rogue you love to hate, either, save for one short scene where he poses as an obnoxious concern-trolling reporter), the framing device itself is handled clumsily and unconvincingly. The narration in the previous Company books has already been inconsistent and requires a little suspension of disbelief, with narrators reciting novel-length stories to third parties who afterwards display no sign of having actually listened, but this time we're expected to believe that Victor (et al) actually *wrote down* his experiences as finely-crafted short stories, with infodumps and all, apparently aimed at laymen with no knowledge of the Company. One line -- "Some immortals write compulsively, out of a need to put distressingly eternal lives in perspective." -- isn't enough to justify this, especially because it hasn't been true of any of the other immortals we've seen, save Lewis and his novel-writing, which was considered out of the ordinary.

So. How about a look at the component stories? There's the journal of an 6th Century Irish monk who witnessed the big traumatic incident in Lewis' past. There on a job, Lewis learned that people were thought to have been stolen by the sidhe. He decided to investigate these so-called fairies and found a nest of the homo umbratilis, those brilliant little idiot savants responsible for all the rumors of changelings and aliens over the course of human history. We learn more about them -- their insect-like society, their obsessive focus, their to-some-degree shared memory, their less obsessive half-breed leaders with the ability to apply their cleverness. Lewis saved the captives, taking grievous injury in the process and losing his memory, and of course we know that the umbratilis never gave up on trying to recapture him. To have read this before The Graveyard Game would have addressed my problems with the sketchiness of Lewis' backstory, building sympathy and giving context to what happens to him. I also see no particular reason it couldn't have been incorporated into TGG itself, with Joseph and Lewis discovering the journal in their investigation (and intensifying Lewis' horror at learning what happened to make him lose his memory). Placed in this novel, though? The new information about the homo umbratilis is of minor interest, and we already know where Lewis ends up and why, so it serves no great purpose.

We meet Aegeus, Labienus' all-too-similar rival, another Facilitator General who has also built a private empire and plots to grab power when the Silence falls. They talk alike and operate in the same fashion, the only significant difference between the two being their goals: while Labienus wants to kill the mortals, Aegeus plans to enslave them. It's splitting hairs, really. One asset Aegeus has that Labienus doesn't (at least at first), though, is his very own homo umbratilis breeding program, with samples (hybrid children, a boy and a girl, Fallon and Maeve) recovered from the nest discovered by Lewis. Victor enters the novel as Aegeus' agent, assigned to keep watch over Lewis in the wake of the accident and charged with finding out how much he knows about what happened [1]. This section tries incredibly hard to portray Lewis as not stupid, and kind of pulls it off, as he asks the right questions, works through his gaps, and remembers -- only to be deactivated by Aegeus and memory-wiped again. This is nowhere near as chilling as the similar situation in Vinge's A Deepness In The Sky, and here the state of affairs doesn't even warrant the memory wipes; Aegeus' entire staff seems to be aware of the existence of the whole supergenius breeding program, and the homo umbratilis have abandoned the looted nest, so Lewis is hardly a security risk. So what if he knows that this race exists? He could do nothing to affect the plans of the Company or Aegeus himself.

Then there's the diary of Simeon, a young mortal working as a gardener in Aegeus' compound. He spends his time enchanted by the beauty of the now sexually mature Maeve (Fallon, meanwhile, has sickened and died) when one day, Aegeus comes to tell him that he has been selected to be Maeve's husband -- for breeding purposes, naturally. The marriage has it's highs and lows -- one minute she's berating him in the most bratty, spoiled way for not being able to do what Fallon could do ("Make the bones come alive again!" "Can you make that stick in the fire grow green leaves again?"), the next she's sexually voracious -- and you know what? Even if she consents. fucking a grown woman with a child's mentality is still creepy. When their son is born and the results are not what was desired, Maeve is passed on to another man, and Simeon watches as she is passed along after each new son. Meanwhile, in a very minor detour, Victor, sick at the thought of what Aegeus is doing, takes field assignments to witness human cruelty, hoping to convince himself that the sins of immortals pale in comparison to what people do to each other out in the world. Finally, a daughter is born, and all of Aegeus' attentions shift to his shiny new toy. Maeve is put out to pasture, bitter and aged before her time, and Simeon asks to have her back, caring for her lovingly in her dotage before she finally dies. Reading this, Labienus decides that Victor is a prime target for recruitment. As a story, it's not bad, but as a justification for why Labienus sets his sights on Victor, it's entirely insufficient.

Up to this point, the stories have flowed into each other, with important events leading to other important events. The main similarity between Victor and Lewis is that they're both easily manipulated low-level dupes motivated by a backgrounded unrequited love (Mendoza and Nan are vaguely twinned, so it makes sense to twin the men who want but cannot have them), which isn't really enough to create a strong parallel between them, but there's still time to develop that. Or rather, there *would* be, but say goodbye to any sense of flow in the novel at all.

Labienus has a passing thought about Facilitator Milhouse Van Drouten. This is all the excuse necessary to recount a comic caper that Labienus knows nothing about, one which has nothing whatsoever to do with Victor or Lewis and appears to have been included here solely for two sentences of outside assessment of Labienus' character (I reproduce Latif's assessment here: "Everybody under his command hates Labienus." "[He] never breaks the rules where anybody can see. And he always makes sure there's somebody else to take the blame." You'd think that a genuinely devious murderous overlord with a supposed mastery of all forms of leadership, diplomacy, and social interaction would be capable of masking these qualities, but Victor seems like the only one dumb enough not to pick up on these traits). It's 1702, and Van Drouten is running a Company station disguised as an inn in Amsterdam when Kalugin and a still young, humorless, and arrogant Latif show up. After learning from Facilitator General Houbert in Sky Coyote, Latif has spent some time serving under Labienus, and, after completing his studies with Van Drouten, he's finally going to fulfill his dream of working with his idol Suleyman; however, he finds he still has plenty to learn when he gets involved with the illegal chocolate trade and Wackiness (TM) ensues. As a chance to spend time with a fun character, the story is entertaining, but as development for Latif, it's not very useful, and the story doesn't belong here at all; the story on its own could be taken on its own merits, but its inclusion in the novel means that its placement must be justified, which puts unnecessary importance on the redundant, minor, forgettable lines about Labienus. That's the problem with a bad fixup job (beyond the fact that the novel doesn't work as a whole): reading these stories as sections of a novel actually makes them less effective than if they were presented separately.

We get Labienus recalling his involvement with Project Adonai over the centuries, guiding Nicholas Harpole towards his martyrdom (with consequences beneficial to the Company, of course) and, with his lackey Nennius, manipulating young Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax into becoming a ruthless secret agent. Despite Labienus' role as Mendoza's judge, she's pretty much beneath his attention, surfacing only when he evaluates how he could make use of her (such beauty, intelligence, and spirit! she would have made quite a valuable ally if only she didn't feel those pesky emotions! and so on), and he doesn't really do anything with Alec in his early life. This lack of meaningful connection to quite possibly the series' two most important characters feels like a misstep in establishing his credentials as a strong antagonist; they mean little to him and he means little to them. Then there's Labienus reflecting on his time as a disciple of his "father," Budu. When Budu sees the effects of the Black Plague, he's disappointed because it kills innocents with the guilty, and wants to find new, more precise ways to thin the mortal population; he's all about doling out justice ("There is only the moral question. [...] Whether the mortals live or die means nothing. What they are, while they live, is the only thing with which we are concerned."). Labienus, on the other hand, realizes that Budu must be eliminated before he can put his plans of mass murder into action, and muses on whether any mortals are innocent. Ooh, scary. Our brilliant immortal big bad has all the insight into human nature of a goth teenager. The cabal of likeminded individuals he gather receives a great assistance when Labienus and Nennius come into contact with Amaunet, AKA Mother Aegypt, one of Aegeus' people. She has secreted away her own little homo umbratilis genius, Emil, who has a special talent for chemistry, and she has tasked him on her pet project: she wants to find a way to kill herself. Making a deal with her (something along the lines of "if I find a way to kill immortals -- and believe me, I'm searching -- you'll be the first to know"), Labienus takes Emil and sets him to work. And so the Plague Club was born. Is it really necessary for those little guys to have been responsible for every invention and research development in the history of the world?

A stronger section is "Son Observe The Time," narrated by Victor and set in San Francisco on the eve of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, where a vast number of cyborg operatives (among them Nan, Lewis, and, naturally, Labienus) are mobilized to salvage all sorts of artifacts and loot. More than any Company story to this point, it gets dramatic mileage of the idea that, yeah, these immortals would be haunted by their knowledge of the coming death and destruction and their inability to change things. I mean, it hits most of the same notes as "The Fires Of Pompeii," but it hits them effectively, without the rescue of individuals mitigating the tragedy in any way; though Victor has affection for the working class family he befriends in his cover identity (he tries and fails to keep from feeling for them), he must let them die, and the one child he "saves" -- through a betrayal that will doubtlessly have extensive psychological consequences -- is placed in the hands of the Company, a mixed blessing even in the best cases. There's a flashback to Victor's origins (where he was saved, named, and recruited by Budu -- I think there may be one too many major characters for whom Budu is a father figure) just in time for Budu to appear in the present day and for Victor (after a brief check-in with Labienus for plot reasons, of course) to trail him to an underground opium den, where Budu tries to enlist Victor in his crusade, going through the same stuff we've heard multiple times before -- the Enforcers were killers responsible for allowing humanity to develop the first place, and the Company betrayed them and swept them under the rug -- and outlining his plans to create a just world, which are way more brutal than Joseph's interpretation of events led me to believe: "I'll make an end to recorded history. I can so decimate the races of men that their golden age will come again, and never again will there be enough of them to ravage one another or the garden they inhabit. And we immortals will be their keepers." Victor's response is to spit in his face. Surprising both of them, Victor's saliva contains a supervirus capable of immobilizing Budu. In his last moments, Budu realizes that he has been betrayed by Labienus; he quickly loses consciousness, and Victor leaves him to be dismembered by an angry mob. Later, when Victor comes with questions about being poisoned and used as a carrier, Labienus has explanations for everything, admitting that he infected Victor with a virus created by the homo umbratilis but claiming that Aegeus is responsible; Victor is willing to believe that, since he knows Aegeus is fully capable of such treachery. Mission accomplished.

Introduced here is what may be most important concept to the future of the series contained in the novel, Budu's assertion that history is not quite so unchangeable as the Company claims it to be: "Victor, such a simple trick, but it's never occurred to you. History is only writing, and one can write lies!" Unfortunately, it's not as chilling a moment as it might have been simply because it comes so late in the game. When Mendoza outlined the premises of the series at the beginning of In The Garden Of Iden, I already assumed that there must have exceptions to the "recorded history cannot be changed" rule because it's so clearly nonsense. People should be coming up with this "revelation" within the first day of being told about the rules of time travel, and over the course of six novels (FSVO "novel") and plenty of short stories, you'd think there would have been opportunities to define the boundaries of historical alteration more clearly. It's one thing if Baker wants to handwave the issue away to avoid writing yet another story where someone with knowledge of the future tries to prevent a murder or something and winds up causing it to happen. It's another if these rules and how they work are actually important to the development of the overarching plot.

Next, in "The Angel Of The Bottomless Deep," Labienus listens to a recording of Kalugin in 2083, the poor sap's last transmission before disappearing off the face of the earth. Finally, an actual answer to a mystery introduced in an earlier novel! Kalugin goes through his origins, his job description (going down with sunken ships to preserve stuff), his marriage to Nan, and an overview of the effects of the deadly Sattes virus, which first breaks out in prisons all over the planet, quickly killing all of the inmates, guards, and immediate family members of the guards, then burns out. On the world-building front, I cannot believe for a second that the majority of people (or even a large and vocal minority) would think of this as a "judgment of God." Only the most hateful "AIDS CURES FAGS" types would say that everyone in the world with AIDS deserves to die, and I think even they would balk at the death penalty for every prison-worthy crime in the world; the simplistic, ugly logic of the equation of gay sex with sin with AIDS with death does not seem duplicable in this situation. Then the virus breaks out in all the world's militaries, and I have no problem believing that government response to a deadly plague would be completely inadequate and irrational. In the aftermath of this mass death and panic, Kalugin is given a mission to go down with a submarine containing a unique experimental fusion drive. On his way, by chance, he meets another defective immortal (he remembers dealing with the damaged Courier in Black Projects), and deduces that she is spreading the virus (at first thinking that she might be spreading it accidentally). He messages Labienus with his suspicions (SPOILERS -- BAD IDEA). Then he goes underwater and waits to be rescued. The techs come for the fusion reactor. They leave him. Too late, he realizes that he stumbled on information that he shouldn't have, making him a liability. Goodnight for now! Evaluating the effects of the Sattes virus, Labienus decides that selective population culls aren't useful as a long-term strategy (which he should have known already if he was looking to spread mass death indiscriminately), and wonders why Victor hasn't moved in on Nan after he went to all the trouble of getting Kalugin out of the way. How does he perform his duties as a Facilitator if he's this poor at understanding human behavior? After hearing about Lewis' snooping into Edward's history and learning of the homo umbratilis efforts to recapture their quarry, Labienus and Nennius plot to hand Lewis over for experimentation in the hopes that the umbratilis will discover an effective way to kill immortals. From this we learn that, yes, the bad guys did exactly what Joseph and Lewis determined they did?

Finally, in "Father Of Pestilence," Victor's latest Company posting leads him to a job as a live-in bodyguard for the Karremans (husband and wife, both doctors) and their son, Hendrick, the first recombinant, who has been genetically engineered with enhanced natural abilities. The Karremans unveil to the world that their child is now 6 years old, a completely average, healthy, normal child fully capable of integrating with society and going to public school. Labienus helps with the ensuing media and legal shitstorm the Karremans face from a public fearful of the "unnatural" even when it's entirely harmless. Before leaving, he leaves Victor with some chocolate bars. Victor thinks, wow, everyone thinks he's kind of evil, and he's a total asshole who can't stop talking about how disgusting human beings are, and he did infect me with a virus to take out Budu that one time, but maybe he's not such a cold manipulator after all! DUMB. Victor bonds with the kid, who survives an assassination attempt and goes to school. When the child's classmates and teachers sicken and die of an unknown virus, the media and the medical establishment decide that, of course, let's fear the unknown, the recombinant must have been responsible for this deadly virus [2], and an angry mob murders the Karremans. Now you know the reason for the widespread hatred of recombinants and prejudice against genetic enhancement in Alec Checkerfield's time. Victor, following an evidence trail proving that the child could not have spread the virus, pinpoints its real source, then traces it back to himself and thinks back to the chocolate bars. Oh, Labienus, you've done it again!

Only not in a way that makes any sense; when confronted, Labienus reveals what I'm afraid may be the truth of the matter. The virus didn't come from the chocolate; that was just a completely pointless red herring. In fact, it seems that Victor has a special power: he can create toxins in response to "certain stimuli" known to the Company. That's also how he disabled Budu -- Budu attacked Victor, so his body responded by immediately manufacturing a toxin tailored specifically shut down to Budu's nervous and immune systems. I'm not sure if an explanation for why Victor can do this is forthcoming -- which would probably be along the lines of, wow, another crome generator made into a cyborg, what are the odds? -- or if I'm just meant to sit back and accept the fact that, yeah, some people's bodies just create viruses.

In addition to making no sense, this development would also seem to invalidate half the point of cobbling this book into something resembling a continuous narrative [3]. I mean, we get the homo umbratilis. We get Budu. We get Labienus deciding to eliminate Budu. We get Labienus getting ahold of one virus-producing homo umbratilis. We get Labienus manipulating Victor into infecting Budu. And now we learn that none of those earlier steps actually had anything to do with the final result because Victor made it all happen himself. Because he's special. This is a totally unnecessary complication, which means that the only reason it's here is that it's slated to figure into whatever happens later on. This is a really bad sign.

Later, Aegeus, having bugged the place, tells Victor that Labienus is a liar and a maniac. He orders Victor to infiltrate the inner circle of the Plague Club, passing key information on to him. Well, obviously, our poor boy's only options are loyalty to Aegeus or to Labienus. Whatever will he do? And so it ends, with Victor conflicted, Aegeus plotting, and Labienus continuing to muse (while plotting). The only character development arc in the book is Victor's, and there's nothing interesting about it; it's just the prelude to whatever important role he's going to play in the future. The epilogue arbitrarily introduces an immortal William Randolph Heart as a powerful figure in the Company leadership. It's an idea that could theoretically be used to tie together all of the series' themes of power and capital and classic film and stuff in a really cool way. Or it could just be another way for Baker to put off doing anything with the truckload of characters whose potential she's wasting; on the strength of this volume, I can't rule that out.

[1] I can't remember -- did Victor and Lewis even interact in The Graveyard Game? I seem to remember that the main reasons Victor helped Joseph and Lewis were his guilt over taking out Budu and his feelings for Nan. Now that I think of it, this volume is clearly a companion piece to TGG -- but there's no dramatic irony in the material here that requires knowledge of where these characters will end up in the 21st Century, since I think most of the component stories were written first. You could actually read this first, probably.

[2] I know the whole point of this is to say that even as our society changes, our future will be shaped by fear, ignorance, prejudice, and irrationality, since human nature remains the same. It does contain the hard-to-swallow implication, though, that medical science has evidently not progressed very far in a hundred and fifty years.

[3] You know, like Metal Gear Solid 4's entirely unnecessary retcon of Liquid Snake's possession of Ocelot, which is stupid and invalidates the clever, subtle background explanation offered by Metal Gear Solid 3. Though at least in that case, you might argue that Kojima is deliberately providing too much information in an attempt to kill the franchise once and for all, hoping to choke his audience on pointless data and resolution piled on resolution.
Sunday, August 17th, 2008
12:47 pm
Michael Moorcock, The Prince With The Silver Hand: The Bull And The Spear / The Oak And The Ram / The Sword And The Stallion

Even more than the first Corum "trilogy," it's really one long story split into three books. Same hero, same patterned questing for plot coupons. What distinguishes it from the earlier volume (not to mention Moorcock's other heroic fantasies)? Well, first of all, it's hella Zelda-like: Corum is sent into his future to a misty wasteland with fairies and demons dwelling on the outskirts, and he faces his shadow, and I know those things appear in 90 percent of generic fantasy, but here they really feel close in tone and feel to Ocarina of Time (right down to the hero spending the majority of his time crossing fields where absolutely nothing happens), which, desperate for the trappings of importance, history, and size, is, after all, probably the most mythology-soaked entry in the franchise.

Which brings me to second major feature: it's hella Celtic. The first Corum trilogy's mythic elements were vague inflections -- a character name here, a place name there, little things about the nature of the Vadhagh and the Nhadragh. Here, the Celticisms are pervasive, reflected not only in the quest items, the villains, and the movement of the story, but often in the language itself. From time to time, Moorcock slips into elevated Mabinogion-inspired prose, and he makes use of lyrical staccato phrasing and characters who are frequently moved to poetry and song. It doesn't internalize the Celtic worldview as in Evangeline Walton's Mabinogion retellings (Moorcock's own personal moral vision always peeks through), and it doesn't recontextualize the specifics into something new and wonderful as in Lloyd Alexander's brilliant Prydain books (still the gold standard for myth-inspired fantasy), but it does effectively put them in service of the story's atmosphere and tone. Which is: hella bleak and hella melancholy. I mean, while there's an ever-present sense of doom in the Elric books, most of the time the characters try to push it out of their minds, and great emphasis is placed on the importance of the decisions of individuals in the face of fate. The frequent hacking and slashing is predictable, comfortable, and theoretically exciting, and it happens often enough to dilute the percentage of the story spent moping. There are victories and joys, if fleeting ones, and Elric usually responds to his predicaments with some dry, unfunny wit. Not so here. Corum doesn't spend comparatively much time mourning his fate, but the situation he faces is pretty dire, and the attempts at comic relief from the sidekicks seem out of place. They do little to leaven the general sense that any action is futile and everyone is digging his or her own grave.

The Bull And The Spear: After ridding his world of gods, Corum has settled into a comfortable domestic life with his Mabden (read: human) wife, Rhalina, at Castle Erorn, spending the long decades experimenting with artificial-hand-forging technology (he replaces the magic hand he lost at the end of the previous trilogy with a silver one; hence, the overarching title). But the Vadhagh live long and regular people don't, and eventually, Rhalina dies peacefully in her old age, leaving a still fairly youthful Corum with nothing more to live for. He feels that he's a man out of time, and -- spoiler -- that sense is only going to get worse. Everyone he knows and cares about is dead, save Jhary-a-Conel, the planeswalking dandy with the magic cat (which thankfully isn't used here to fight every battle -- it's been a regular Sonic Screwdriver in its previous appearances), who comes and goes every once in awhile bringing stories of other Eternal Champions, but really, why bother getting up in the morning just for those? So when the far-future descendants of his Mabden subjects call him in their hour of need (sending dreams with pleas for help, Erekose-style), he allows himself to be summoned and meets King Mannach of Caer Mahlod and his daughter, Medhbh, a warrior princess who reminds him strangely of his dear departed wife. They are in sore need of help; the Fhoi Myore, the Cold Folk who live only to bring death and endless winter to every living thing in the world, lead relentless assaults on the last few remaining enclaves of humanity, and the Mabden High King has been kidnapped.

Something cool: the villains are implacable leprous nihilistic geriatrics with a death wish. It's appropriate that, following a story about the higher powers leaving Corum's world, the threat here comes from being who embody a denial of the meaning of existence in the face of the loss of absolute arbiters of good and evil (in other words, the first trilogy: God Is Dead. This trilogy: If God's Dead, What's The Point?). Denizens of the places between the planes (the Cold Places / Limbo) who wound up in this place by accident, the Fhoi Myore cannot survive in the world. There are only seven of them left alive, all sick, diseased, dying. Though they can mow down groups of fighters with ease with Catoblepas-style death stares and stuff, when Corum actually faces them, they aren't even particularly adept fighters. Still, decrepit as they are, they are capable of hanging on long enough to spread freezing death for no good reason. They act without malice or hatred, and the humans can neither reason nor bargain with them. Their motives are incomprehensible because their value system comes from an entirely different reality. They want to get home, but they have no idea how. Even when Corum and friends discover a way to send the Fhoi Myore back to Limbo -- which would solve everyone's problems -- there's no way to communicate the information. They're not exactly bad, but they must be eliminated. Appropriately in the post-god world, the threat they pose is that they have great power and don't belong in this time and place. All of these things mirror Corum's own dilemma and reflect his final fate. Another strength: the Fhoi Myore bring cold -- mist, ice, and snow -- which blankets the world; thus, though they're rarely on-screen, their effects are always present. Where in Phoenix In Obsidian and The Ice Schooner (the other two Moorcock books set in icy wastelands that I've read), the settings mainly affect the plot and worldbuilding, here you actually get a feel for the encroaching chill. Corum is constantly trudging through thick snow or hearing the faint music of the harp that haunts him (but I get ahead of myself) blown on a freezing wind, and it feels cold and hopeless, where those earlier books simply talked about being cold and hopeless.

Corum has passed into legend, and the Vadhagh are unknown, but there remain tales of the Sidhi, said to be descendants of the Vadhagh (not that it particularly matters, but we later learn straight from the source that the Sidhi are not Vadhagh descendants, but rather cousins from another plane -- more Eldren offshoots), who in the past helped humanity to defeat and repel the Fhoi Myore with the use of magical items -- a spear, a cauldron, an oak tree, and more -- and magical animals -- a stallion, a ram, a bull -- all of which were the only weapons deadly to the invaders. But the treasures and animals have been scattered, and each pair he collects can be traded in for a book-concluding victory. Conveniently, the Bull of Crianass, a deadly giant black bull and beast of the Sidhi, is located nearby, but it can be tamed only by using the spear, Bryionak, which was fashioned by the Sidhi smith Goffanon, who is said to dwell on a mysterious enchanted island called Hy-Breasail. Before setting out for the island, though, Corum needs to trade the can to a crocodile for some bananas repulses an assault on Caer Mahlod by some deadly white hounds led by one of the Fhoi Myore, Kerenos, who controls his beasts with a magical horn (plenty of magical items to go around up in this bitch). Corum passes the ruins of Castle Erorn (the Mabden think it's a natural formation, partly because it has been so long and partly because Vadhagh architecture works with organic growth), where he is haunted for the first time by the sweet, sad strains of a harp played by a spectral harpist (he begins to hear this at regular intervals). He passes deserted and leveled villages full of frozen corpses on the moors; one contains a survivor, a seeress, who prophesies that Corum will be slain by a brother, and tells him he has three things to fear: his brother, a harp, and beauty. Corum is like, well, I am kind of leery of that harp I keep hearing, but I certainly have nothing to fear from those other things! I mean, I don't even have a brother, and all mystic pronouncements are to be taken entirely literally! And nothing that's beautiful could ever be dangerous!

Tracked by the Hounds of Kerenos and some zombie warriors (also controlled by the horn, just because), Corum passes the ruins of several of the locations of his past adventures and, as things have changed and landmarks have disappeared, he becomes lost. Before he's dismembered, however, the baddies are scattered by a horn blast (because there just happens to be another magic horn) from crazy old Ben Kenobi Calatin, a selfish, cynical wizard who's out for himself but wants Corum's help. See, the wizard once had plenty of sons to do his dirty work, but one by one they all died on his behalf -- seeking magical artifacts and spell components. On learning that Corum is off to see Goffanon on the island that makes people go crazy, he allows him to borrow the horn in exchange for getting some of the Sidhi smith's spittle in a bag. Uncurious as to why this guy would want the spit, Corum agrees to this, since he's boned without the horn. The horn, by the way, can be used both to control the hounds (with one blast) and to kill them instantly (with three). At no point do the hounds display anything less than total obedience to their masters or any sign of free will at all, so there's no real reason for the Fhoi Myore to be giving their armies an easily exploitable weakness. At least Davros, having been betrayed by his creations like ten million times, has a decent reason for putting a button on his control panel that immediately eradicates all Daleks.

Calatin, by the way, is a potentially intriguing character whose potential is squandered. In this book, he's a living illustration of the post-higher-being world Corum has created. Calatin is entirely amoral (or at least, he starts that way). He doesn't grieve for the deaths of his sons (though he is ticked that he doesn't have any more to fetch stuff for him), or for the coming extinction of humanity. He's interested in abstractions and theory. His search for arcane knowledge despite mockery from his peers and neighbors isolated him, but also allowed him to survive when the Fhoi Myore slaughtered everyone else. This makes him another thematic twin to Corum, and his appearance might allow our hero to examine the similarities in their life paths. But no, Corum simply finds him heartless and cold, agreeing to the bargain only because he has to, and in the subsequent books, Calatin becomes nothing more than a straight-up evil cackling villain, and not a memorable one at that (I look at Morda from Lloyd Alexander's Taran Wanderer and think, whoa, these scenes will stick with me till the day I die. THAT's how you incorporate elements of folklore into your evil sorcerer). He's a stock figure who exists solely to complicate things for the hero, eventually creating a less resonant evil twin for Corum and allying himself with the Fhoi Myore (and some demons, but I'll get to them) for no good reason at all.

Anyway, with the borrowed horn, Corum goes to the enchanted island and meets Goffanon the smith, who's a nice guy and willing to assist Corum in any way possible that doesn't involve him actually leaving his island and doing anything (he swears not to become involved, ignoring the fact that he's under siege by the hellhounds and neutrality isn't an option here). Goffanon, by the way, is enormous compared to humans but admits he's actually really small for one of the Sidhi. So he's a giant dwarf. This is allegedly humorous, and it's pretty much the extent of his characterization. He gladly offers up his spit, thinking it to be a Mabden superstition, but will only give Corum the spear in exchange for the horn, considering he needs something to keep the hounds away. The smith talks in terms of debts paid -- the balance, order -- which should be a warning sign indicating that this guy is living in the past, maaaaaaaaaan, but Corum accepts his terms, a bargain that leaves them both with less. He returns to Calatin, who's happy to get the bag of spit but understandably livid at the loss of his horn, which was the only thing keeping him safe; to calm the old man down, Corum offers his scarlet Name-robe, which holds only minor sentimental value, to settle the debt, and leaves, waylaid periodically by monsters and, at one particularly videogamey moment, is attacked by some ice phantoms who are immune to his other weapons but are easily vanquished by the spear. Set spear with C-Button!

Corum rejoins the people of Caer Mahlod and summons the Bull of Crianass at a Sidhi holy spot just in time, as the Fhoi Myore army shows up momentarily. And who could be leading the unholy army but Corum's old adversary Prince Gaynor the Damned? He has joined the Cold Folk because they promise death, which remains his chief desire, though I don't think they're capable of offering the eternal soul-death he's looking for. Gaynor, by the way, exists entirely as a red herring; Corum thinks he's the "brother" he should beware, but he's so wrong. There's fighting and the Bull wreaks havoc, eventually killing one of the Fhoi Myore (one down, six to go) and routing Gaynor. After the battle is won, the Bull asks to be slain, as it is a fertility symbol and the narrative wasn't giving it the opportunity to fulfill its role in the natural course of events. Corum obliges (the spear vanishes, too, sensing that the author has no interest in finding any other purpose for it), the land becomes fertile, and everyone at Caer Mahlod is able to live in peace -- for the moment.

The Oak And The Ram: Oh, yeah, that victory didn't accomplish much of anything. Corum still has visions/nightmares about the harp, Medhbh (you'd think he'd have reservations about his girlfriend when old seeresses and his own psyche are warning him like this, but no), and a twin to himself. The Fhoi Myore threat continues to grow, and King Fiachadh, another Mabden leader, shows up at Caer Mahlod, hoping to unite the small surviving human settlements and failing because of the incredibly stupid political system: Amergin, the High King, is being held captive at Caer Llud (the former capital of the world and now the Fhoi Myore headquarters), and the other kings aren't allowed to choose a new one while he's still alive. So Corum needs to save the High King, and to this end, Fiachadh gives him another of the Sidhi treasures: Arianrod's Cloak, which confers your standard magical invisibility. On the way, Corum runs into Prince Gaynor (Corum halfheartedly urges him to repent. Gaynor halfheartedly rejects the proffered hand) and ditches him. Then Jhary-a-Conel shows up with his magic cat and makes this book more formulaic and a lot less thematically coherent than its predecessor. He starts by smugly comparing the Fhoi Myore to the Lords of Chaos (noting the dull similarities and ignoring the differences, which are the only remotely interesting things about them) and proceeds to lead Corum to a stone circle, which is this plane's representation of Tanelorn and a pretty lousy one at that. The Fhoi Myore fear and avoid it, not knowing that it would send them back to Limbo, which is what they want (though you wouldn't get them to understand that). The rest of the villains are also given names and half a sentence worth of personality apiece. So in addition to Kerenos (the huntsman) and Balahr (Catoblepas), there's Rhannon (breathes life into the dead), Sreng of the Seven Swords (I assume Kali-style), Arek (not important, other than going on to become a Sinistral), and Goim (female, gobbles cocks, not making this up).

Things get even stupider when the good guys reach the enemy stronghold and decide to infiltrate it by pretending to be the living dead for maybe five minutes, at which point even the book doesn't care about it any more. They find the High King, but he's under an enchantment that causes him to believe himself to be a beast (I'm not exactly sure why the Fhoi Myore decided to do this, as they have no reason to be taking captives or performing torture or anything), so they have to drag his useless ass around. What's the literary equivalent of an escort mission? Then they're shocked to see Calatin there along with Goffanon, who is taking orders because the magic bag of spit places him under the wizard's control. It's one of the most ineffective forms of mind control I've ever seen. Corum gets around it by saying, "Calatin wants you to help us out and come with us and do whatever you want!" The glamour is also interrupted when he knocks Calatin out (without killing this clearly present threat who is in league with the enemy! Or even stealing the spit bag! At least they have the sense to take the hound-controlling horn).

They leave, bringing High King Amergin and Goffanon along, but the people they've rescued aren't okay yet. Goffanon can still be controlled by the wizard if he gets close, and the spell on the High King can only be broken by the Golden Oak and the Silvern Ram, so it's off to collect more items. Jhary thankfully leaves to take Amergin back to Caer Mahlod, while Corum and Goffanon travel to another human settlement, Caer Garanhir, because those cats have the Oak. They're taunted at regular intervals by Gaynor, but on the bright side, they come across another Sidhi, Goffanon's old friend Ilbrec, a full-sized giant, who is happy to join up but leaves to gather Sidhi weapons. Another Fhoi Myore army is rapidly approaching, and the warriors of Caer Garanhir are not prepared for the coming battle; fortunately, Ilbrec shows up with a sword that creates a magical Barrier of Convenient Stalling. The king has despaired because his just-married son has been killed by advance troops, but our heroes give the king hope (Cheer up! Your son may be dead, but the High King is still alive! Let's not mention he thinks he's an animal...) and in return he gives them the Oak and the Ram. Imagine a feel-good version of Denethor, only utterly flat and lifeless and making use of the tremendously unconvincing "what people really need at their darkest moments is to look up to a symbol of incorruptible paternal power" logic of Batman in The Dark Knight.

The main Fhoi Myore army is out of the picture for this book, but the small rear guard, led by Calatin and the decrepit seven-sworded Sreng, still pose a passing threat. Calatin takes control of Goffanon again, but only for like five seconds. Ilbrec knocks the smith out and kills Sreng (two down, five to go) while the wizard flees and Corum twiddles his thumbs. Everyone returns to Caer Mahlod, and Corum uses the Golden Oak to summon an Oak Woman, who brings the Ram to life and revives the High King, who is made youthful and strong. The Oak Woman and the Ram, which seems to have been kind of useless except as a symbol, disappear, and everyone is unified, the end. It's like the end of the first book, only even less is resolved! Yeah, this installment of the trilogy is almost entirely filler, and it reads like it was written in less than half the time it took to write the preceding and succeeding volumes.

The Sword And The Stallion: Goffanon forges the titular sword for our hero as Corum prepares the united Mabden for war, still haunted by the harp. Medhbh tells him that the harpist is known as the Dagdagh, and insists he is their friend. Look, Corum. Your girlfriend, the one you've already been given reason to be wary of, is praising an entity you definitely know is bad news -- grounds for a breakup? I think so. They set off for their planned assault to retake Caer Llud (there is no tactical reason this is necessary, since I would think their strategy should be based around how to eliminate the remaining Fhoi Myore one by one, rather than engaging the full power of their enemies at once. Ostensibly, this assault is meant to retake the artifacts located in the capital -- the Healing Cauldron and the Collar of Power -- but wouldn't a stealth mission work better to get those back, since it's already established that infiltrating enemy headquarters is incredibly easy?). On the way, they come across a group of traveling warriors who tell them of the Shadow Island, Ynys Scaith, Hy-Breasail's dark counterpart, shunned by the Sidhi, where their women and children were slaughtered by a man who looked identical to Corum. They mention the man's scarlet robe. Corum doesn't think about this at all. Back when he learned that the spit bag was used to control Goffanon, he might have wondered whether the personal item he gave to the wizard might conceivably have been used for something, but that would entail actually making use of our protagonist's spectacular self-absorption.

Corum and the High King decide they are doomed without magical aid from the folk of Ynys Scaith, so Corum decides to go there to enlist magical aid. This pisses off Medhbh royally, because women don't listen to explanations in this world. Goffanon also feels it's a suicide mission and continues with the rest, so only Corum and Ilbrec continue to the island, finding it to be chock full of hallucinatory horrors and illusions, though they do find a seemingly worthless old saddle whose importance would be a surprise if we hadn't just been told that the last lost treasure was some old saddle everyone thought was worthless. Ynys Scaith is inhabited by dragons and the Malibann, arrogant ancient decayed sorcerers of an island empire from another plane who also bear a resemblance to the Vadhagh. So this is just a shadow of Melniboné, then. For no real reason. That's the multiverse for you. The Malibannians are led by a man named Sactric, who tells them that time flows differently on the island (yeah, I watch Lost too), and months have passed in a matter of hours. Then things get unbelievably convoluted for maybe 10 pages because half of the most important events in the story happened off-screen. First, Calatin shows up again (having taken control of Goffanon. Again.) to gloat and fill everyone in on what happened in the meantime. To recap: a bunch of really minor characters died and/or had their penises eaten; morale is at rock-bottom because everyone thinks Corum is a traitor because a guy who looks exactly like him has been doing evil; the few survivors are holed up at the magic stone circle again. Calatin has allied himself with the Malibann, as they want Goffanon, who apparently knows the location of the artifact that Sactric and company need to return to their plane (couldn't this have been set up in one of the previous books?). But the deal goes south, Goffanon reveals he was only pretending to be controlled, and the wizard orders Corum's evil twin (known as the Karach) to attack everyone and promptly gets killed (the changeling double leaves, but surely he'll never show up again). Goffanon makes a deal with Sactric: they help the Mabden against the Fhoi Myore, and he'll give them what they need to leave the plane. Jhary reveals himself to be there, as it was all part of a plan where he pretended to defect to get access to the bag of spittle and switch it out. To leave Ynys Scaith, Sactric needs to possess someone, so Jhary volunteers his cat, since cats are great as soul vessels (this would seem to have come out of nowhere to anyone who hadn't previously read The Caravan Of Forgotten Dreams, where this fact is established).

Everyone rushes to the besieged pseudo-Tanelorn holy stone circle. The High King is still alive, as is Medhbh, who is now Queen in the wake of her father's death, not that that means anything. She accuses him of treachery. Everyone else is like, no, no, it was his evil twin, really. The High King decides there must be a trial to settle things, which... this isn't really the time, you know? You're surrounded by deadly  enemies on all sides with no way out, and you need to prepare for the final showdown. But the trial goes on, and the evidence presented by both sides doesn't make the slightest bit of sense ("I have this awesome sword here. Wouldn't I have used this awesome sword if I had it? But I didn't use it to kill you guys. So that couldn't have been me!"). Then Ilbrec remembers that the saddle is actually Legaire's Saddle, which can be used to summon the Yellow Stallion, and only the pure of heart can ride it or something. So really, this book actually should have been called The Saddle And The Stallion to fit with the summoning artifact/summoned animal naming structure of the other books. Though I guess this name is a little snappier. They summon the Stallion, and Corum can ride it, which proves his innocence, though that's not really proof of anything, since there is the Vegeta loophole on the whole pure heart thing. And why everyone takes Ilbrec's word on the stallion-riding thing and doesn't listen to him when he says, come on, we fought the evil twin? Beyond me, but the people trust Corum again. Then Medhbh says, hey, Corum, can I borrow your silver hand? I got a charm to make it stronger and the one who taught it to me -- I WON'T SAY WHO IT IS -- says it's bound to work. BAD IDEA. I guess when Jhary was telling Corum stories about his many adventures with various incarnations of the Eternal Champion, he forgot to mention what happened to Hercules.

Time for the final fight. Corum fights Balahr and Gaynor, Ilbrec fights Kerenos, Goffanon fights Goim, and Sactric-in-cat traps all of the Fhoi Myore in an illusion and confuses their forces. The Fhoi Myore retreat, they're driven in their confusion into the stone circle, and they're sucked into Limbo. Jhary, trying to save his cat, gets sucked into Limbo too, hopefully for good. Corum kills Goffanon by accident. Ilbrec goes off to live in solitude. High King Amergin retrieves his Cauldron and his Collar of Power and we never find out what they actually do. Sactric leaves the cat (he and his people can leave the plane since the head of his hot sister has been dug up and her soul released). Corum keeps the cat and decides to return to Caer Mahlod with his lady love Queen Medhbh, because their relationship has been so strong. It would seem that victory was bittersweet, but the human race was saved and everyone can live happily ever after.


Not likely! In a legitimately eerie ending, Corum is drawn to the ruins of Castle Erorn, hearing the harp and Medhbh's voice. He meets the Karach, his evil twin. They fight, and the silver hand takes control of the sword and kills his doppelganger. He meets Gaynor (who has been a total nonentity in these books; this is the only moment that remotely justifies his appearance) and the Dagdagh, the harpist. Gaynor has sincerely come to make peace (!). The Dagdagh has opened a door into a land where Corum and Gaynor may find the contentment and peace they both search for. He tells Corum that he and his kind no longer belong in this world. He tells Corum that he loved Rhalina, not Medhbh. Corum insists he must stay because he loves Medhbh. He leaves to return to her. He finds her waiting outside. She strikes him with a sling (calling back to a minor moment at the very beginning of The Bull And The Spear when we learned of the sling's use in repelling "invaders"). He has chosen unwisely, as this is No Country For Old Heroes. The silver hand again acts on its own, stabbing Corum through the heart. It's brutal and effective stuff, reducing the dilemma to a fine point. Corum attempts to impose a vision on the world that is untrue, and the world rejects it. Like the Fhoi Myore, he embraces nothing -- a phantom, a love he can't possibly convince himself is real -- rather than something. Doing right also involves stepping aside when one's time in the spotlight it over. Genuine unconditional salvation is offered, even to the one who least deserves it. Corum persists in delusion; therefore, he dooms himself. Nothing noble about it, nothing grand. You reject grace, so you're damned. Nowhere to go from there.
Tuesday, July 29th, 2008
11:02 pm
Kage Baker, The Life Of The World To Come

The first chapter of this, the fourth Company novel, is pretty thrilling (don't read past this point if you haven't started the series yet). Mendoza, post-In Hollywood massacre, is in a lonely but not too terrible exile in the distant past, tending vegetables and longing for her twice-dead lover who maybe not-so-coincidentally has mysterious ties to the origins of Dr. Zeus, Inc. And then, awesomely, he shows up in a stolen Company time machine, as idealistic and angsty and bashful as ever! And it's Alec from Black Projects, White Knights! Which is a reveal that makes perfect sense and would have been totally obvious if I'd read Hollywood before Black Projects (thus knowing the form that the alternate Nicholases would take) but manages to be really fun. The whirlwind meeting/reunion/romance is touching, Alec has to leave but promises to return, and Company goons come to imprison Mendoza in Options Research, which I had kind assumed she'd been sent to in the first place. So far, so good.

Then we tread water with 300 pages of backstory until the shocker ending, which is also great! The in-between, less so.

The main thread of the novel follows the mechanically talented Alec Checkerfield from birth to unhappy childhood to troubled adolescence to tormented young adulthood as he searches in vain for a meaningful cause to which to devote himself. His rich parents neglect him, he acquires and decripples an AI which becomes his surrogate parent ("Smart Alec" is reproduced here with minor revision), he drifts about smuggling and failing to connect with people and testing how much his money, title, and privilege allow him to get away with, and, eventually, he investigates his origins and commits an act of incredibly misjudged "idealism" which results in tragedy and a great deal of motivating guilt. When he discovers that Dr. Zeus, through manipulation and psychological programming, is responsible for leading him to commit his crime (to the Company's benefit, of course), he sets off for revenge, leading him to his all-important meeting with Mendoza and to his hapless creators in a really anticlimactic showdown (the anticlimax is deliberate, which doesn't really excuse it).

Oh, yeah, his creators. The other storyline follows a trio of extremely self-involved Company scientists [1], the original design team for the Enforcers, in the wake of the forced retirement of Budu and company. Dubbing themselves the New Inklings due to a deeply felt shared love (and, in most instances, parodic misunderstanding) of Tolkien, Lewis, et al, they set out to develop a more flexible and advanced replacement model, a hero with all the qualities of their favorite characters, one without the proven flaw of immortality. We witness the results with them as they create and follow the careers of Nicholas, Edward, and Alec from a different, more detached perspective (they don't have the whole story themselves, and they're surprised to learn of the part their creation plays in the origins of Dr. Zeus, and baffled as to why Mendoza keeps showing up -- the ones pulling the strings have yet to reveal themselves). This is cute and silly for awhile, with clever explanations for things like the recurring broken nose, but it goes on and on with the geeky overgrown kid back-and-forth and the "funny" Swearing Of Tomorrow until it's long past entertaining [2]. While the future history continues to be thematically relevant, as it's primarily concerned with the many ways economic development and capitalism shape the lives of human beings, the future culture reaches new levels of that suffocating cartoonish wackiness that only lets up when the reader is asked to take these grotesques seriously as moral agents. To my mind, this isn't a good direction for Baker to be going in [3].

Baker's science is worse here than ever; before, the characters were believably intelligent (with acceptable blind spots), the botany was credible, qualms with the time travel were handwaved away with hints they would be addressed in the future, and period England was so elaborately and lovingly evoked that a physics mistake or two was ignorable. This time, none of those virtues are present, so there isn't much to distract when Baker makes it painfully clear she has no idea what a tetraploid genome is. Then there's the nonsensical Big Horrible Thing that happens on Mars. Speaking of that: Alec is shocked -- shocked! -- when his gunrunning results in unexpected loss of life. It's a moment of such stunning naivete from a character who is supposed to be smart that the author's heavy hand is unignorable and even the resulting guilt rings false.

But the faults here, as with The Graveyard Game, aren't unforgivable. They're mainly a function of stretching too little new material over too many pages, of taking so long to set everything up that the series is over halfway over and we're still mired in inelegant chess-piece-pushing mode. The first few Company books promised more than the pleasures of genre fiction, and at this point even the cool parts are becoming rarer and rarer. Still, there's still more than enough time to turn things around. The novel's ending promises a quick and unpredictable acceleration of events. Alec's mental state is fucked up and fragmented in such a way as seems likely to yield wonderful results. He's an unhinged rebel on Mendoza's trail with a grudge against the Company. So is Joseph. They're likely to meet and they'll be forced to team up and sparks will awesomely fly. Plus, Alec's rescue of the Captain from the clutches of Dr. Zeus was all too easy -- Trojan horse from that Company AI? -- and the poor long-suffering mentor's days are almost certainly numbered anyway. The war between immortals -- Suleyman and Latif versus the plague club -- is overdue to be boiling over, and I don't even know what Mendoza is going to do when she's freed, but I expect it to be neat. Okay. *Now* everything's in place, and Mendoza's super-maize has been stressed to the point that if it doesn't wind up being key to everything, I'll be disappointed.

[1] Chatterji is from "Monster Story," so the unremarked-upon irony is that he creates Alec, the one responsible for getting him involved in the Company in the first place, but I'm not sure if we're meant to see that story as continuity; the novel is not always consistent with the Black Projects stories, and you'd think he might have remembered the strange kid who gave him those answers. But there'd be no point giving him the name if he weren't supposed to be the same person and we weren't meant to make the connection.

[2] Yeah, it's like the nerd trio from Buffy Season 6, with bad jokes about literature and Joseph Campbell instead of cliched TV geek jokes.

[3] I present Connie Willis as a cautionary example. Now she does *nothing else.*
Saturday, July 19th, 2008
5:21 pm
You Complete Me
Saw The Dark Knight. Gut reaction: it's a pretty great and almost entirely entertaining film which repeats the form and structure of Batman Begins exactly (surprise third-act villain and all) but has its own strengths and weaknesses, chief of which are the somewhat muddled handling of its main themes and the not-entirely-successful emotional climax of the story. Which means the party line / critical hype machine is only half right; it gives you more or less exactly what you'd expect from a followup to Batman Begins with this cast, this storyline, and these themes, and not much beyond that, which means that, although it does nothing whatsoever to "revolutionize" superhero movies or "transcend the genre," it does establish new quality standards. And doesn't that achievement sound exciting enough to break every box office record in the history of creation?

First off, the obvious highlight: the Joker. Heath Ledger's performance makes the movie, and he minimizes flaws in the script that trip up everyone else. Most superhero movies have sought to elevate average / mediocre material with larger-than-life performances by talented, respectable, or credible actors [1]. The idea being, it's a comic book movie! It's supposed to be fun! For the actors, too! Patrick Stewart can exposit while Ian McKellen camps it up! Kevin Spacey: "WRONG!" Get Alfred Molina to bring the pathos between ranting about the power of the sun in the palm of his hand! This is an approach which reaches its platonic ideal with the vacant Iron Man, filmed froth which Robert Downey, Jr. nearly makes watchable through sheer force of Acting! Talent! but can't because, well, as much as he tries to portray Tony Stark as the brilliant man he's supposed to be, he's still forced to stick to the script, and Tony Stark, as scripted, is not a brilliant man.

Ledger resists the (understandable) temptation to go over the top with a larger-than-life character like the Joker. If anything, he underplays the role -- he's riveting, but he doesn't chew the scenery. He serves the script, and, in turn, the script steps out of his way, giving him room to maneuver with moments that are both creepy and funny (the pencil trick!) and a simple but significant motivation (to morally implicate everyone and expose the hypocrisy of those who consider themselves "good"). Wisely, there is no attempt to give the Joker a background; here, he's a black hole, defined entirely by Batman and seemingly created out of the void as his moral complement, jokingly offering up lame (and contradictory, just so you don't make the mistake of believing him) psychological explanations for his madness. Ledger's Joker is emblematic of Christopher Nolan's approach to his material: as with the other recent grim-and-gritty franchise reboot, the Daniel Craig Casino Royale, it's best understood not as divesting the franchise of absurd bullshit, but as incorporating some of the ludicrous elements into the story in as straight-faced and sincere a way as possible, its characters accepting them as part of the world's reality and treating them as serious parts of their lives rather than winking at the audience and allowing the viewer to feel superior. Thus, Batman Begins painstakingly details each step in the process of Bruce's creation of his persona, and the mockable parts become less mockable. It's mannered and not actually realistic, but it's much more immersive, cohesive, believable, and, ultimately, entertaining [2].

The film avoids the pitfall I initially feared most. From what Nolan and Bale had to say, it sounded as if "The Long Halloween" would be to The Dark Knight as "Year One" was to Batman Begins, and I don't really like "The Long Halloween" much at all. Thankfully, TDK really only lifts the framework of "freaks replacing organized crime in Gotham" and the fact that it's a Two-Face origin story without any of the specifics (I think everyone can agree that Rachel Dawes systematically rubbing out mob members would have been a mistake). The events of "The Killing Joke" are thematically more relevant to the movie, though of course the battle is for the soul of Jim Gordon rather than Harvey Dent in the comic.

Aaron Eckhart does just fine as Harvey Dent, and visually, Two-Face is amazing, though I'm not quite convinced by his emotional transformation. I was reminded of Angel at many points during the film (let's not forget the debt the series owes to Batman; it's not just because Keith Szarabajka showed up, though that did help), and it struck me that the big final hostage sequence really needed to feel more like "Home," where Connor is lashing out with desperate, senseless acts of randomized nihilism and it's unbearable because all of the accumulated weight of a season of pain and misery is crashing down and there's nothing left in the world but ashes and failure. This scene doesn't reach that level of intensity, and that's only partly because Two-Face didn't get to do much of anything other than take revenge on some spineless traitors and Eric Roberts, the nicest mob boss around.

So here's what falls a little flat for me. Batman is a nut. Bruce Wayne's interpretation of what's necessary for Gotham isn't to be trusted, right? It's self-serving, the decision that a flawed hero is necessary for a flawed city, and it in fact goes in the face of the adherence to principle he just witnessed with the refusal of both ferries to blow each other up to save themselves, which proved that the Joker is wrong and that deep down everyone, including hardened convicts and the criminally insane, is basically decent. Which explains why Gotham is such a great place to live! Wait a minute... Maybe the businessman's decision proves that Gotham's citizens are both selfish (they voted to kill the prisoners) and cowardly (because they couldn't follow through). Which means Batman's explanation for why neither boat exploded is wrong (which makes sense, because he's just speculating about what went on there and projecting his own complexes onto their motives). But the film seems to support his view. After all, not only Jim Gordon but also his hapless family members go along with the lie and make Harvey Dent a martyr, seeing it as necessary to provide hope that a better way is possible within the system. But how, exactly, does this encourage anyone else to follow in Dent's footsteps? Especially since his brave commitment to upholding the law and making Gotham a better place was seen as anomalous, something taking more moral strength than the average person if one considers the risks he took in the course of doing his job. How does the lie Batman and Gordon perpetuate make things any different than if Sal Moroni's fall guy had plugged Harvey Dent in the courtroom? How would people knowing that Harvey Dent had been driven mad by unimaginable trauma, permanent hideous physical and emotional scarring, and torture by a psychopath have killed all chances for genuine on-the-level civic justice forever? The film seems to side with Batman's logic, but I don't see how that would happen.

The film wants to have it both ways -- mob mentality is frightening and democracy doesn't work and even the best and most idealistic can be brought down with a bit of a push and things just keep getting worse, but there are all these moments undercutting the bleakness in a really unconvincing way. It's not just the ferries. How come the cops only seem to have been corrupted for justifiable, compassionate reasons? Batman Begins smartly didn't try to pretend that the Gotham cops had any good reason for not doing their jobs, other than it being dangerous to fight crime and easier to look the other way. When Batman sends Gordon the names of the cops with hospitalized family members, and the second one (who's not immediately relevant) is the one minor cop everyone in the audience remembers, is it supposed to be surprising when we learn that she, too, has been suborned [3]? It lessens the darkness to no good effect. And then there's the escalation thread -- in direct response to Batman, the Joker appears, and he makes the mob a thing of the past, announcing that there's no turning back. But Batman rejects the Joker's claims for society's inevitable downward slide, instead insisting that "things have to get worse before they get better." This would seem to be an unexamined assumption with no basis in reality. If he's wrong, his existence really is making things worse, and the ending would imply that, yes, Batman is here for good, and yes, that's bad news for the state of justice in the future. But because it does seem to be possible to go back from the brink -- the ferries again, but also the rejection of further use of the super cell phone sonar device -- and because the Big Lie our heroes tell is presented as the right thing to do, there does appear to be hope. This doesn't strike me as the type of tension that creates an unsettling and lasting artistic ambiguity. It reminds me more than anything of Ra's al Ghul's non-logic -- we're pretty sure that Gotham City is hopelessly corrupt, which is unacceptable, so it has to be taken down, so our enemies are anyone who's trying to make things better, so we'll eliminate reformers and spend the next 30+ years using our considerable resources to gain power at all levels and we'll use our influence to accelerate the process of social decay to create a symbol of WHAT

Or, the short, short version: the film's moral argument seems to be leading to a conclusion that Batman is not helping, full stop. But Batman is cool and we want to see more of him! So the film concludes that Batman is imperfect but in the right, tacitly endorsing his actions. If this is veiled audience indictment, it's far too subtle to reach its audience.

Other problems: I like Maggie Gyllenhaal much more than I like Katie Holmes. It's a shame that Rachel Dawes isn't much more than an object here -- a symbol for Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent to project their own desires onto. She's even more purely functional here than in Batman Begins, where at least Rachel has some agency and gets to investigate stuff on her own and gives voice to legitimate concerns and questions Bruce's motives in a meaningful way without just being The Girl Who Represents What I Could Have If I Gave Up Being Batman or The Girl Whose Tragic Needless Death Has Destroyed My Faith In Anything But The Forces Of Random And Impersonal Chance. Poor Maggie never had a chance to leave her mark. Where Batman Begins was always Bruce Wayne's story, Bruce is barely present here; Batman is around for all of the action scenes, of course, but so much screen time is devoted to developing the Harvey Dent plotline that there are few opportunities for Bruce to stop darkly avenging for a moment and reflect. Alfred and Lucius also have next to nothing of importance to do; they're mostly disconnected from everything going on with the Joker and the cops and Harvey Dent, so they exist mainly as sounding boards for moral questions with foregone conclusions (because Bruce Wayne is not the Bush administration; of course he'll do the right thing) and get to deliver dumb dialogue callbacks (aspiring screenwriters, please don't do this in your scripts. It's not clever). By the way, when Harvey Dent says the line about dying a hero or living long enough to become the villain, it's nicely ominous. When Batman repeats it (as it has become ALL TOO RELEVANT DO YOU SEE), it clunks. There's no better way to kill the significance of your foreshadowing dead than by having people draw attention to it later on. And by the way, how about those mob bosses who just happen to embody racial stereotypes -- the incredulous, no-nonsense black guy with no patience for all this clown silliness, and the devious, inscrutable asian. And on the ferry? Great job fooling us by avoiding cliche! We all thought the black criminal with an icy menace was out for himself, when he actually turned out to be noble and self-sacrificing! There are also some rushed, choppy scene transitions -- after the Joker threw Rachel out the window, he just gave up on his search for Harvey Dent and left everyone at the fundraiser in peace?

But on reflection, Batman Begins has plenty of flaws (microwave emitter, come on), all of which pale in comparison to what the film does right. I mean, the feat of actually producing an exciting and not painfully dull origin story (every single other filmed superhero origin story ranges from lifeless to terrible, and the vast majority of comic book movies are origin stories)! I really like it. I expect that eventually, I'll feel the same way about The Dark Knight. It just might take awhile. In the meantime, watch the box office gross and the awards and acclaim pile up.

[1] Or, more generally, visual media with a comic book sensibility and a fandom to match. Not just The Middleman (though the sole reason to watch that hideous jumble of rejected Gilmore Girls dialogue and jokeless running jokes so far has been the charm of its two leads), but the likes of Lost, which now seems to have recognized that Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson can transfix you with even the laziest, most pandering material, or Battlestar Galactica, whose worst and most nonsensical moments have always been acting showcases -- character episodes which do disservice to their characters of focus ("Black Market," "Hero," "The Passage," "The Woman King," "Maelstrom," "Sine Qua Non").

[2] No, sincerity is not a virtue in and of itself -- only when it serves the material appropriately. Rewatch the Burton and Schumacher Batmans (Batmen?) and tell me if any of their cheesy meta-"jokes" are legitimately funny and not, you know, so terrible that you sometimes laugh out of nervous energy. They rarely work as light entertainment and perhaps the closest they get to genuine drama is when the penguins come to carry away Danny Devito's corpse.

[3] For some reason, the film does its best to telegraph each moment of betrayal and every big reveal with lingering shots of bottles and envelopes and people being led into cars. Was there anyone who didn't guess what was up with the complaining guy in the holding cell the moment he started talking? It's not a horrendous flaw, but Nolan has handled surprises better in the past.
Sunday, July 13th, 2008
11:55 pm
Saw the Frida Kahlo exhibition at MOMA yesterday. It was a treat. Then today was the security-robots-gone-murderous classic of the 80s, Chopping Mall. This is how you become a well-rounded individual.

Steven Brust, Jhegaala

The latest Vlad book, set between Phoenix and Athyra and bridging his emotional state from one to the other in a credible, consistent, intriguing way. Jhegaala undergo extensive metamorphosis (metaphorical in the case of Dragaerans, literal in the case of the animal), and this is very much about Vlad in the middle of ongoing, painful change as he processes leaving his old life and his broken marriage behind.

Vlad is in the East, on the run from the Jhereg. He decides to visit the village his mother came from, hoping to find kin and, possibly, discover something -- anything, really -- about her. Vlad is led to investigate the power dynamics of a community that's very different from Adrilankha, Northport, Greenaere, Smallcliff, or even the Fenario of Brokedown Palace (which, surprisingly, this has very few direct connections to, though the political events from that period continue to have consequences in the present day), and the results are painful, as Bad Things happen and he is haunted by things left unsaid and things irrevocably lost.

It's a deliberately small story (and unlike Dragon, the other expansion on a vaguely referenced incident in Vlad's past, this doesn't move the long-term metaplot forward), but not a slight one, with some excellent character work and a good showcase for the talents of Loiosh and Rocza. As usual, Brust challenges his creative abilities to explore new forms and do things he hasn't done before, and he's talented enough to pull off anything to which he sets his mind -- even situations that in less capable hands might kill a story dead. Vlad is incapacitated for most of what goes on, but he always feels like an active participant. Vlad figures everything out early on and takes glee in stringing Loiosh (and the reader) along, but he takes such an intense physical and emotional beating that you don't begrudge him such pleasures if that's what it takes to keep him sane. Vlad is constantly faced with the fact that there's nothing stopping him from walking away at any time -- that in fact it would really be in his best interests to cut his losses and get moving -- but he doesn't consider it an option, and his reasons for doing so are clear. Oh, and we all knew that Vlad mysteriously lost a finger during this period. That's not mentioned here, but it doesn't have to be; you're definitely going to notice when it happens. Good writers can make sure you pick up on things like that.

I loved it. I can't wait for the next book -- currently Iorich, right? -- and there's certainly room for another Vlad adventure in Fenario at some point (Miklos is still around, after all, and we've got both a year of recuperation in the capital and possibly a bit of free time afterwards), but there's nothing unsatisfying about Jhegaala, another strong entry in a series as noteworthy for its commitment to reinvention, unpredictability, and willingness to break new ground as for its few constants -- heartwarming cynicism and wit, marvelous food writing, and Devera cameos, none of which I want to take for granted.

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008
10:45 pm
Michael Moorcock, Elric: The Stealer Of Souls: The Sleeping Sorceress / The Revenge Of The Rose / The Stealer Of Souls / Kings In Darkness / The Caravan Of Forgotten Dreams / Stormbringer

When we left Elric last, the wicked sorcerer Theleb K'aarna of Pan Tang had ticked him off, earning what the albino swore would be a terrible vengeance. The first three of these stories (two novels and a novelette) are mainly about that revenge (if only by proxy in Rose), while the second three (two novelettes and a novel) are more concerned with fate, setting up and playing out the final apocalyptic events of Elric's world.

The Sleeping Sorceress: Like The Sailor On The Seas Of Fate, it's really three novelettes stitched together, one after another. It's a little more coherent as a novel than Sailor (due to the presence of Theleb K'aarna in each incident and the eventual reappearance of the titular sorceress), but only a little.

Elric and his trusty companion Moonglum have tracked Theleb K'aarna to the kingdom of Lormyr when an attack by creatures of Chaos (and subsequent capture and escape) leads them to an ancient castle containing, yes, a sleeping sorceress, Myshella, Empress of the Dawn, the Dark Lady of Kaneloon -- servant of Law and ancient enemy of Melniboné. She's been put into an enchanted sleep by Theleb K'aarna, but that doesn't stop her from explaining all about the situation (Theleb K'aarna is now in league with Prince Umbda, a servant of Chaos who plans to take over Lormyr and, eventually, the world), putting Moonglum to sleep (to ensure compliance), and sending Elric on a brief fetch quest to retrieve a revive-from-the-dead stone. He uses it on her, he's captured for two seconds, and Myshella is revived just in time to crush the invading army and offer Elric his heart's desire, which he rejects because he believe his lot to be naught but sorrow and guilt and hatred -- for you see, what he most desires is also what he most fears.

In the Book Two ("To Snare The Pale Prince"), Theleb K'aarna visits Nadsokor, the terrible City of Beggars (because I guess poverty, disability, and moral degeneracy are to be considered morally equivalent. But hey, it's fantasy, which makes it okay, right?), for aid from its vulgar, loathsome King Urish, who hates Elric for stealing a scroll from his Sacred Hoard in an untold adventure (evidently Yyrkoon tricked Elric into it). Meanwhile, Elric visits Old Hromar, ruled by that explorer/adventurer duke he dicked over in Sailor. He and Moonglum seek Tanelorn, but are distracted when some whores they're trying to save steal Elric's ring of kingship (they're part of the plot to lure him to Nadsokor). When Elric is captured, rather than doing the smart thing and killing him outright, they send him to feed their Burning God, who's really quite friendly. With the help of a Lord of Law (ooh, arc movement), he kills it and escapes, but he can't get his ring back yet because Theleb K'aarna has summoned a demon to block everyone from the hoard (it feels really RPG-y). Meanwhile, King Urish and Theleb K'aarna are off to harass a caravan on its way to Tanelorn; Rackhir the Red Archer and other Tanelornians defend. Theleb K'aarna summons some woman-demons, but Elric can't summon their natural demon enemies without his ring. Oh, wait, yes, he can. The sorcerer flees, Nadsokor is defeated, and the king is boned because not even he's allowed past the hoard-guarding demon. Then Arioch fixes everything and gives Elric back his ring, telling him that he should be loyal to Chaos and not join neutral Tanelorn. I don't have to pick the story apart when plot summary does the work for me.

Finally, in "Three Heroes With A Single Aim," not even spending time in Tanelorn can give Elric peace. He goes out to the desert, hoping to lose himself but prepared to die if he cannot. Then Myshella shows up to spoil everything because she's just now learned that Theleb K'aarna isn't dead yet. Out for revenge against both Elric and Tanelorn, the sorcerer has discovered ancient weapons and technology, including an infernal machine which allows him to summon invincible reptile monsters from another plane. While trying to destroy the Mammon machine, Elric is drawn into another world and meets Corum, who is about halfway through the events of The King Of The Swords. Erekose shows up and they go up against Voilodion Ghagnasdiak (an evil dwarf) of the Vanishing Tower, where Jhary-a-Conel is being held captive (it's the same adventure as in King from a different perspective, without any additional points of interest). They enter the tower, fight, link up, merge, save Jhary, and get the Runestaff, which brings everybody back to Elric's world. Elric is given special anti-Godzilla weapons to kill the reptiles while the rest use the machine to be sent back to their own worlds. Theleb K'aarna is foiled and he loses the blessings of the Chaos Lords, but thankfully not before he kills Myshella.

Yeah, Myshella is kind of a reflection of Cymoril, and Theleb K'aarna here is an externalized and exaggerated exemplar of the qualities Elric hates about himself, but these mirrorings are shallow, providing no particular insight into character (other than the fact that Elric has a definite romantic "type"). The sorceress is asleep. The sorcerer insists upon vengeance even when it works against his own best interests. That's about as far as it goes.

The Revenge Of The Rose: This is the other Elric novel written almost twenty years after everything else. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as strong as The Fortress Of The Pearl, indulging in so much sterile reality-hopping and pointless connections to other multiverse books that its ostensible main themes wind up muddled and underexplored.

Elric has temporarily bidden farewell to Tanelorn and Moonglum, but very quickly acquires a substitute companion: the trans-reality-traveling poet Wheldrake, a Swinburne-esque poet from an alternate England. Wheldrake is the first strike against the novel, a constantly irritating blowhard who receives constant praise from everyone ("his poetic inspiration is without parallel") for terrible verse and rancid philosophizing ("I have no quarrel with such wounded, needy souls as yourself, who must chant a creed as some kind of protective charm against the unknown. It seems to me, as I travel the multiverse, that reliance on such insistencies is what all mortals have in common. Million upon million of different tribes, each with its own fiercely defended truth." If you liked that, you're in for a treat here). Elric also runs across a dragon who brings him back to a past version of Melniboné where the shade of his dead father, Sadric, dwells. It would seem that the status of Sadric's soul is under dispute by Elric's sworn liege, Arioch and a rival Chaos Lord, Count Mashabak. In the meantime, Sadric schemes to free his spirit-essence from all claims by Hell, hoping to get in by the back door to the closest thing Melnibonéans have to Heaven. He has hidden his soul in a box; the box has been lost in another world, and Sadric wants Elric's help to find it. As relations between the two have been strained since his father spent all his life blaming him for his mother's death in childbirth, Elric doesn't want to help. His father doesn't exactly care; he forces compliance by sort of possessing Elric. So there's the metaphor for this quest: if Elric doesn't fulfill the task in time, Sadric's soul will overpower his and they'll be linked forever -- his worst fear. If he succeeds, he can be free of his father's legacy, and, by extension, make peace with his heritage, the cursed Melnibonéan background he despises.

Only, no. Elric's daddy issues bookend the story rather than inform it. The rest of the novel is concerned mainly with vengeance and thematic doubles with whom Elric feels a strange kinship, as they present potential life paths for him. The first he meets is Prince Gaynor the Damned, from the Corum books (Remember him? Former Knight of the Balance, eternally damned by a monstrous betrayal?), who serves Count Mashabak at first (but the betrayal is to be expected). The second is the Rose, a strong, self-assured adventuress in search of revenge -- there's a mysterious blood-feud involved (and I am under the impression that there are connections here to the Second Ether books, which I haven't gotten to yet). Both are journeying to the Gypsy Nation, an ever-moving city of lost souls and nomads of the time streams, seeking three elusive sisters. When Elric learns that the sisters have the box he's looking for, he also joins the hunt.

The Gypsy Nation society feels like if China Mieville came up with the concept for an RPG city and then didn't bother to flesh it out (it's kind of unjust, and its inhabitants are constantly compelled to keep moving. That's it). It's almost saved from being offensive by having nothing much to do with real gypsies. While there, Elric and company meet up with a family of clairvoyants and master trackers -- father Fallogard Phatt, niece Charion, son Koropith, and their crazy-oracular granny. They're descended from Corum's people, the Vadhagh, and they normally travel the planes and stars, but are currently trapped by the "psychic gravity" of the gypsies. Fortunately, this dilemma becomes a moot point when Gaynor summons up a gaping Chaos catastrophe which scatters everyone through worlds and time.

Starting over in another unfamiliar plane, Elric finds Wheldrake and Charion Phatt (enough years have passed for her in the meantime that she's legal now. Wheldrake falls for her. It would be icky if these characters felt anything like human beings). They're forced to travel with Gaynor again and are joined for the second section of the novel by Esbern Snare, a werewolf (or skinwalker or whatever). Snare is a good man cursed to wear a wolf skin and his background involves a fable about a deal with a troll. The whole thing sort of has to do with vengeance but it feels beamed in from another book entirely, despite a vague attempt to tie his story in with the Rose's background later. The werewolf redeems his honor but not his soul, he's an Elric shadow figure, blah blah blah, it's all killing time until everyone gets back together and the three sisters show up (who are also descended from the Vadhagh, by the way, with an explicit connection to the events of The Dragon In The Sword. Eventually, we find that everybody seems to have Vadhagh/Eldren blood, though there's no real point to learning these details). It all comes down to Elric being flanked by a bunch of fighting females in a big battle with Gaynor and the forces of Chaos.

The titular revenge of the Rose turns out to be turning evil into good, by controlling the power of Mashabak in the service of recreating what has been lost. This is presented as the only "positive," constructive revenge. It's a little simplistic to be the final word of the series on the nature of vengeance, but there you go -- that's the major theme of the novel. It's pulling the same trick as Pearl, showing Elric the medley of extemporanea available to him if he chooses to go beyond his narrow worldview, refusing to allow his lineage to shape his destiny. Why does this fall flat where Pearl succeeded? Elric never struggles with his cultural values over the course of the story [1], and he's personally disconnected from all of the vengeance. It's as if the characters are staging a morality play for him. This might be fine (with the tragedy being that he doesn't take the lesson he should have taken from this) if not for the fact that the ending is presented as an unambiguous victory. He gives his father back his soul, and this is presented as a good thing. It leads his father to forgive him. It allows him to move past his origins. He goes on to take pointless vengeance in chronologically later stories, but knowledge of that does not impinge upon the events here; this should have not only thematic relevance but direct in-story references to the Theleb K'aarna revenge arc, but those references are absent. We're left not with a sense of Elric's moral weakness, but with his heroism. He and the Rose go to Tanelorn together. This is a holiday. Perhaps it's a stronger holiday than Kings In Darkness (see below), but it has no moral weight. It doesn't work in tandem with the other Elric stories and it's flaccid as a standalone novel. Oh, well, at least Moorcock got one Tehanu-level artistically successful revisionist work out of his biggest character.

The Stealer Of Souls: And here Elric is at his vicious, cruel, self-justifying, self-pitying worst.

Some merchants enlist Elric and Moonglum to take out a powerful merchant rival, who just happens to be employing Theleb K'aarna (Queen Yishana, over whom the whole feud started back at the beginning of time, is also hanging around just to see how things turn out between her warring suitors, Meg White-style). They need help, so they decide to get it from some of the nearby Melnibonéan refugees, who now work as mercenaries. You'd think that the refugees might harbor some resentment against the man responsible for slaughtering the majority of their (and his own) people, reducing their civilization to rubble and ash, and reducing their circumstances to what I'm pretty sure would be considered dishonorable work, but no. They're happy to help! Their leader, Dyvim Tvar, former Lord of the Dragon Caves, lists all of the valid reasons they shouldn't assist Elric (leading the human merchant fleet and betraying his people is one; the doom laid on Elric that they would share if they followed him is another valid one) then goes ahead anyway for two not very convincing reasons:

1. Regicide is even more undesirable than the prospect of vengeance against Elric
2. Vengeance against Theleb K'aarna (!). It appears that Queen Yishana fucked one of the refugees (looking for an Elric replacement), and a jealous Theleb K'aarna killed him.

In the half-hearted initial effort, Theleb K'aarna summons a hellbeast, captures Elric, and makes the incredibly stupid mistake of keeping him alive to take revenge (displaying . Elric's backup is left twiddling their thumbs. Follow this logic:

1. Elric goes to get help from the Melnibonéans because he doesn't think he can go up against Theleb K'aarna's sorcery alone
2. The Melnibonéans are powerless when Elric is kidnapped because only he can stand up against Theleb K'aarna's sorcery

It's a good thing that Nikorn, the merchant employer who's actually a real stand-up guy, even more stupidly decides to free Elric on two conditions:

1. I keep your sword (fantastic idea, that)
2. Promise not to kill me

Once freed, Elric gets Stormbringer back within seconds (with the help of Yishana, who's still smitten with Elric even though he totally left her hanging the last time they were together) and his forces launch an attack, during which Dyvim Tvar gets killed for his trouble. Theleb K'aarna, at the end of his summoning rope, goes A Fridge Too Far and is reduced to a gibbering Chaos-thing (like Yyrkoon). The final vengeance Elric takes is hollow. Then Stormbringer goes for Nikorn's soul and Elric goes "NOOOOOOO I PROMISED" and cries about it. Then he gleefully cheats the merchants who hired him in the first place; they kind of deserve it, but still, it's supposed to be cool and it isn't. Elric's quip at the end (Yishana asks, "What happened to Nikorn? He was nice," and he responds, "Like all merchants, he bargained too hard.") is callous and feels a little out-of-place considering he was blubbering over the man just minutes before.

Kings In Darkness: Or, Elric finds a wife.

But how can this be? All of his previous sort-of-love-interests are dead (Cymoril, Myshella), have something resembling personality and motivation (Yishana, Shaarilla), or haven't been invented yet (the Rose). Surely Moorcock wouldn't pull an Annie Blackburn on us!

Elric and Moonglum are on the run from Nadsokorian beggars (again), and take refuge in the evil Forest of Troos. There they meet a bland, personality-free princess, Zarozinia. Elric is engaged to her in approximately five seconds; their non-romance is momentarily interrupted by a perfunctory adventure involving the dull degenerate royalty of the grubby forest kingdom, finding its resolution in the clockwork fulfillment of a half-assed prophecy/legend. It feels a little like C.L. Moore's "Hellsgarde," only drained of atmosphere, character, creative vision, and writing quality. Ruin rains down on the bad guys and our heroes are free to leave for Kaarlak, Zarozina's remote but homey country. In a symbolic move even M. Night Shyamalan would have rejected for being too obvious, Elric also finds some herbs with which he can sustain his health, thus allowing him to permanently stop using Stormbringer. All of his problems are solved, and everyone can live happily ever after in peace and domestic bliss!!!

The Caravan Of Forgotten Dreams: ...or not.

Moonglum shows up with bad tidings: the warlord Terarn Gashtek, known as the Flame Bringer, has been conquering a whole bunch of places, and Kaarlak is next on his list. Elric, who is right in the middle of enjoying his peace with Zarozina, is forced once again to take up the unholy sword he swore he would never use again.

Yeah, this is the "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" story.

The Flame Bringer is unstoppable due to his hold over a powerful sorcerer who pulled the old "place your soul in a cat" routine and then unwisely let the cat get kidnapped by the evil warlord, who threatens it to make the sorcerer do his bidding. If you put your soul in a cat (or any unconventional form of storage, for that matter), I suggest you not tell anybody about it. Elric's only hope is to free the sorcerer and let vengeance take its course. Despite conducting the most incompetent undercover mission ever (this should be an opportunity to trade on Elric's villainous reputation -- he should have no problem fitting in and pretending to share the villain's values -- but instead he talks back to the boss and spends half of his time in suspicious conversations with the sorcerer), he succeeds at this.

The soul restored to him (with the help of Elric's summoned cat elemental or whatever), the sorcerer prepares to wreak unholy havoc on the army, but his victory is cut short by an arrow to the eye, thus making the whole plan sort of a waste of time. After some light battling, the day is saved. With his last breath, Terarn Gashtek curses Elric and everyone he holds dear. Evidently this is the one that finally sticks, because its fulfillment is not far off.

It's kind of a nothing story. It feels more like a rejected outtake from Stormbringer than anything else, building tension before a rapidly-approaching cataclysm less successfully than that volume's component adventures. By the way, there is no caravan here and very few forgotten dreams. The original title was The Flame Bringers, which isn't great but at least had something to do with its contents.

Stormbringer: This novel consists of four more-or-less continuous novellas but, unlike Sailor or Sleeping Sorceress, the individual pieces strengthen each other (though they could conceivably stand alone) and don't feel disjointed, building on each other to effectively dramatize the mounting breakdown of kingdoms, civilization, and, finally, reality itself. For all its faults (and they are many), it's probably the strongest single Elric work after Fortress. There's nothing particularly subversive about the novel, per se, in form or subject matter, and it's not doing much of anything new -- the specter of Ragnarok goes, of course, without saying, and more than any of the Elric stories, it bears a great debt to Kullervo in the Kalevala -- but it does achieve a memorable and unique apocalyptic feel. It's also structurally interesting; the threats start out immense and gradually get smaller from there, but the situation gets more and more desperate as losses pile up and options dwindle.

"Dead God's Homecoming": It was a dark and stormy night when, suddenly, Zarozinia was kidnapped! Elric springs into action, once again drawing the sword he renounced for her. Trouble is brewing: Jagreen Lern, the ambitious new Theocrat of Pan Tang, warlike island country of warrior-wizards and Melnibonéan wannabes, is making war alliances and preparing for conquest, threatening all of the Young Kingdoms, including Jharkor, the land ruled by Elric's former sex partner Queen Yishana, who has just hired the surviving Melnibonéan mercenaries, led by Dyvim Slorm, Dyvim Tvar's son and Elric's last remaining kinsman, for protection. COULD THIS HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE KIDNAPPING?

Spoiler: Yes.

Let's set aside the plot for a moment and focus on a small incident that may, in fact, be fraught with meaning. While traveling through a blasted waste in the wake of the depredations of the armies of Pan Tang, Elric comes across an old man who dabbles in the dark arts. The codger reveals that he survived by summoning a demon who, in return, asked him to give Elric a message when the albino prince inevitably passed by (the message is unimportant, a plot signpost). On further questioning, Elric finds that the man sold his soul for the power to call up the demon. The man rationalizes it: "But it was an old one and not of much worth. Hell could be no worse than this existence." Elric is still puzzled, asking, "why did you not let yourself burn, your soul unbartered?" In reply, the man expresses his wish to live, his opinion that life is good and worth savoring for even a short while longer. Elric dismisses the man and never gives him a second thought. But shouldn't this be the major moral question of the series? Is damning himself (not to mention bringing innumerable others to ruin) worth a few short additional years of existence, especially when there is so little pleasure or joy for him in life? The emphasis on fate and the nature of heroism throughout the novel threatens to obscure this point, but really, when you take immortal souls into account, allowing everyone in the world to suffer and die horribly is preferable to subjecting even the worst villain to Stormbringer [2].

But back to the story. Battle rages (introducing and killing off all sorts of warrior races and elite fighting squads), Yishana loses and is killed (::mourn::), and Elric and Dyvim Slorm escape. They're met by Sepiriz of the ten Nihrainians, servants of fate (and cousins to the Warrior in Jet and Gold from the Hawkmoon books). It's basically one of those situations where you can read "plot" for each instance of "destiny," "fate," or "prophecy." Sepiriz has plenty of information about the origins and purposes of Stormbringer and its twin, Mournblade, which he just happens to have pulled out of the black hole it has apparently been in since Yyrkoon died in The Dreaming City because it just happens to be necessary for what's about to happen ("fate" is like that). Dyvim Slorm, by the way, gets to use Mournblade, and there's almost an attempt to parallel the two Melnibonéans, but it doesn't quite stick, especially because Mournblade winds up having no real importance at all besides serving as a powerful weapon for one of Elric's teammates. Sepiriz also has plenty to say about the ancient and contradictory Dead Gods, who, in fact, "chose to die," but one of whom has returned to this reality (in the wake of the Chaos disruptions caused by Jagreen Lern, of course, leading Elric, predictably, to swear vengeance on him) to get the runeblades because they endanger him and his fellow gods (despite the Dead Gods being, you know, dead, so that no one would have even paid any attention to them if the one guy hadn't drawn Elric's attention). Said Dead God, Darnizhaan, is the one who has kidnapped Zarozinia, and he offers a trade: give him the swords or Zarozinia gets it. The bullshit morality is the same as in "The Gift" (since, if Darnizhaan gets the swords, all of the now-invincible Dead Gods come back and instantly turn the world into Hell, but, you know, it would be *wrong* to sacrifice Zarozinia, even if she'd die with everyone else in the alternative) but unfortunately, suicide is not the solution Elric offers to Darnizhaan; instead, because the Dead God is apparently the dumbest being in creation and too preoccupied with grandstanding about the nature of reality to see that this all-important trade goes through correctly (or even to research these swords he fears so much and discover that they can be operated remotely by their bearers), Elric manages a flawless victory by handing over the blades, getting his wife back, and promptly ordering them to slice the Dead God to ribbons. This the hellblades accomplish thoroughly and effectively. The Dead God's final words offer another Buffy moment -- something to the Balthazar-esque effect of "once you face what's to come, you'll wish I killed you all." Sepiriz confirms Darnizhaan's assertion: the blades, in addition to having god-slaying powers, are destined to destroy the world. Though really, it's just Stormbringer.

"Black Sword's Brothers": The threat of Jagreen Lern and the forces of Pan Tang grows. After a council of war featuring some of the most laughably unconvincing dialogue I have ever seen, Elric picks up Moonglum and they go journeying again in search of aid from the forces of Law. They are quickly interrupted by the appearance of the ever-informative Sepiriz, who tells them they can't do that yet because Jagreen Lern has summoned three Dukes of Hell for support, including Lord Arioch himself. The only hope against them is to summon Stormbringer's brothers, supernatural beings of Chaos from another plane, and that's rather dangerous (though pretty much everything is dangerous at this point). After learning the spell to accomplish this, the Elric and Moonglum travel to the capital of Pan Tang, fighting off monsters and such on the way. The aristocrats show up, Arioch makes a really pathetic case that even he should realize wouldn't convince Elric, and Elric chants the rune and summons a million black blades to permanently banish the Dukes from this plane. Unfortunately, when they disappear, returning to their home dimension, Stormbringer vanishes with them, leaving an exhausted Elric at the mercies of Jagreen Lern.

Painfully, Jagreen Lern is yet another Bond villain who, rather than just killing his archenemy and being free to conquer the world unhindered, would prefer to torture Elric and give him ample opportunity to escape. He even casts a protective charm on Elric so he won't be accidentally killed, which takes things to new heights of ridiculousness. Sure enough, Elric quickly works up the strength to summon Stormbringer and escapes with Moonglum -- he didn't even bother killing Moonglum! -- though Jagreen Lern escapes to fight another day.

"Sad Giant's Shield": And the Theocrat isn't licked yet; things look even more hopeless as Jagreen Lern has more big guns up his sleeve, summoning a fleet of unstoppable Chaos ships, crewed by the dead and the size of castles. Fortunately, those ships need to sail through, like, a Chaos zone or something, which takes a long time to create as they sail along, so Elric and company have plenty of time to do everything they need in preparation for the attack, kind of like how you can do all the Chocobo breeding you want even though Meteor is about to hit the planet. Lacking direction once again, they're at a loss until Sepiriz shows up yet again to explain exactly what needs to be done. It seems Elric has need of protection against Chaos, and so must seek out the powerful Chaos Shield held by a formerly-immortal giant (named Mordaga) living in a castle on the edge of the world. The giant is depressed, primarily because he's going to die (being made mortal and all), and, more specifically, there's a prophecy about him being killed by a group of four heroes. Elric bids Zarozinia goodbye for (OMG spoiler) the last time, prepares his people's defenses, and sets off with Moonglum, Rackhir, and Dyvim Slorm, after being given even more detailed information about the giant's defenses by a water elemental:

"It lies upon the topmost crag of a tall and lonely mountain, reached by a hundred and sixty-nine steps. Lining these steps are forty-nine elder trees, and of these you would have to be especially wary. Also Mordaga has a guard of a hundred and forty-four warriors. I'm explicit in giving numbers, for they have a mystic value."

That last line is quite possibly the lamest thing I have ever read. They fight their way through those deadly elder trees, but Elric is maddened by battle and stabs Rackhir, too, who cries, "Elric! Not my soul, too!" I laughed. When they make their way to Mordaga, the giant would rather not fight; he gives them the Chaos Shield outright and reasons that, hey, why exactly would you have to fulfill that prophecy anyway? Elric is sympathetic (for once) and leaves the giant in peace, but Moonglum sneaks back and stabs him from behind. Moonglum justifies himself by making the specious arguments that a) someone must be responsible for Rackhir's death, and they can't very well blame Elric, so why not Mordaga? and b) considering they're serving fate through all this, they might as well go all in. Are we meant to disapprove of Moonglum's actions here? I hope we are, but it's not as if this moment has any further consequences.

They make their return only to find that, uh-oh, Zarozinia has been kidnapped again. It's a good thing that helpful water elemental also explained how to stop the Chaos ships:

"Slay Pyaray, Lord of the Fleet of Hell, and, lacking his direction, the fleet itself would perish. His life-force is contained in a blue crystal set in the top of his head and striking at that with a special weapon is the only means of killing him."
At least Elric doesn't have to use the Top Spin on the boss' final form. He fights the end-of-level battle, breaks the crystal, and makes the fleet disappear (Jagreen Lern escapes for the last time), but, sadly, it's too late for Zarozinia, who has been transformed into a white worm with her human head. She begs for death and he resists, but of course Stormbringer makes the decision for him. Romantically, a portion of her soul will be together with him forever, or at least for about thirty more pages.

"Doomed Lord's Passing": Everything is falling apart, and Elric, Moonglum, and Dyvim Slorm may be the last remaining non-evil human beings (or near-human in the case of the Melnibonéans) in the world. They reach the ruins of Immryr, hoping to wake up the sleeping dragons for one last battle, and Elric is drawn through visions, meeting the shade of his father (who still hates him and knows nothing of the current age -- yes, it's inconsistent with The Revenge Of The Rose, or, rather, Rose is inconsistent with it), Sepiriz, and, at long last, the Lords of Law, who tell him that he needs the Horn of Fate: one blow wakes the dragons, two allows the forces of Law to enter the plane, and three heralds the end of the world and the beginning of a new one. They send him across the planes to the world which contains the Horn -- our world. Yeah, after hinting at it a dozen times, Moorcock finally comes out and says it: our Earth is actually the potential post-death-and-rebirth future of Elric's world, and Elric's true destiny is to ensure that it comes into being.

Jermays the Crooked makes an obligatory appearance to explain some things, and Elric learns that the Horn is held by Roland, who is not dead but sleeping (he is of course another incarnation of the Eternal Champion). Roland comes to life because I guess it wouldn't be proper if Elric didn't prove his worth in battle, even though Roland and his entire world would cease to exist if he bested Elric. This whole section is a rather out-of-place pace-killing detour, but it does contain the important detail, especially unsettling in light of the ending of the novel, that, while Elric feels like he doesn't belong in our Earth's reality, Stormbringer does feel right at home.

But the final battle awaits, and a magnificent one it is, too. Elric returns to his dying world and his companions with the Horn and is able to muster enough energy to blow it once, sending the dragons on one final glorious suicide run against the forces of Chaos. He duels more Chaos Lords, including Xiombarg (who is for some reason male with a woman's body here, rather than female as in the Corum books) and Mabelode. Dyvim Slorm dies valiantly but quickly, and the energy Elric receives from banishing Xiombarg allows him to blow the Horn again, summoning the Lords of Law. Most of the remainder of the battle is theirs, though Elric is able, at long last, to face off against Jagreen Lern, choosing, rather than taking the Theocrat's soul and life-force with Stormbringer, to make his death long and painful. This is a failure of the last moral test he is presented with. Without the energy to blow the Horn the third and final time, all of the fighting would have been for nothing, so Moonglum faithfully begs Elric to take his soul and, with it, complete his task -- but the experience of total soul-death is a far worse fate even than Moonglum had imagined. I'm pretty sure we're meant to conclude that, had Elric focused on his mission rather than on vengeance, he would not have had to murder his last friend. What I'm not entirely sure we're supposed to interpret as avoidable is the final events of the saga. Elric blows the Horn, the new world is born, and the balance rights itself (literally, up in the air). But Stormbringer, acting on its own, turns on its master and stabs Elric, reveals its true demonic form, announces, "I was a thousand times more evil than thou!", and dances through the new universe "in mockery of the cosmic balance."

So there you have it. Elric's victory is significant, and could not have occurred without his actions, but it also essentially introduces Original Sin into the new world of justice and potential he has fought so hard to create. The novel, if not the saga as a whole, does indeed function as a tragedy. And how might things have turned out differently, for the better? If Elric had not summoned Stormbringer back to his world while being held captive on Jagreen Lern's mast, he would have died and his soul would have stayed his own, but the new world would never have been born. Elric's dependence on the sword and the dull drug metaphor are red herrings; the use of Stormbringer seems to be necessary for the achievement of the final goal, but taints it. Good ends may not be able to justify evil means, but evil means are necessary to achieve it. And none of these ideas would add up to a decent story if not for that moment with the old man who sold his soul, which casts doubt on the rest of the narrative's insistence that the fate of the cosmos is more important than the fate of the individual. I'm almost shocked, but, in the end, the novel does work.

[1] We're not even reminded that Melnibonéans have raised cruelty to an art form. We don't see their bizarre conception of good leadership or any of their petty prejudices. All Elric grapples with is his pact with Arioch, and we already know that Elric usually doesn't take that very seriously.

[2] This is, incidentally, the reason Persona 2: Innocent Sin is both morally coherent and packs an emotional gut-punch, and why Eternal Punishment, for all its virtues, accomplishes neither.
Friday, June 27th, 2008
12:33 am
June is almost over. Sorry for the neglect; bad things have been going on.

Kage Baker, The Graveyard Game

There's not much here but transitions, pushing pieces into place, and truckloads of information about the world of the Company series, much of it redundant for anyone who has followed the series to this point -- which makes that info pointless, since this novel doesn't stand alone at all. Baker treads water well enough to keep me interested for the time being, but this series is starting to remind me of Lost's slumpier moments -- you can only continue to pile up minor mysteries and new factions for so long before you need to start parceling out resolutions, especially when the flaws are also starting to multiply. This contains SPOILERS but not, to my mind, enjoyment-destroying ones; there is so little plot progression in this book that its pleasures are primarily in the telling, not the tale.

As of the close of Mendoza In Hollywood, Mario Mendoza is missing. Joseph and Lewis, on learning this, set out to discover what happened. Here's where the first problem comes in: perspective. You've got some first-person framing material with Joseph explaining to his "father," Budu, whom he has *finally* located and revived, everything that has happened in the course of the search [1]. The bulk of the novel is narrated in tight third-person, alternating between the perspectives of Joseph and Lewis. Then there are periodic, seemingly random, wholly unnecessary sojourns into the POV of minor characters (Mendoza's friend Nan, double agent Victor, leader of the good immortal faction Suleyman). Sometimes this is because neither of the leads is around but the scene is still necessary. Sometimes there's just no good reason at all (as with the caretaker Abdiel at the end). In either case, it feels disjointed and jarringly inconsistent. I wish Baker had picked a narrator and stuck with him; if this were Lewis' book, his background and motivations and feelings could be fleshed out enough to make me care about his eventual fate as much as I care about Mendoza's, and if this were Joseph's book, it might be made to refract and distort Sky Coyote the way Hollywood served as a counterpart to In The Garden Of Iden. As it stands, the structure doesn't do either character any favors.

We meet up with our heroes near the beginning of the 20th Century. It takes them about a hundred pages and a century just for them to track down Juan Bautista and Porfirio (from Hollywood) and find out what we already know about the circumstances surrounding Mendoza's disappearance (crome generating weirdness, reincarnated lover, ending in blood). Joseph learns that the deceased Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax bore a remarkable resemblance to the even-more-deceased Nicholas Harpole, and grows to hate him/them even more. Lewis, on the other hand, in addition to his unrequited love for Mendoza, develops sort of a crush on Edward (learning more about his super-spy background), and eventually writes some historical adventure stories (or maybe just one sprawling novel) starring him. This raises questions about why none of the other immortals seem to have any real creative impulse. A look into Edward's background reveals a connection to the Gentleman's Speculative Society, an organization whose ranks include powerful, famous, and influential figures of the period as well as Company cyborgs. The Society seems to have existed in other forms in the past, and, more importantly, seems to be the direct forerunner of Dr. Zeus, Inc. Does the Company have an interest in ensuring its own creation and rise to power? Well, of course it does, and it seems to have something to do with whatever secret, important stuff is going on at Catalina Island, though that remains a mystery for now.

Meanwhile, you'd think that Mendoza's disappearance would have been enough reason for Joseph to consider a look at the coordinates that Budu gave him way back in the flashbacks from Sky Coyote, but it takes until 2026 for him to finally check them out and discover, shockingly... exactly what every reader had already thought would be the case. The Enforcers and other assorted immortals have been forcibly "retired," placed in suspended animation in secret storage chambers all over the world.

And, in the final major thread, there's a trauma in Lewis' past connected with some strange autistic savant-ish little men who are tracking him and have weapons effective on cyborgs. This plotline feels especially sketchy, with no real beginning (other than vague intimations of the existence of these otherworldly men in some of the Black Projects, White Knights stories) and very little connection to anything else that's going on until a trap is sprung at the end.

Oh, that trap! A trap that's only effective because Lewis is excruciatingly gullible and dumb. He runs into the one guy he knows is 100 percent involved in the conspiracy? Right before they embark on their riskiest mission? A guy who just happens to bring up everything about the subject Lewis and Joseph have been looking into on their own, while they've been going to great lengths to cover their tracks? And then he doesn't mention this to Joseph? Argh. The entire book has been detailing a slow, careful search conducted under conditions of elaborate secrecy and security, with decades between minor events. Every conversation between immortals has been soaked in paranoia. Then our heroes simply charge ahead in the most careless way possible. If I can't tell whether the characters are supposed to have become overconfident or if they're just behaving inconsistently (and not taking the precautions they have taken before) because they have to end up where they end up, then the author has gotten a bit sloppy.

I know it sounds like I hate this, but it's really not actually bad. The prose is strong, the dialogue is sparkling, the buddy chemistry between Joseph and Lewis is crackling. There just isn't enough story to hang these virtues on, and that encourages me to nitpick until the author can come up with content worthy of her stylistic gifts. By the end of the book, Joseph is a free agent, thought dead by the Company. He blames Nicholas/Edward for what's happened to Mendoza and Lewis. He's out for vengeance against the Company for their sins and betrayals, and he's waking up other immortals with similar grievances. Finally, he's in a position for real drama and cool stuff to start happening. There are still four novels (and another story collection) in the Company series -- the halfway point. Now that the characters and their motivations seem to be in place, hopefully it should all be payoff from here.

[1] It also allows Baker to infodump in a clunky way; Budu, like the rest of the immortals, should already be familiar with the historical events that Joseph explains to him. What Budu would need to know is what has gone on behind the scenes -- what history didn't record. Furthermore, the details of the future history become less credible with more explanation; I can believe that people in 200 years might have very different eating habits, and even that they might trend toward vegetarianism and a horror of eating meat, but not so much that a popular epic fantasy trilogy about animal rights is responsible for the enacting of mandatory vegan laws.
Friday, June 13th, 2008
1:58 am
Indiana Jones Verdict
Wow! Now I feel stupid for getting my hopes up at all re: this movie. It wants so desperately to entertain, all of the actors look like they're having so much fun, and there are plenty of promising moments, but every aspect of the production is hopelessly botched. The script is clearly the main problem here -- it's incredibly sloppy, with the feel of a first draft [1] -- but that shouldn't let the actors (who breathe no life into their underwritten parts [2] -- Cate Blanchett's villainess in particular should be fantastic, but barely makes an impression) and the direction (the action scenes are inert and marred by hokey staging) off the hook. Weak banter, weak relationships, weak plotting, weak action, weak half-hearted space-between-spaces central script theme, weak everything, and Indy is barely there. Even the Star Wars prequels hold together better. It's entirely forgettable.

Time to bring on a much more intriguing climactic fourth franchise installment with an aged out-of-his-time protagonist!

[1] Of course, it isn't -- the earlier Darabont script (temporarily available here) has problems but is considerably more polished, which makes me wonder whether all of its strengths were focus-grouped out of existence or the creative team genuinely thought their ideas would work better on screen. Sure, George Lucas will be blamed for everything wrong with this, just as Spielberg was blamed for everything wrong with A.I., but everyone else signed off on the embarrassing CG animals.

[2] By the way, Shia LaBeouf is intolerable. I say this having suffered through practically everything he's ever done, and I would have no problem giving him props if he were decent in the likes of Transformers despite it being, you know, unbelievably terrible. He's never the slightest bit likable, and he's usually supposed to be likable. He's just one of those actors who might be totally professional and committed to his craft and really great to work with, and who elicits nothing but praise from major directors, but does nothing for me whatsoever on the screen; other examples include Haley Joel Osment and Leonardo DiCaprio, actors whose idea of complexity extends to two layers. They're leading men by default, by virtue of not being interesting enough to play anything else. They never disappear into their roles; at best, you might think, "This is some fine acting." Or, more likely, your cousin who watches nothing but blockbusters and whatever's nominated for Oscars might think that. The only hope for this type: ditch your Spielbergs and your Scorseses for directors who can make effective use of bland, blank, or overly earnest performers (Lynch being the industry gold standard for the ability to do so). Or hearken to Nicholas Cage, who has made the wise choice of turning his unique talents mainly to bizarre or superhumanly bad movies, thus ensuring an immortal legacy of bees and jelly beans.
Monday, June 9th, 2008
2:31 am
Though even the author steps back from some of his generalizations (you'll probably think of exceptions to the classification system, and he kind of sets aside the thematic concerns of pretty much everything we know as "horror" to establish his case), the posts on torture porn at And Now The Screaming Starts have pinpointed some elements that are key to the aesthetic of the most noteworthy examples of the subgenre, observing that, "whatever debts torture porn directors owe to grindhouse cinema, it is not the source of their visual style." It hearkens instead to the "high-gloss, high-res squalor of David Fincher's Se7en." :

The look of torture porn is not realistic, but hyper-realistic. It is a highly artificial approach that takes the trappings of realism and blows them all out of proportion. The result is a lavish, over-stuffed look – most often taking an archetypal image and stuffing it to the breaking point. This is most apparent in the dungeon settings of the two Hostel flicks and the bathroom set of the first Saw. Both sets are not just dirty, but absolutely coated in grime and slime. [...] But neither represents what (sadly) we know torture looks like. Real torture, when governments undertake it, is conducted not in sewers, but in relatively orderly places that look disconcertingly like hospitals. [...] ...[the images of torture porn] aren't "real." They visually represent the feelings the idea of torture evokes. Men in rubber aprons, faces hid behind monstrous brass and steel facemasks, power tools inexplicably left to rust (despite the fact that they are supposedly the property of an elite club of super rich people) – it all suggests the moral, spiritual, ethical decay of what's happening. The whole visual approach adopted by Roth and Wan is not realistic some much as it represents the typical strategies of film realism – a little grime here, some busted glass there – and invests it with symbolic purpose. The very fabric of their films' worlds reflects the mental state and fate of their characters.

He also draws a connection to steampunk, which is an idea worth expanding upon by someone familiar with both subjects. I find it worth noting that there is a considerable overlap between the two fandoms, in my experience [1], whereas there's next to no overlap I've seen between fans of torture porn-as-horror-subgenre and consumers of freakshow grossout endurance reality fare like Fear Factor or Jackass.

I'm not planning on rushing out to see The Strangers, which seems to exist purely to play out the scenario of the amazingly terrible meta-torture porn Funny Games without any of the pathetic audience indictment (yes, Mr. Haneke, each and every one of us desensitized viewers is culpable for Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay), but I'd like to see how it functions within this model.

What I am planning on seeing in a bit is the new Indiana Jones (unconcerned about spoilers, I've already overheard various minor things, and "OMG HE'S ACTUALLY INDY'S SON" was obvious at the casting stage), and I've been mulling over some things in advance.

[1] Yet another Halloween store reminder, not that you care -- I remember plenty of Society for Creative Anachronism types who couldn't stop talking about the Baroque Cycle, His Dark Materials, and Perdido Street Station. Every one of them was obsessed with Saw when it came out.

[2] Reminding me about one possible future post about that moment a couple of years back when the reformed half-Posies Big Star came out with their new album, followed by a reformed Posies comeback -- a concept album about comeback albums. Then, of course, was the Scott Miller / Anton Barbeau collaboration, which got even more meta on the subject: a concept album about a concept album about comeback albums. Or something.

[3] Yes, it was pretty awful, the writing was atrocious, and the extended plotting was pathetic. But I'm a little sad we won't get to see how they dealt with the fallout from the finale, which upset the status quo completely (Stranded on Mongo! No more rift-crossers of the week! Ming in exile! The possibility for stories whose consequences extended past a single episode!). And, though the material they were given blew chunks, the cast was half-decent (except for Ming the Middle Manager and chubby geek sidekick Zarkov, UGH) -- Karen Cliche brought a surprising amount of charm to a one-note character, as did the cute guy in the thankless role of Dale's boyfriend/love obstacle and the cute guy playing the resistance leader who almost committed incest. There were plenty of pretty people, in fact. I think I'm going to miss shirtless Eric Johnson most of all.
Sunday, May 25th, 2008
9:55 pm
Eurovision has come and gone! As usual, the winner would have been maybe my tenth choice. Still, it featured some great performances and plenty of embarrassment and mediocrity made more palatable by touches of sublime bizarreness. That's what the competition is all about!

Here's a look back at Steinbeck's Cannery Row to complement my own.

Michael Moorcock, The Dancers At The End Of Time: An Alien Heat / The Hollow Lands / The End Of All Songs

An Alien Heat begins with its protagonist, Jherek Carnelian, casually fucking his mom, and gets even more awesome from there. The inhabitants of the End of Time (which is exactly what it sounds like -- an ultra-ultra-far future when the universe is finally collapsing) are fairly all-powerful immortals (anyone who is killed can be easily reconstituted) whose post-gender bodies (/species/shapes) are constantly mutable, as is their environment (they can turn deserts to jungles in seconds, and they create detailed reconstructions of Versailles or full reenactments of all the wars in history or whatever when the mood strikes them). As is customary for beings with the power to gratify every whim at will, their only real concern is staving off boredom, and so they are inveterate seekers of sensation, craving novelty over all else. Fortunately for them, there's the accumulated weight of billions of years of barely-remembered history to sift through, yielding countless eras to study, customs to practice, and cultural zeitgeists to recreate. Of course, they get things spectacularly wrong in the process.

Remember the joke in "The End Of The World" when Cassandra takes out the enormous jukebox and and is like, "they called this an iPod," and plays an "old Earth ballad?" Repeat that hundreds of times, because that's what happens in these books. Sounds awful, right? Running a decent gag into the ground? Wrong. The Dancers trilogy [1] gets a rather unbelievable amount of mileage out of this comic technique, and it inexplicably keeps working the whole time. The tone is a perfect mannered deadpan and the delivery is a winning mixture of bored naive conviction and it's just a joy to read, turning Moorcock's characteristically detached narration to effective ends. The flaws come only when the plot forces a change in setting or the introduction of less interesting characters or something else to prevent the story from having people gravely intone their analyses of performances of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, the tale of Adolf and Eva.

Everyone's a student of history at the End of Time, and Jherek Carnelian's newest interests, at the opening of the novel, are the long-forgotten subjects of virtue and love (and their intersection). These are things his utterly amoral friends (there are some great, memorable names here: Mistress Christia, The Everlasting Concubine; The Duke of Queens; Jherek's aforementioned mother, the Iron Orchid; My Lady Charlotina; Sweet Orb Mace; Gaf the Horse in Tears; and most importantly, Lord Jagged of Canarian, supreme manipulator and puppet master) know very little about; naturally, they are untroubled by their ignorance. Jherek is a scholar of the 19th Century (hence the concern with conduct and morality), and when a denizen of England circa 1896 shows up, he's rather excited to find someone who might be able to offer some vital insight. A little more background: lots of time travelers wind up at the End of Time. This is because you can go forward in time without problems, but the self-correcting time stream tends to repel people who go back in time, sending them to the latest point they've experienced or farther. This is termed the "Morphail Effect," and much of the plot revolves around instances which are exceptions to the rule (this takes most of the characters way, way too long to figure out). The time travelers who do find themselves at the End of Time are summarily scooped up for the nearest immortal's menagerie; this may be acceptable if the immortal who picks you up is one who'll give you free rein with powers and near-immortality and who'll invite you to all the fun parties, but not so much if he/she decides to display you in an exhibit replicating man's various conceptions of Hell throughout human history or if you're used to demonstrate the effects of viruses that cause unimaginably painful rectal bleeding while your skull explodes (and then you are instantly resurrected, with all your memories, forced to relive the moment over and over again).

Anyway, the newest chance arrival is Mrs. Amelia Underwood, a faithful, god-fearing English housewife who's rather uncomfortable seeing the whole of human endeavor end in a mess of thoughtless hedonism and casual sex. Jherek decides to fall madly in love. And that's the real story -- their sweet, unorthodox courtship, which goes back and forth as she initially recoils, expresses interest but is constrained by respect for her vows, returns to her time but continues to have confusing feelings about him, and so on. Jherek constructs an idea of what love is, the model is tested as he evaluates which components are truly necessary (Jealousy? Fidelity? Sexual attraction? A common background? The ability to have an enjoyable conversation?), and he comes out comprehending little more about the nature of love in the abstract but capable of being a decent match for Amelia. She, meanwhile, has her world expanded, takes an understandable amount of time to process her new environment (with moments of understandable denial and backsliding along the way), and negotiates a balanced new way of life. It's painful for both of them but ultimately rewarding. It's by a wide margin the only credible Moorcock romance I've read to this point [2].

The overarching plot is mainly an excuse on which to hang inventive comic setpieces. Early on, a space traveler shows up to warn everyone that the impending collapse of the universe is far closer than any of the Dancers imagine. Nobody cares, save the one guy whose whole schtick is cultivating gloom and despair, and even he loses interest quickly. By the last book, the apocalypse is unignorably nigh and even the League of Temporal Adventurers shows up to help manage things, with appearances by Una Persson and Oswald Bastable (the author tries to draw him into an underdeveloped romantic rivalry with Jherek; the character resists this). Oh, yeah, by the way, these books are as self-referential as the rest of Moorcock's corpus, but the shallowness of the references works here because the comedy relies on the accumulation of pointless data, and they function as parody of all the accumulated Eternal Champion detritus (there's no Tanelorn here, only a senile old city called Shanalorm which is accelerating the total heat death of the universe) [3] or of plot revelations in general (see: the identity of Jherek's father).

Rather than focusing entirely on his winning comedic creations, though, Moorcock feels the need to juggle a number of types of comedy. Thus the back half of An Alien Heat follows Jherek as he goes back to 1896 in search of Amelia and, through his naivete, falls in with a thief named Snoozer Vine, thus dooming us to some social satire of the Innocent Abroad variety we've seen dozens of times before. Outrageous! He knows nothing of their customs! He's arrested and condemned to death and doesn't even realize it's supposed to be a bad thing! The events of The Hollow Lands culminate in a more successfully entertaining visit to the past with a madcap convergence of immortals and wackiness in a cafe, but the book is dragged down by a plot-necessitated sidetrack (see the next paragraph for elaboration) and the Lat, a group of assholish vulgar alien visitors with guns who care only for conquest, pillaging, and raping -- but of course you can't rape the willing, ho, ho, ho. They're injected into the story as low comedy for counterbalance, only they're never remotely funny, especially when the story contrives to separate the Dancers from their power rings to pretend that the Lat might pose some sort of a threat. There's also the time we spend with H.G. Wells, and it's never a good sign when the best thing you can say about something is that it's marginally better than "Timelash." I never want to see H.G. Wells appear as a character in a time travel story ever again.

And then there's the Nurse. In an early section of The Hollow Lands, Jherek blunders into an underground hideaway of children who, millennia ago, were hidden to escape being massacred (they'd have been cast in the terrifying films of the wicked lord Pecking Pa the Eighth in the dreaded Age of the Tyrant Producers). This was accomplished using the time-recycling powers of their nurse-bot, who has them looped on the same week of time. This interlude does serve the progression of the novel (when things are straightened out, the nurse sends Jherek back in time again) but its greater function is to resurface in The End Of All Songs, when everything is falling apart. It's a minor seemingly irrelevant tangent that turns out to be the key to resolving everything, plotting 101, executed in the most drab way possible. When the basic premise is "immortals with all-powerful technology indistinguishable from magic amusing themselves while living on the brink of the inescapable end of time," and the eventual solution is to reaffirm and intensify that premise by allowing everyone to continue forever on a temporal snapshot of those final days, the mechanism by which the solution is reached must be built naturally from the premise. That's not true with the time-recycling Nurse robot, which is only stumbled upon by chance and coincidentally happens to use long-lost technology whose application is exactly what is necessary for things to work out all right (these are events that need to have been engineered by Lord Jagged to be acceptable).

There's a gulf of quality between the self-assurance, the poise, and the rather dazzling display of verbal energy Moorcock brings to his portrait of the world of the Dancers (did he spend years collecting puns and clever portmanteaus before selecting the best?) and the entirely perfunctory, by-the-numbers execution of everything else he introduces. Perhaps his heart wasn't in it but he felt those elements were necessary anyway. I can't help but feel that this could have been a great story and not just a good one if it hadn't been hampered by its adherence to convention. In any case, the strength of these books, despite their flaws, indicate that, through parody, Moorcock is able to approach his recurring themes -- law and chaos, for example, or the role of dedication and self-denial in love -- with far more perceptiveness and potency than when he tries to be sincere and straightforward.

[1] Well, I wouldn't actually classify it as a real trilogy, since the story is continuous, just broken into chunks. It's probably closest to a three-act play.

[2] I'm thinking here of the number of instances where Moorcock's female characters have been little more than rewards for a job well done, not to mention the "tragic romance" which typically boils down to, "Oh, female object, I am so very in love with you -- Oops -- I killed you."

[3] He says in the intro that he's not satirizing his other work. He's wrong. Then he goes on to drastically misunderstand Chaos Theory to the degree that I think he may have just made up his own definition after hearing the term.
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