Friday, June 28, 2013

Barnes and Noble: Another bookstore chain in trouble

     I love bookstores. There's a pleasure experienced in walking through shelves of books that I will never experience with online browsing at Amazon. (I do love online browsing at Amazon, but it's a different feeling.)
     So I'm distressed that recent business reports suggest Barnes and Noble may soon follow Borders into extinction. (For details, see here and here.) The main problem seems to be that its e-reader the Nook is failing to catch on. The result, according to one article, is that the stores are carrying fewer titles to cut expenses.
     I've seen some evidence of that myself. I've repeatedly looked for certain titles, only to discover they aren't carried by my nearby stores or available online-only through the Barnes and Noble website. Some of these titles I may order through, but -- as I may have mentioned in an earlier post -- I get gift certificates for Amazon through my credit card, so, if I'm going to buy online, there's a predisposition to use Amazon.
     We may soon live in a world where one must shop for books online. Common sense seems to suggest that this means people will only find books for which they are specifically looking, which is bad news for new authors and indeed all authors who don't have a big enough name to prompt people to search for their newest releases.
     I'm not happy about this.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Richard Matheson dies, too

     I'm getting sick of writers whose work I enjoyed and admired dying. The latest is Richard Matheson, who wrote one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes ever ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet") and one of my favorite science fiction horror novels (I Am Legend). (There's a reposted Associated Press story about Matheson here.)
     I've already written here about how his novel The Shrinking Man was included in the Library of America's American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s -- and my dismay that his I Am Legend wasn't -- and how the film version of I Am Legend created expectations of prospective readers of the novel that inevitably led to disappointment here. I was also especially fond of his novel Hell House (which he adapted for the film The Legend of Hell House, which I also quite liked).
     He may be better known -- in Michigan, at least -- for writing the novel that became the Mackinac Island-shot film Somewhere in Time (the novel was originally titled Bid Time Return). 
     His novels and short stories also became the TV films Duel and Trilogy of Terror, and the theatrical films What Dreams May Come, A Stir of EchoesThe Box and Real Steel, and he adapted other writers' works, most notably Edgar Allan Poe for a series of Roger Corman-directed films starring Vincent Price, as well as Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out (aka The Devil's Bride) and (less impressively) Jules Verne's Master of the World.
     My hope is that everyone who reads this will read -- or re-read -- one of his classic books or stories, or watch one of his films. I'd recommend the books I Am Legend and Hell House (though be warned: the latter contains a fair amount of sex) and the films The Devil's Bride and The Legend of Hell House

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review: "Desolation Road" by Ian McDonald

Desolation Road
By Ian McDonald
(Pyr/Prometheus Books)

    For three days Dr. Alimantando had followed the greenperson across the desert. Beckoned by a finger made of articulated runner beans, he had sailed over the desert of red grit, the desert of red stone, and the desert of red sand in pursuit of it. And each night, as he sat by his fire built from scraps of mummified wood, writing in his journals, the moonring would rise, that tumbling jewel-stream of artificial satellites, and it would draw the green person out of the deep places of the desert.

     That's the opening paragraph of Ian McDonald's 1988 debut novel Desolation Road, which I've just finished reading for the first time. It grabbed me when I read it in the bookstore. Red sand? So it's set on Mars. Greenperson made of articulated runner beans? So it's a plant person. Sailed over the desert? So it's some unconventional technology. That's more information than you usually get in one paragraph, particularly the opening paragraph.
     The downside of so much information is that it takes longer to read. It's taken me three weeks to read its 363 pages, and at times I considered just stopping and reading something less difficult. I'm glad I didn't.
     It's a very dense novel, and a more conventional writer might have cut out some of the details and characters, or made the book a trilogy. It takes place on a terraformed Mars, and details the founding, developmenft and ultimate demise of the community of Desolation Road over a 23-year period.
     Most of the chapters are quite short and concern one character or family as they arrive at, settle in or disrupt Desolation Road. I was reminded of Ray Bradbury's episodic Martian Chronicles, Kurt Vonnegut's mini-chaptered Cat's Cradle and the "condensed novels" of J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition. Like the latter, the brief chapters tended to slow down my reading. Still, there was so much going on, so much exposition hidden in throwaway lines that I felt compelled to read on, though not always immediately. Sometimes I needed a break between even brief chapters.
     You do need to read carefully. McDonald doesn't feel the need to coddle his readers. For instance, it is mentioned several times that age 10 is when young people become adults on Mars, which might seem extremely young unless you stop to consider that the Martian year is 1.8 times as long as an Earth year.
     Although Desolation Road is clearly science fiction, it has enough fantasy elements that many have compared it to the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other Latin American authors. it also has some science fictional elements that some fans don't consider hard science, such as time travel.
     There is also a lot of politics, but mostly of a plague-on-all-their-houses sort. Big business practices are hard on workers and the environment. Workers are exploited by so-called informers. Religions based around sincere "messiahs" are co-opted by power-hungry churches. Privatizing government services, such as courts, leads to abuses. And the little guy gets stepped on by all of the above and can't do much about it.
     Still, there are heartwarming personal stories, love stories, tragedies, miracles and all kinds of wonder.
     (The title, if I'm not mistaken, was inspired by Bob Dylan's song "Desolation Row.")
     One depressing thing about this edition of the book is the number of typos. As a copy editor and proofreader, I'm disappointed when a book, a reprint of a book no less, goes through the whole production process and a reference to Steeltown becomes Seeltown with no one catching it or, if it was caught, no one fixing it. That's the state of the industry now; I caught an error in the Sunday New York Times, too. I do expect better of books than even a prestigious newspaper, however. (Now laugh at any mistakes you find in this blog post.)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Frankenstein and its sequels

Museum of Modern Mythology and Pop Culture

The Monster of Frankenstein, Nos. 1-6
By Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog
(Marvel Comics, 1973)

The Cross of Frankenstein 
The Slave of Frankenstein
By Robert J. Myers
(Lippincott, 1975 and 1977)

Brittle Innings
by Michael Bishop
(Bantam, 1994; Fairwood Press, 2012)

Dean Koontz's Frankenstein (5 vols.)
By Dean Koontz
(Bantam, 2004-2011)

     Mary Shelley never wrote a sequel to Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, but that hasn't stopped others from continuing the story.
     If you're not familiar with the novel (as opposed to the many film and TV adaptations), the novel begins in the Arctic, where the captain of a ship sees a man being pursued by another man across the frozen waste. The second man collapses, is rescued, and tells the tale of how he, Victor Frankenstein (not a doctor, by the way, nor a baron), created life, only to be horrified by his achievement and abandoning it. The manlike creature survives, educates itself, but is rejected by everyone it encounters save for a blind man who can't see what he looks like. This makes him a misanthrope who kills a member of Frankenstein's family, then frames a servant for the crime, before confronting Victor and demanding he make another creature, a female, to be his companion. In exchange for this, he promises they will go to the wilderness and live apart from man. Victor at first complies, but cannot go through with it because of the possibility that they would spawn a race of monsters to torment mankind. In retaliation, the Creature kills first Victor's friend, Henry Clerval, and then his bride, Elizabeth. NowVictor pursues the Creature, and we're back to where we started. Victor dies soon after, and the Creature visits his deathbed, promising to self-immolate itself in the wilderness because, without vengeance, it has nothing left to live for. The end.

     Now several writers and commentators -- including Lawrence Wolff, annotator of The Essential Frankenstein -- have questioned whether or not the monster would actually go through with his suicidal plan. My response: Yes, he would have, because that was the ending Mary Shelley intended. But that didn't stop a couple of writers from speculating anyway.

From Club des
     In 1973, Marvel Comics launched a comic book sequel, The Monster of Frankenstein (available in The Essential Monster of Frankenstein, Vol. 1). The plot: In the late 19th century, a man leads an expedition to the arctic to find the monster's body. He does, frozen in ice, but a fire onboard ship melts the ice and revives the monster. Over the course of the first four issues, the novel is also retold (altered slightly; for instance, the monster's bride is briefly animated before Victor destroys it). Midway through the fourth issue, events immediately after the end of the book begin. The monster encounters an Indian or Inuit tribe, befriends and is befriended by them, until they are killed (I forget if it was by a rival tribe, natural disaster or wild animals), and the monster falls into the icy water and is frozen, bringing us back to his fate at the beginning of the comic. His current companions also die by the end of the issue, and, alone, he goes in search of a descendant of Victor Frankenstein whom he is told is still alive and might be able to help him.
       I stopped reading the comic after a couple more issues because, between one issue and the next, the monster had decided to kill this Frankenstein, too (why? I don't remember), and it looked likely to be a series of mad doctor encounters. The art style had changed, too, and the title of the comic book became The Frankenstein Monster. Later, apparently, the Monster was revived again in the 20th century and actually had adventures alongside or in conflict with Spider Man, the X-Men and Iron Man.

     Marvel's take on the monster was that he was more sinned against than sinning. Victor treated him atrociously by creating then abandoning him. His early murders were attributed to his parent's neglect. But other writer's see the monster as a villain, pure and simple.
     A couple of years later, a writer named Robert J. Myers wrote a couple of followup novels, both out of print. I read the first, The Cross of Frankenstein, which involved an illegitimate son of Victor's who is contacted about a formula of his father's for an artificial blood called "The Fluid." He suspects this was from a page of his father's notebooks for creating the monster, and that it might mean the monster is still alive and in need of a blood transfusion. Eventually he meets the monster, who has formed a cult of some sort and is planning to make an army of creatures like himself, though I can't quite recall why (to take over the world, I guess). The book ends with the monster's plans temporarily thwarted, Victor's two girlfriends (or at least two women with whom he had sexual relations) killed by the monster, and the notebooks still in the monster's possession.
     I didn't read the next book, The Slave of Frankenstein, but it took place in the U.S. where the monster has co-opted John Brown's slave-freeing operations for his own ends (another army, I guess). I believe it was left open-ended, but maybe there was no demand for or interest in further sequels.

     A more interesting sequel was Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop, in which a 1943 minor league ballplayer named Hank Clerval turns out to be the monster, still alive. As bizarre a plot as that sounds, it's a surprisingly moving story, told from the viewpoint of a 15-year-old rookie with whom he bonds.

     More recently best-selling horror novelist Dean Koontz has written a series of five novels under the umbrella title Dean Koontz's Frankenstein, each involving an immortal and immoral Victor Frankenstein, opposed by his still-living original creation, herein named Deucalion (for the son of Prometheus in mythology). I haven't read any of these, but they seem popular enough to have spawned movie interest.

     And one can't talk about sequels without mentioning the films from Universal and Hammer. Universal got around the issue of whether Frankenstein was the villain or not by having him not abandon the monster, and by the monster's brain being an "abnormal" criminal brain. Even so, in the first two films, the monster is more of a child, doing wrong by accident or in frustration at society's rejection of him. At the end of The Bride of Frankenstein, he even tries to commit suicide. By the third film, Son of Frankenstein, he is a dangerous but simple-minded character (after his near-death in Bride, he was struck by lightning also), with the genuinely evil Ygor using him for his own purposes. In subsequent films, he becomes more of a robot and loses all personality.
     In the Hammer films, Frankenstein himself is actively evil, and none of his creations lives beyond one film.

     There will no doubt be further sequels to Frankenstein, though none are needed. I'd be more interested in an alternate universe version in which Victor doesn't abandon his creation and how things might have developed differently.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Detroit Film Theatre returns with the Cinetopia International Film Festival

     The Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts begins its summer season next Friday, June 14, with its Summer 2013 schedule, but first it presents a selection of movies from Ann Arbor’s Cinetopia International Film Festival. That celebration of cinematic excellence from many nations begins Thursday, June 6, in three Ann Arbor venues -- the Michigan Theater auditorium, the State Theater and Angell Hall Auditorium A -- but you can see nine of the films in the DIA auditorium this weekend. Ticket prices for Cinetopia are higher than for normal DFT admissions at $12, or $9 for DIA members. 
     (For more information on the full festival, visit the official website or call 866-777-8932.)
     The films include “The Painting” -- a French/Japanese animated fable about a painting and the three stages of characters who live there: the finished, the half-finished and the crudely sketched -- 7 p.m. June 7; Keith Miller’s documentary-style “Welcome to Pine Hill,” 9:30 p.m. June 7; “Our Nixon” -- an actual documentary featuring home movies shot by H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin, then seized as potential evidence by the FBI during the Watergate investigations -- 1 p.m. June 8; “The Future” -- an Italy-set, multinational coproduction about a planned robbery of a blind, aging B-actor played by Rutger Hauer -- 4 p.m. June 8; “Broken” -- a British coming-of-age story with an acclaimed performance by Eloise Laurence -- 7 p.m. June 8; “Pieta” -- a Korean drama about a violent loan shark attempting redemption after meeting a woman who claims to be his mother -- 9:30 p.m. June 8; “Dear Mr. Watterson” -- a documentary about the lasting impact of Bill Watterson’s newspaper comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” -- 1 p.m. June 9; “The Source Family” -- a documentary about the 1970s utopian community and its demise -- 4 p.m. June 9; and the film of the Michigan Theater concert “A Tribute to Ron Asheton featuring Iggy and the Stooges,” 7 p.m. June 9.

     The Detroit Film Theatre shows in the auditorium behind the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit. For more information, visit or call 313-833-7900.