Friday, February 22, 2013

George R.R. Martin before 'Game of Thrones'
     I have an antipathy to multivolume fantasy series, so I've never read  George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones or its sequels (the overall book sequence is titled A Song of Ice and Fire, but Game of Thrones fits it well-enough). I resisted watching the TV adaptation, too, even though it was getting rave reviews and I already had an HBO subscription. Finally, a co-worker convinced me that the first season was more of a medieval epic with very little Tolkien-style wizardry, so I watched an episode on On Demand.
     I was hooked.
     I still haven't read any of the books. There are five published so far, with at least two more planned (the series has expanded from Martin's original intentions before). The last one took five years. That's one reason I prefer to read a series after the last volume has been published: I want the option of reading them all straight through. I hate to wait if I read faster than the author writes.
     (I learned this lesson the hard way after reading the first two volumes in Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series, with a third and final volume promised for six months later; it came more like six years later, and was only a preamble for a fourth volume. Also, Farmer apparently rethought the plot and his writing style, so volume 3 was more of a reset than a sequel, longer than the first two books combined, with lots of new characters who mostly died by the end of the book.)
     I understand the third season of Game of Thrones will only adapt half of the third book in the series (either because there is too much action to fit into one season or because they are hoping to give Martin time to finish the final volumes before the TV series catches up).
     I'm not sure how closely the cable series is following the books, but if I did read the books published so far, it would spoil the surprise while taking me little closer to resolving the overall storyline.
     If you have read all of the books and are looking for some other George R.R. Martin books to read, several have been recently re-released, including some short story collections. Here are three I've read and can recommend:


by George R.R. Martin 
and Lisa Tuttle

     My favorite George R.R. Martin story was The Storms of Windhaven, co-written with Lisa Tuttle, a novelette that formed the first part of the later novel titled simply Windhaven. The second part was pretty good, too, but I didn't care for the third section very much. It's a science fiction story, set on the planet Windhaven, so-called by the survivors of a spaceship crash-landing because it is a windy planet with no large inhabitable land mass, just islands. Unable to repair their ship, they stripped it for parts and learned to live on the planet. To connect the scattered islands, they created wings from their star sail with which individual fliers could glide/fly. These fliers are the most respected members of the community, and the wings are passed down from father to son (if there's no son, only then a daughter).
     The first story deals with Maris, a young woman, the adopted daughter of a flier, who wants to inherit the wings. The flier has a younger son by blood who tradition demands receive the wings, but he doesn't want them.
     Parts two and three continue Maris' story, but I wish Martin and/or Tuttle had revisited Windhaven. There were more stories than Maris’.

The Armageddon Rag
By George R.R. Martin

     Another novel, The Armageddon Rag, is a horror novel in which a rock and roll promoter reunites a classic band from the 1960s whose lead singer was assassinated on stage during their last performance (I believe the band's name was derived from Tolkien, and the lead singer, who was a little on the short side, was known as Hobbit). He finds a young singer who looks like the original one; in concert, he even seems to be possessed by him.
     The protagonist, a rock critic covering the tour, discovers its a plot to bring back the spirit of the ’60s through magic, and at first assumes that's the Summer of Love, flower children, peace, etc., but it turns out to be the dark side of the ’60s -- riots, assassinations, excess, etc. It's all to culminate in another live assassination of the lead singer while in concert.
     This has some real rock verisimilitude, which I think I found more interesting than the black magic, as well as a more realistic look back at the good and the bad of the 1960s. 

Wild Cards I
edited by George R.R. Martin

     Probably Martin's biggest project before Song of Ice and Fire was Wild Cards, a series of anthologies and mosaic novels involving super heroes in the real world.  (A mosaic novel is one where different writers write interlocking sequences, involving different characters, usually characters they created, with the whole thing woven together but no clear beginning or end for each writer's thread. I think George R.R. Martin created the term.)
     The initial premise: an alien race decides to test a virus weapon on Earthlings because we're genetically similar to them. One alien, believing this is wrong, tries to stop it and then, having failed, decides to remain on Earth to try to repair or at least ameliorate the damage as much as possible.
     The virus becomes known as the Wild Card virus because it kills about 90 percent of its victims, with another 9 percent or so horribly mutilated or deformed (Jokers) and 1 percent given super human abilities (Aces). That 1 percent become sort of heroes. Among the Aces are Dr. Tachyon (the alien who tried the stop the virus' release, who has telepathy and knowledge of super science), Golden Boy (super strong, almost invulnerable to harm and doesn't age), The Sleeper (he sleeps for weeks at a time, than awakens with a different Ace or Joker gift), The Great and Powerful Turtle (a powerful telekinetic) and Fortunato (who channels tantric energy in a variety of psychic ways).
     The first book, Wild Cards, is an anthology covering the first generation of Aces and Jokers, from just after WWII (a war hero known as Jetboy dies trying to stop the virus from being released) to the 1970s or '80s. Different writers did stories on each character, with a little overlap, plus brief excerpts from books and articles about the Wild Cards, including (if memory serves) items supposedly written by Studs Terkel, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S.Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Jokertown). The second book, Wild Cards: Aces High, was also an anthology, but covering a much shorter period of time and with a single overall plot, connected by Jubal, a walrus man who is believed to be a Joker but is really an alien, and the imminent invasion or destruction of Earth by something called Tiamat (after the Sumerian god).
     After that, the mosaic novels started, plus a few single author novels. The series is still ongoing (Book 21, Fort Freak, came out in paperback last year, and at least one more is promised). There were a couple of comic book mini-series also. I read the first three, but the first was by far the best and well-worth reading. Martin created and writes The Great and Powerful Turtle.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Showrooming? Nonsense!

Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Shelby Township (

     Last week there was a Washington Post article about how brick and mortar bookstores are being killed by showrooming -- that is, people who look for books in a bookstore (the showroom), but then go home and order them online for less money. I don't get it personally. I think that's bass-ackwards.
     As I think I've mentioned before, I often browse new titles online, then go to to a brick-and-mortar store to make my purchase. That just makes more sense to me.
     Even the best bookstore has only a limited selection of all the new and old books out there. Online, I have potential access to every title in print, and many out-of-print as well. Often on and Barnes and you can preview a few pages or chapters of a book and read other reader's reviews. 
     When I find a book I want, however, I want it as soon as possible, and I like to inspect the condition and even the feel of the book also. That's why I go to to a brick-and-mortar store. On at least one occasion I declined to buy a book because it seemed cheaply made and I suspected a mail-order book club to which I belonged would offer its own version, which would be no worse (and might even be better) for less money.
     True, the cost of the books is usually more in the store, but I pay an annual fee to be a Barnes & Noble member, which grants me 10 percent off everything I purchase at the store and online from its website. I also receive coupons most weeks good for an extra 10- to 20-percent discount. Other items in the store, such as select new releases, are further discounted for members. It's still not always as cheap as I could get from, but I'd prefer to pay a little bit extra to get the book a little quicker and support a local business or a brick-and-mortar store.
     That said, while I prefer to buy in a brick and mortar bookstore, if they don't have the title I want in stock, I may buy it online. If I do go online, I'll go either to Barnes and (since I get free express shipping and their online base price is about the same as Amazon) or to Amazon (one of my credit cards gives me gift certificates good for Amazon purchases).
     Despite a negative online experience early on in my Barnes and Noble membership (I forgot to ask for express shipping, and it took longer to arrive than their tracking estimated by a good week), I've had generally good results with my online purchases there.
     Barnes & Noble is the last chain bookstore in the area. There are five locations within 25 miles of my home (though Barnes & Noble has said it will be closing 20 stores a year over the next decade, which would be a third of its total stores; one or more of these is probably on the chopping block). Four have cafes, extra seating and nice decor, with occasional special events and book signings. One even has a large used book section.
     I also like independent bookstores, but they're getting harder to find. About the only one in my immediate area is New Horizons Books, (20757 13 Mile Road, between Interstate 94 and the Speedy gas station; 586-296-1560), which has a good selection of books, a good and extensive magazine selection, plus used books, remaindered books and online coupons. 
     A bit further afield is The Book Beat (26010 Greenfield, in the Lincoln Shopping Plaza, Oak Park; or 248-968-1190), a bookstore that is clearly owned and operated by people who love books, with every nook and cranny stuffed with titles, more in piles on the floor, plus greeting cards and for-sale art and artifacts on the walls.
     When I'm looking for a secondhand bookstore, Second Story (17920 E. 10 Mile Road, Eastpointe; 586-773-6440) is an excellent one.
     So, until and unless my wife and I move to an isolated part of the Upper Peninsula with no decent local bookstores, I'll do most of my book shopping in the showroom, not online.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Films: Fact or Fiction?

AP photo/Bloomsbury
The Searchers:
The Making of an
American Legend"
by Glenn Frankel

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay by Mark Boal
(Annapurna Pictures/Columbia Pictures)

      Two new entertainment stories on the news wire caught my eye: A review of a book about the John Ford Film The Searchers and the real incident upon which it was based, and a debate on whether films based on facts -- such as Lincoln, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty -- are obligated to adhere to the facts, or if they are permitted to change details for dramatic effect.
     I plan to see all three films, but I'm glad now to know that they have fudged some significant facts and/or inserted opinions and beliefs as facts.
     Are filmmakers allowed to change the facts? Of course. There are no laws against it, and none of the screenwriters or directors involved face prosecution. I don't think anyone, aside from a few wackos, would want to change that. The question remains: Should they do it?
      In the case of Argo, one of the details that's been questioned is some last-minute drama as the plane -- carrying six U.S. citizens, stuck in Iran during the hostage crisis -- takes off. Apparently the real flight took off with no such drama.
     I think that's melodramatic, but OK. It diminishes the accomplishment of the people rescuing the Americans to suggest they didn't get away as clean as they actually did, but not a big deal.
     My favorite spy TV show was the Cold War-era British drama The Sandbaggers, which featured an elite crew of British spies whose duties rarely involved shoot-outs with the Russkies. If their actions degenerated to such action every week, they would have been incompetent at their jobs. A lot of what they did would seem boring if you weren't aware of the jeopardy in which they might end up if something went wrong. (At least four of the six Sandbaggers died throughout the show's 20-episode run.)
     Lincoln is also under fire for increasing the drama of the vote for the 13th Amendment by changing two votes for it to two votes against it, thus besmirching a Northern state's good name (but not the names of the legislators; fictional names were used). I don't feel a good deal of outrage over that detail, but I question whether it was necessary. If the filmmakers didn't think it was deceitful or dishonest, why did they change the names? Bit of a tell.

  Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. (AP photo)

     Finally, Zero Dark Thirty has been under fire for some time over the detail of enhanced interrogation or torture being used to gain useful information against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. This has drawn fire from those who say such interrogation never took place, and from those who say it took place, but never yielded useful information. Heretofore director Kathryn Bigelow has defended this by saying the script was researched, people interviewed, sources vetted, and this was what they said happened.
    The newswire article however quotes a Wall Street Journal interview where screenwriter Mark Boal says something a little different: "I think it's my right, by the way, if I firmly believe that bin Laden was killed by aliens, to depict that. ... In this country, isn't that legit?"(my emphasis.)
     That suggests that maybe Boal firmly believes that enhanced interrogation took place and/or that it yielded positive results even if he had no testimony to that effect. If that's what happened, I think he went too far.
     What does The Searchers have to do with this topic? It offers a different answer to whether or not films based on real events can change facts for dramatic purposes: Yes, if you change the names and don't say it depicts actual events.
     Glen Frankel's  The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend examines the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, upon which the novel and the film The Searchers was based, as well as the making of the film. The corresponding character in the film is named Debbie Edwards. To my knowledge, the film wasn't sold as a true story.
     It's a little deceitful if you use the cachet of calling your film a true story to sell it to audiences, but then feel free to change facts to suit your whims or ideas of narrative needs. It's false pretenses. While no one should take anything as fact simply because it was said or portrayed in a film, the filmmakers are using that supposed reliability to attract audiences. A film about a fictional president of the United States -- Isaac Chevrolet, say -- waging a Civil War in part to free slaves might not be as attractive to audiences as one about Abe Lincoln.
     My worst-case example of this is A Beautiful Mind, based on the nonfiction book of the same name about John Forbes Nash Jr. It deviates so far from the facts of Nash's life that I feel it should have changed all the names (including the title) and not pretended to be a true story. As a fictional portrayal of a brilliant man with mental illness, it has its moments. As a biopic -- which any reasonable person, seeing the film has the same title as a nonfiction book about the subject and is allegedly based upon the book, would conclude the film is -- it is farcical and less accurate than a Hollywood biopic of the 1940s. (That the book's author, Sylvia Nasar, has a kinder view of it may be because of the the check she received for the rights.)
     The Searchers took a real-life event, fictionalized it, changed the facts and the characters and came up with a different result. That's OK because it's fiction. You can change reality to suit your beliefs, your needs, your wants.
     For example, if someone makes a film about the Bush-Gore election, but has Gore win the electoral vote recount so it jibes with the popular vote, that would be unacceptable. If someone makes a film about a presidential election, featuring characters who closely resemble Bush and Gore but have different names, and has the Gore surrogate win the recount, then that's fiction and it is OK.
     Lincoln, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty haven't taken such great liberties with the truth as that, and I still intend to see them. If they had asked me, however, I'd have suggested sticking as close to the truth as possible.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Steampunk Web Comics: Girl Genius

Girl Genius:
Gaslamp Fantasy Comic
By Phil and Kaja Foglio

Free wallpaper from Girl Genius

     Although I call this a steampunk comic in my headline, it may not be. The creators don't call it steampunk anyway. They instead use the term “gaslamp fantasy,” which they unintentionally coined because they misremembered the word “gaslight,” sometimes used to describe fiction from or set in Victorian times. Also, they didn't like steampunk because they didn't think there were any punks in their story.
     The history of the world of Girl Genius was altered not by the addition of advanced steam technology in Victorian times, but rather by the long ago addition of “sparks,” highly inventive, adaptive and intuitive scientist-adventurers. 

   “Sparks” can go into a fugue/trance state in which they create incredibly complicated machines out of whatever elements are to hand. These machines are frequently violent and destructive in nature (although Agatha, the “girl genius” of the title, once rebuilt a coffee maker so that it produced a brew so sublime it put anyone who drank it into a pleasure-induced coma), so it's no surprise that “sparks” now rule Europe.

   When the series begins, Agatha is a student at Transylvania Polygnostic University, who aspires to build something that works, but something always goes wrong. Her migraines don't help. Then, a locket, which her uncle made her promise to never take off, is stolen. It turns out she is a “spark,” the daughter of one of the Heterodynes, the greatest spark heroes who ever lived. The locket was designed to protect her from the Heterodyne's enemies by preventing her from concentrating enough for her spark nature to manifest. Also, sparks have been known to go mad.
   Once unleashed, Agatha proves to be one of the strongest sparks alive, a fact that draws the unwelcome attention of Baron Wulfenbach, the most powerful spark ruler, and the more welcome attention of his son, Gil (for Gilgamesh) Wulfenbach.  

      In addition to the sparks and their inventions, there are other fantasy elements, including half-human soldiers called jagermonsters who speak a sort of pidgin English, and many other creatures that look like dragons or lizards but usually are the result of genetic and mechanical tampering; so-called slaver wasps who turn people into zombies; pretenders and usurpers who want to take over Mechanicsburg and the world; Krosp, the would-be emperor of cats; Zeetha, a lethal green-haired swordswoman searching for her mysterious homeland; and Agatha's evil mother, who created and controls the slaver wasps and wants to permanently take over Agatha's body.
     Currently -- and for what seems like at least half the run of the series -- Agatha is in her ancestral home of Mechanicsburg, repairing the damaged but sentient Castle Heterodyne and repelling attacks by every other spark in the world. A lot of promising plot threads have been waiting patiently to be pulled while the Foglios indulge their love of weird creatures, technology and monsters.
   The entire series so far is available for free viewing at Girl Genius Online Comics. The pages have also been bound and printed, 11 volumes so far, here. There are also straight prose versions of the first two story arcs, both as books, e-books and audio books.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Forgotten Comics: Ironwolf


     In the 1970s, artist Howard Chaykin drew and plotted three issues' worth of Ironwolf for DC Comics' Weird Worlds magazine. Ironwolf was a nobleman turned pirate/freedom fighter in a future galactic empire. Although they possessed space ships and ray guns, they also carried swords -- not light sabers (this was a few years before Star Wars, the comics adaptation of which Chaykin also illustrated) but ornate swords. Science fictionally, it made little sense, but it was interesting aesthetically. The silliest and most attractive aesthetically appealing element was that Ironwolf's ship, the Limerick Rake, was made of anti-gravity wood that only grew upon his home planet of Illium. It was never explained why a wooden spaceship was desirable, if it was stronger or faster or more energy efficient, but it looked cool.
     There are also vampires of a sort, the Blood Legion, plus giant, brutish aliens (see the cover illustration above) and a Sargasso Sea of Space.
     In retrospect, I detect some steampunk elements -- the ship, the weaponry, some of the decor, the courtly atmosphere, even vampires -- though there is no steam technology per se.

     Twenty years later, Chakin revisited the concept in collaboration with co-writer John Francis Moore and artists Mike Mignola (Hellboy) and P. Craig Russell for the graphic novel Ironwolf: Fires of the Revolution, which explained the mix of old and new in much the same way M. Night Shyamalan explained The Village: the society was artificial, created to precise specifications for the ancestors of the current inhabitants, who no longer know that the three worlds in their Empire Galactika is deliberately segregated from the real Galactic Empire. The Limerick Rake is also destroyed, along with all the anti-gravity wood trees (in a replay of a scene from the original series).
     Much of the graphic novel's plot involves Ironwolf's discovery of the wider universe and that far-advanced weapons from that wider universe have been smuggled into Empire Galactika to put down the revolution.
     Alas, both the original stories and the graphic novel are out of print (though some are available secondhand through Perhaps they will all be collected into an omnibus volume with background material someday.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Review Roundup

     Here are some reviews I've been meaning to post for some time.

From Temporarily Significant blogspot
Review: Whispers Under Ground
by Ben Aaronovitch
(Del Rey)

     The third novel in Ben Aaronovitch's fantasy/police procedural series about sorcerer's apprentice Peter Grant has been published, this time with a cover that is the same (or close; it looks like the cover might be tinted a different color) to the British original. The American editions of the previous two volumes have tried to portray Grant as a tough guy without a face (ironic, since his arch nemesis is a wizard who -- because he magically makes it hard to be identified -- is referred to as The Faceless Man). Grant's not a tough guy, being more of a clever, humorous narrator, a fledgling policeman and wizard. The cover now features an altered map of London, appropriate since geography plays a large part in the books (some say to their detriment, I say to their benefit).

    Although it's mostly self-contained, this probably isn't the best place to start the series because it doesn't go into a lot of detail about what happened in previous installments. These include the ghost who twists people's faces (including a fellow officer and potential love interest) into an approximation of the Commedia del'Arte character Punch in Midnight Riot, or the ageless jazz succubi and The Faceless Man from Moon Over Soho.
    In Whispers, Grant is primarily investigating the murder of an American with an enchanted piece of pottery, which brings him into contact with some new-to-him supernatural entities (though, thankfully, no vampires, werewolves or flesh-eating zombies). The most interesting parts of the book are still Grant's irreverent narration and his attempts to use science to understand and apply sorcery.
     This book was released last summer, and Broken Homes, book four isn't yet scheduled (Aaronovitch was still writing it the last time he posted on his blog). I'm looking forward to it.

Review: The Janus Affair: 
A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel
By Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris
(Harper Voyager)

     This is the second of Ballantine-Morris' Ministry of Special Occurrences books, a steampunky, 19th century government department something like the X-Files.
     The first book, Phoenix Rising, chronicled the adventures of Wellington Books, appropriately enough a bookish member of the Ministry who runs the archives of closed and open but abandoned cases, and Eliza Braun, originally a more active member of the Ministry, who is moved to the archives after raising too high a profile in a case where she rescued Books from torture and almost certain death. That she is also being punished for insubordination because she was meant to kill Books, not rescue him, lest his knowledge fall into the hands of the Ministry's enemies, is an irony of which Books is not aware.
     Janus Affair begins to move a bit beyond what I consider proper steampunk principles (technology introduced earlier than in our world/timeline because of inventive use of steam power or similar period technology) and limits by the introduction of a remote teleportation device. That's my prejudice and, of course, Ballantine and Morris aren't obligated to conform to it.
     We learn a bit more about Books and Braun's history, develop more of the obvious intense attraction between the two, and about the conspiracy trying to destroy the Ministry. Unfortunately, a lot of time is wasted on a red herring investigation of and battle with a female crime lord, and occasionally the unconsummated attraction between Braun and Books begins to become the tail that wags the dog for me.
     On the plus side, a female counteragent/mercenary gets some welcome development, there's some nice action involving airships and there's a setup for a future volume in which Books and Braun explore America in this steampunk world.
     If Janus were shorter and tighter, I would be happier with it, but I still intend to read the next volume, whenever Ballantine and Morris get around to writing it. (In the meantime, there are some e-books of other cases from the Ministry available on I just hope they continue to keep clear of the supernatural.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Savonarola, Lent and the 'Bonfire of the Vanities'

Anonymous painting of the burning of Girolamo Savonarola from Wikimedia Commons

      I'm currently reading Pasquale's Angel by Paul MacAuley, an alternate history science fiction novel set in Florence at the time of Leonardo daVinci. It's sort of steampunk in that it posits that daVinci's inventions, which only existed as drawings or rudimentary blueprints in his lifetime, were actually built, jump-starting the industrial revolution a bit early. Other changes involve the lives of some famous and prominent Florentine citizens, such as Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who in this reality was saved from being burned at the stake by a providential bit of lightning. 
     The book is a bit vague on the details, but since Lent is about to start, and the events for which Savonarola are known are connected with Lent, I thought I'd ruminate about it.
     First, a little background: In college, one journalism class had us read The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe because Wolfe had been an advocate of and editor of an anthology of The New Journalism, a style of journalism that was more literary in nature, and because the novel was written in a similar, expository style. We had the option for one of our class assignments to write an essay explaining the title, which I don't believe Wolfe ever explicitly stated. Much of what follows is what I learned in researching that paper, and it contains information that the online Catholic Encyclopedia and Wikipedia do not include in their entries on Savonarola and the burning of the vanities.

Fra Girolamo Savonarola, from Wikimedia Commons

     Savonarola is sometimes considered a reformer, a heretic or a martyr, sometimes all three by the same people. A Dominican friar, he was excommunicated by the Pope, tortured and his body then burned at the stake (though not alive; he was hanged first).
     The irony is that he was burned on the same spot where he exhorted the citizens of Florence to burn their vanities. These so-called vanities included works of art, and they weren't always voluntarily contributed. Savonarola had what was essentially a group of street thugs, his fanciulli, collect these vanities in much the way latter day gangsters might collect protection money.
     When did Savonrola have these bonfires? Mardi Gras. Savonarola thought that preparation for Lent shouldn't involve a last day (or week) of licentious conduct or indulgence, but instead the burning of impious, frivolous items.
     In Wolfe's novel, Wall Street broker Sherman McCoy, a self-described Master of the Universe, is involved in a hit-and-run (his car, but he was a passenger at the time; a young black man -- described as an honor student, although he had planned to hijack the car -- is injured and put into a coma), and tortured by the fanciulli of New York: the politically sensitive and at times opportunistic news media and law enforcement (he's the Great White Defendant, a prosecution for which they might get recognition and fame). At first hapless and pathetic (he's going broke even though he has a million-dollar income, making him a symbol of conspicuous consumption and avarice, plus he's an adulterer), he eventually becomes sympathetic because the forces opposing him are so vile and fights back.
     It's not a perfect parallel, but Wolfe has thrown in other details that the careful reader and historian might note. My favorite involves the novel's denouement. In a pseudo news story afterword, set a year after the end of the previous chapter, McCoy is again on trial.
     At one point, he raises his fist in a Black Power salute. Earlier in the book, McCoy reminded his wife how he used to make that gesture when he started on Wall Street as a symbol that he wouldn't completely buy into the hype, the power, the money. In the context of the novel, it's a gesture for his wife.
     In historical context, it may be a reference to Savonarola. As his body was burning, the rope that tied his arms to his side came loose, and -- according to some accounts -- his arm swung out as if he was blessing the spectators, forgiving them for his death. Maybe McCoy or Wolfe was expressing a similar forgiveness.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Happy birthday, Jules Verne

Public domain photo of Jules Verne from Wikimedia Commons
     Just a quick post to tell everyone that this is the anniversary of Jules Verne’s birth.

     Verne, a French author of early science fiction and other “voyages extraordinaires,” as his publisher called them, is (of course) the patron saint of most steampunks. Early works of steampunk inspiration include the Disney film version of his Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. (The film of  Verne’s Master of the World was more a cheap ripoff of that film, featuring Vincent Price as a Nemo-ized Robur the Conqueror -- one of the few Verne protagonists to have more than one book about his adventures -- than a true adaptation of the book, though its flying machine did have a steampunk feel.)
     In France, Verne's books were for grownups, but in the U.S. they were treated as kid lit, and thus treated contemptuously. Verne tried to make his works scientifically plausible, and sneered at H.G. Wells' fanciful creations such as The Time Machine and The Invisible Man (although he did later write his own invisible man story, The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz, recently released with a new, more accurate translation).
     Not that Verne was always a great writer. An attempted sequel to Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Le Sphinx des Glaces, sucked all the mystery and majesty out of the story, discarding anything that didn't fit his rationalist leanings, and changing the plot facts  to suit. Really, it would be like a sequel to Dracula where it's revealed that he wasn't really a vampire (Verne did do a similar novel, Castle of the Carpathians, where the seeming supernatural events were rationally explained) or to Frankenstein where we discover he didn't really give life to a creation (which Fred Saberhagen actually did in The Frankenstein Papers).
     Verne became a hero in his own right in the TV series Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, which started out interestingly with Phileas Fogg and Passepartout (from Around the World in 80 Days) as secret agents fighting a secret cabal armed with inventions plucked from Vernes imagination. Verne is first suspected of complicity, then enlisted as an ally in the fight. Unfortunately, after only an episode or two, they were facing vampires and the whole concept went out the window.


     Among my latest book acquisitions is a compendium of new, accurate and respectful translations of Vernes best known works, Amazing Journeys: Five Visionary Classics. It's the size of a phone book, and I intend to reacquaint myself soon with old friends such as From the Earth to the Moon and its sequel, as well as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. I hope the new translations will make them as fascinating to the adult me as the earlier translations were to the youthful me.

'The Superior Spider-Man'?

From The Associated Press

     Spider-Man, or at least his Peter Parker identity, just cant get a break.
      According to an AP report, Parkers mind has been switched from his own body to that of his arch-enemy Otto Octavius, aka Doctor Octopus or Doc Ock for short. Octavius mind has likewise shifted to Parkers body.

     Anyone who has seen the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films knows that Parker has long lived with the guilty knowledge that he could have prevented the murder of his father figure, Uncle Ben, when he declined to help stop Bens future killer, then being chased by a policeman. “Hey, it’s not my job,” he said, or some such remark (at the time he was planning to use his Spider-Man abilities only for show biz fame and fortune).
     In the comic book, he faced further guilt. He almost killed his Aunt May by giving her a transfusion of his irradiated blood (well, he couldnt tell the surgeon, I cant donate blood to save the life of the woman whos been like a mother to me because I was bitten by a radioactive spider). Later, he (temporarily) grew an extra four arms, looking more spiderlike. On at least one occasion, he was turned into a human-sized spider. Then an old enemy -- whose life he had spared on more than one occasion -- killed his fiancee. He was also deceived at one point into believing he was only a clone of the real Peter Parker. Finally, during the Civil Wars" crossover comic, in which all of Marvels super heroes had to choose to reveal their real identities and become registered, or conceal their identities and risk imprisonment or death, he first sided with the pro-registration forces, revealing his identity publicly, only to face the worst of both worlds by joining the rebels afterwards. (Eventually, I believe, he somehow regained his secret identity as Peter Parker.) And almost since day one he has been wanted by the police, for a long time on suspicion of murdering his girlfriend's father.
     Doctor Octopus in the comics is not as nice as his cinematic interpretation. He's not a brilliant scientist who has turned to crime to finance his experiments for the good of mankind; he's a scientist who becomes a criminal basically because he can. (He was a scientist whose mechanical arms -- used to safely handle radioactive materials -- became grafted to his body during an accident, creating a bond with the arms so he can control them mentally. At first he only wants to continue his experiments, but by his next appearance he  wants to make money by criminal means and have revenge on Spider-Man.) By the time of his latest incarnation, hes also old, diseased and dying, making the body switch even less of a bargain for Parker. By the end of The Amazing Spider-Man No. 700, he seems to be dead (though dead isn't always final for comic book characters; in subsequent issues, his spirit seems to still be hanging around and hoping to regain his body).
     This doesn't seem to be a plot for only a couple of issues, but a long-term story arc (though probably not permanent). Of some solace for fans of Spider-Man is that Octavius is influenced enough by Parkers brain and memories that he will continue to be a good guy, and not just use his spider powers to commit crimes.  (This isnt the first time Marvel has featured such a mind transfer wherein the personality of the transplanted mind mix with the memories, knowledge and personality of the brain to create a new personality. In an early issue of Daredevil, an evil scientist switched bodies with the strong but dumb Ox. By issue's end, the scientist in Oxs body has become less intellectual, more visceral and, well, dumb -- which leads to his death -- while the Ox in scientists body becomes calmer, smarter and gives up the life of crime.)
     For more details on The Amazing Spider-Man No. 700, see here.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

'Love is a Fallacy' and other feats of logic

  “Love is a Fallacy”
from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
By Max Shulman
(Amereon Ltd.)

From Dial B for Blog

   Logic is missing from much public discourse, including (or especially) politics. The problem is that we don’t have a curriculum requirement to teach logic and critical thinking. Emotional arguments are made, politicians appeal to the venal demons rather than “the better angels of our nature,” and little gets done.
      Since getting logic and critical thinking added as a curriculum requirement is unlikely, I suggest everyone read the story “Love is a Fallacy” by Max Shulman. It’s one of his Dobie Gillis stories, collected in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, but he’s not the same Dobie as seen on the popular TV show. Dobie was Shulman’s Everyman. In one story, he might be akin to the TV version, but he was just as often a Machiavellan college student looking to further his career prospects with the right course or the right woman.
     In “Love is a Fallacy,” Dobie thinks Polly will be the perfect future mate -- beautiful, outgoing, agreeable -- except for one thing: she's not very bright. As Dobie soon discovers, “I had gravely underestimated the size of my task. This girl’s lack of information was terrifying. Nor would it be enough merely to supply her with information. First she had to be taught to think.” So, over the course of a few dates, he teaches her the rudiments of logic and critical thinking with the following logical fallacies: 

     “Logic ... is the science of thinking. Before we can think correctly, we must first learn to recognize the common fallacies of logic.”
     “ ... Dicto Simpliciter means an argument based on an unqualified generalization. For example: Exercise is good. Therefore everybody should exercise. … The argument is a fallacy. Exercise is good is an unqualified generalization. For instance, if you have heart disease, exercise is bad, not good. Many people are ordered by their doctors not to exercise. You must qualify the generalization. You must say exercise is usually good, or exercise is good for most people. Otherwise you have committed a Dicto Simpliciter.”
     “ … Hasty Generalization. Listen carefully: You can’t speak French. Petey Bellows can’t speak French. I must therefore conclude that nobody at the University of Minnesota can speak French. … The generalization is reached too hastily. There are too few instances to support such a conclusion.”
      “… Post Hoc. Listen to this: Let’s not take Bill on our picnic. Every time we take him out with us, it rains. … “Eula Becker doesn’t cause the rain. She has no connection with the rain. You are guilty of Post Hoc if you blame Eula Becker.”
     “ … Contradictory Premises: If God can do anything, can He make a stone so heavy that He won’t be able to lift it? … When the premises of an argument contradict each other, there can be no argument. If there is an irresistible force, there can be no immovable object. If there is an immovable object, there can be no irresistible force.”
      “ … Ad Misericordiam. … A man applies for a job. When the boss asks him what his qualifications are, he replies that he has a wife and six children at home, the wife is a helpless cripple, the children have nothing to eat, no clothes to wear, no shoes on their feet, there are no beds in the house, no coal in the cellar, and winter is coming. … It’s no argument. The man never answered the boss’s question about his qualifications. Instead he appealed to the boss’s sympathy. He committed the fallacy of Ad Misericordiam.”
     “ … False Analogy. ... Students should be allowed to look at their textbooks during examinations. After all, surgeons have X-rays to guide them during an operation, lawyers have briefs to guide them during a trial, carpenters have blueprints to guide them when they are building a house. Why, then, shouldn’t students be allowed to look at their textbooks during an examination? … The argument is all wrong. Doctors, lawyers, and carpenters aren’t taking a test to see how much they have learned, but students are. The situations are altogether different, and you can’t make an analogy between them.”
     “ … Hypothesis Contrary to Fact. … If Madame Curie had not happened to leave a photographic plate in a drawer with a chunk of pitchblende, the world today would not know about radium. … That statement is a fallacy. Maybe Madame Curie would have discovered radium at some later date. Maybe somebody else would have discovered it. Maybe any number of things would have happened. You can’t start with a hypothesis that is not true and then draw any supportable conclusions from it.”
     “ … Poisoning the Well. … Two men are having a debate. The first one gets up and says, ‘My opponent is a notorious liar. You can’t believe a word that he is going to say.’ ”... “It’s not a bit fair. What chance has the second man got if the first man calls him a liar before he even begins talking?”
            By the story’s end, she learns these fallacies and, to Dobie’s chagrin, applies them to his arguments for why they should go steady.
     Maybe if everybody read the story and tried to apply these same logical principles to politics and other aspects of our lives, our arguments would at least get more honest and sensible, if no less heated.
     Maybe not, but I hope you'll read (and, I hope, enjoy) one of my favorite comic short stories.