Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Raphael Ordoñez on Adult Diagnosis

There's a post by your humble blogger over at The Mighty today. I submitted it in response to a prompt for stories by people diagnosed with autism as adults.

If you happen to be a visitor from The Mighty, welcome! Please peruse my blog and enjoy all the extremely important and relevant things I've written about fantasy, logic, beauty, autism, and chickens. You can read my awesome short stories through the sidebar; if you like those, check out my novel Dragonfly through the links at the top of the page.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Guide for the Perplexed

A young man of my acquaintance is soon to graduate from high school. He's mathematically gifted, and I'm a kind of informal tutor and academic advisor to him. (This is in my staid real life, not my zany secret Internet existence.) When I say "tutor" and "advisor," I mean that I give him long, hard books to read, and he works through them on his own time, with little assistance from me, preparing careful proofs and computations which he then hands in and discusses with me. When I was his age, I was chiefly concerned with seeing how far I could get on Super Mario Brothers with my toes (answer: the end of World 2) and making mix tapes. Kids these days.

He's been accepted to schools like Stanford and Cornell, and will soon leave our out-of-the-way corner for a bright future of opportunity and adventure. Of course I would like to get him some sort of graduation gift. Because I feel a bit like an old hermit bidding goodbye to a young knight off to seek his fortune in the world, it seems appropriate to give him something talismanic. I'm short on talking livestock, magical staffs, and the like, so I thought of getting him a good book of wisdom, something a little different from the mathematical and scientific texts I've directed him to throughout our acquaintance. After careful thought, I've settled on two: Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book, and E. F. Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed.

Though the latter is deeply philosophical, Schumacher (1911 – 1977) was by profession an economist and statistician. He was a leading figure of the ecology movement in the seventies, served as the Chief Economic Advisor to the UK National Coal Board for many years, and coined the term "Buddhist economics." He's chiefly famous for his 1973 collection of essays, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered, which, among other things, sets forth the principles of Buddhist (or village-based) economics. Schumacher's thought is refreshingly ecumenical and global. He avoids polemics (unlike me) and cites a variety of Eastern and Western philosophical-religious insights at every level of his writing.

A Guide for the Perplexed is the perfect book for the thoughtful undergraduate. I wish I had had it back when I was a student! (Not that I was thoughtful, exactly.) Simply stated, it's a brief map of the human experience. Instead of giving answers, it teaches the student to ask the right kinds of questions.

Because he inevitably devours everything I give him, my student-friend is certain to read both books before very long, and may even wish to discuss them with me. So it has seemed wise to delve into Schumacher once again, that I might have the text fairly fresh on my mind. Despite being an aged hermit by profession (though I'm not quite as old as Dennis the Peasant), I'm still an enthusiastic freshman in life, and am getting quite a lot out of the book myself.

All of which is just a long-winded* way of saying that I read the following passage, and it stood out to me:
As regards the bodily senses, all healthy people possess a very similar endowment; but no one could possibly overlook the fact that there are significant differences in the power and reach of people's minds. As regards the intellectual senses, it is therefore quite unrealistic to try to define and delimit the capabilities of "man" as such – as if all human beings were much the same, like animals of the same species. Beethoven's musical abilities, even in deafness, were incomparably greater than mine, and the difference did not lie in the sense of hearing; it lay in the mind. Some people are incapable of grasping and appreciating a given piece of music, not because they are deaf, but because of a lack of adaequatio in the mind. The sense of hearing receives nothing more than a succession of notes; the music is grasped by intellectual powers… For every one of us, only those facts and phenomena "exist" for which we possess adaequatio, and as we are not entitled to assume that we are necessarily adequate to everything, at all times, and in whatever condition we may find ourselves, so we are not entitled to insist that something inaccessible to us has no existence at all and is nothing but a phantom of other people's imagination.
This daring intellectual humility applies to lots of things. My little artistic dust-up a couple years ago comes to mind. There's an aptness in a certain loud subset of the Internet sci-fi community to roundly condemn artistic products they don't like as mere posturing, as assaults on the senses or insults against the intellect, and to promote their own products as the truly true art. I don't have anything profound to say about it all, but the interested reader (I know you're out there somewhere) can follow the link and see the application.

* Man, I really need to work on writing shorter posts. I just don't have the time...!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hard at Work or...

Let's take a little break from our long-winded castigations of much-loved children's book authors to take a look at what I've been working on lately.

First exhibit, the cover of my upcoming book The King of Nightspore's Crown:

Ha ha ha, just kidding. (I probably had too much fun making that.) Here is the actual painting, in its current state of completion:

For your viewing pleasure, here's a close-up of the lovely mosses:

and here's the two dudes fighting:

As you can see, I've got some Oceanic and Central American influences going on here. Wouldn't this make a cool movie? I'd go see it. Maybe I'll try to interest Guillermo del Toro in optioning the series. If that works out, I'll probably insist that Doug Jones portray at least some of the abhuman characters.

I'm still leaning toward making the left-hand side of this image the front cover, which would maybe look something like this:

As I hope is abundantly clear, I'm still going for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy look. The design's a bit busy, perhaps, but that's kind of my trademark.


I've been listening to Joseph Conrad while painting, which seems fitting. I've also been re-listening to the Imaro books, in anticipation of acquiring the further volumes. Something about the Imaro stories reminds me of the freshness of the old pulps. No doubt this owes partly to the newness of the setting, but there's an earnest seriousness to Saunders' stories that puts me in mind of Robert E. Howard. I like the wilderness stories the best.

A reader objected the other day to attempts to "erase" authors from history. Regular readers of my blog know that, while I may get in a high dudgeon about this or that, I'm quite shameless when it comes to filling my own skull with garbage. I would also defend to the death (or some such rhetorical extremity) the right of the writer to depict the ugly side of life in an ambiguous way. And I don't apologize for reading and liking authors who hold opinions that I or others regard as morally repugnant.

But that doesn't mean that commenting on authors' viewpoints is off-limits, either. It's a free country!

So, suppose you get irritated by something that pervades an author's work – an author you happen to really like on the whole. You want to do something about it. There's a few things you can try. You can grouse about it on your blog, and see where that gets you. That's one approach. You can repudiate and utterly contemn the author's works and urge others to do so. We might call this the bonfire-of-the-vanities approach. Or you can just write your own awesome stories in the same genre, with a certain amount of subversion and subtle commentary.

Which seems like the most fun?

Inspired by such ruminations, I here announce the inception of an alternate-history sword-and-sorcery subgenre set during the time of the Spanish conquests. Of course my protagonist will hail from Puerto Rico. Of course he will be of mixed ancestry. And of course his adventures will take him across an alternate Texas in search of God, gold, and glory. Just like me!

After careful consideration, I propose "sword-and-santería" as a name for the subgenre, having briefly considered but ultimately rejected the "arquebus-and-sorcery" label. I've written one story so far, set in the location of the town where I live. From here I think he will wander out to the painted canyons of the west, to encounter cosmic weirdness and mete out sudden vengeance. No doubt his perambulations will eventually take him to all the really interesting places in the American Southwest, Mexico, and Central America. It's Conrad and Cather meet Howard and Lovecraft, Kane and Conan meet Coronado and Cortés. I wish my antihero luck in his morally dubious adventures.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Sorry, but C. S. Lewis is Kind of a Weirdo

I have lately spoken somewhat irritably about C. S. Lewis. This represents the last stage in a slow revolution in my mind. There was a time when I adulated Lewis. I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was in the fourth grade. They shaped my imagination, and even now I often find lines from them in my own stories. I discovered his religious works as a college student, at a time when I was the "disciple" of a delusional "apostle" who took me hunting for Hare Krishnas in Mexico (it's a long story) and desperately in need of some rational input. I'll not go into what made me less enthusiastic about the latter works, because I doubt many people who find their way to my blog are particularly interested in my religious opinions. But I will discuss why I've become increasingly uncomfortable with his fiction.

The long and short of it is that C. S. Lewis has a problem with little girls. To be honest, I doubt if I ever would have realized this unless I'd had a daughter of my own. People do talk about it from time to time. Neil Gaiman is a famous (and, to some, an infamous) example. But there's a tendency among some groups to revere Lewis almost as a sort of saint, and to regard any kind of criticism of him as an attack on the faith. And, beyond this, we all have our blind spots. It's part of being human. I can only say that I hope I'm becoming less blind (and more human!) over time.

In reading the Chronicles of Narnia aloud with my kids – we've read the first, second, third, and sixth (in the traditional ordering) – I've come across several passages that never bothered me before, but now seriously put me off. Here's one example that stuck out to me as we read Prince Caspian last year:
Then she saw the Lion, screamed and fled, and with her fled her class, who were mostly dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs. Gwendolen hesitated.
Gwendolen, we may suppose, was not dumpy or prim, and had slender legs. What a thing to write in a book that little girls might read! Even dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs! Did Lewis have any idea of how hard girls can be on themselves about such things, or how vicious to one another? I've read his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, in which he describes his inordinately nasty boys' school, where a kind of Spartan pederasty was a routine part of the social structure (ah, the good old days), so it's hard to imagine that he was simply naïve. But I don't know. I can only speculate.

And then there's this, from The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader":
"—And unhorsed many knights," repeated Drinian with a grin. "We thought the Duke would have been pleased if the King's Majesty would have married  his daughter, but nothing came of that—" 
"Squints, and has freckles," said Caspian. 
"Oh, poor girl," said Lucy.
Delightful, delightful. Imagine reading that to a little girl who has freckles and is already self-conscious about them. (For the record, when I read this book aloud, I censored this passage. As supreme co-dictator of my house, I have that authority.)

And here's the Big One, from The Last Battle, a pleasant little conversation at the threshold of the Narnian heaven:
"Sire," said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. "If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?" 
"My sister Susan," answered Peter shortly and gravely, "is no longer a friend of Narnia." 
"Yes," said Eustace, "and whenever you've tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'" 
"Oh, Susan!" said Jill. "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up." 
"Grown up indeed," said the Lady Polly. "I wish she would grow up. She wanted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."
O the humanity! Nylons and lipstick! No heaven for her!!! Here I must confess myself strongly urged to repeat Edmund's words in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: you pack of stuck-up, self-satisfied prigs! And what is there in Susan's character as presented in the earlier volumes to merit this universal condemnation and head-shaking? She's a bit tiresome, yes, and a bit cowardly, too, but Edmund the traitor and Eustace the epic brat get their rehabilitations, don't they? And yet it's Susan, whose sin is wanting to wear lipstick, who loses her prospect of eternal salvation. It staggers the mind.

I could come up with similar examples in many of Lewis' other works – in The Great Divorce, for instance, where he makes it very plain which are the right sorts of women and which are the wrong sorts, and what exactly it is that's so wrong with the latter. But the examples in his books for children are, to my mind, more egregious, because of the tendency in some girls to take such little jabs to heart.

I happen to know a little girl like that. A very earnest and serious-minded girl who catches lizards and plays at being a warrior queen but who also likes to look pretty on occasion and who is deeply sensitive to remarks on her looks. Do I want her thinking about whether her legs are fat? Do I want her fretting over her freckles? Do I want her to be ashamed for wanting to grow up into a woman who wears lipstick?


What sparked this little tirade was a piece of Lewis' correspondence that I came across in trying to research another post I've been working on for almost a year now.* It's a letter written to one Jane Gaskell, who at the age of fourteen wrote her first fantasy novel (Strange Evil) and actually saw it published and favorably reviewed. (Gaskell is mentioned in Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds; she is a grandniece of Elizabeth Gaskell, the Victorian novelist, and went on to a career in journalism and astrology.) Lewis took it upon himself to write Gaskell a letter, in which he praises her novel faintly before tearing it to shreds. (She was about sixteen at the time, I believe; she was born in 1941, and the letter is dated September 1957.) Let's take a look.

He begins:
My wife and I have just been reading your book and I want to tell you that I think it is a quite amazing achievement – incomparably beyond anything I could have done at that age. The story runs, on the whole, very well and there is some real imagination in it.
So far, so good, though perhaps a bit condescending. At the second paragraph we get to the criticism:
On the other hand, there is no reason at all why your next book should not be at least twice as good. I hope you will not think it impertinent if I mention (this is only one man's opinion of course) some mistakes you can avoid in the future.
This "mention" of mistakes goes on for the rest of the letter. Lewis enumerates six points. First he takes Gaskell to task for making the "economic politics and religious differences" too much like our own world.
Surely the wars of faerie should be high, reckless, heroical, romantic wars – concerned with the possession of a beautiful queen or an enchanted treasure? Surely the diplomatic phase of them should be represented not by conferences (which, on your own showing, are as dull as ours) but by ringing words of gay taunt, stern defiance, or Quixotic generosity, interchanged by great warriors with sword in hand before the battle joins?
Fair enough, I suppose, though I think it could go either way. I do seem to recall some rather on-the-nose religious dialogues in the Space Trilogy which do at least as much to dispel the spell of faerie, but no matter.

The second point is related to the first: Lewis objects to commonplace objects in Gaskell's romance:
[E]ven a half-fairy ought not climb a fairyhill carrying a suitcase full of new nighties. All magic dies at this touch of the commonplace. (Notice, too, the disenchanting implication that the fairies can't make for themselves lingerie as good as they can get – not even in Paris, which wd. be bad enough – but, of all places, in London.)
So, (a) I'm not sure I agree with him about climbing the fairyhill with the suitcase full of nighties, which sounds just bizarre enough to be quite enchanting in its own way, and (b) um, writing letters to teenage girls about lingerie. Yeah.

The next two points have to do with the mechanics of style. Point third:
Never use adjectives or adverbs which are mere appeals to the reader to feel as you want him to feel. He won't do it just because you ask him: you've got to make him.
Point fourth:
You are too fond of long adverbs like 'dignifiedly', which are not nice to pronounce.
Both excellent points. All writers would do well to adhere to them. But the next point, the fifth, is the one that really set me off:
Far less about clothes please! I mean, ordinary clothes. If you had given your fairies strange and beautiful clothes and described them, there might be something in it. But your heroine's tangerine skirt! For whom do you write? No man wants to hear how she was dressed, and the sort of woman who does seldom reads fantasy: if she reads anything it is more likely to be the Women's Magazines.
The ease with which Lewis identifies a woman who might be interested in the color of a character's skirt with the brainless, frivolous creatures uninterested in fantasy and devoted to (gasp) Women's Magazines that haunt his imagination simply takes my breath away. (Actually, lots of women like that kind of detail, and lots of men, too; Raymond Chandler, for instance, is usually pretty good about telling you, not just the color, but the material and cut of his female characters' attire.) Anyway, Lewis goes on about the Magazines:
By the way, these are a baneful influence on your mind and imagination. If you can't keep off them, at least, after each debauch, give your imagination a good mouth-wash by a reading (or wd. it be a re-reading) of the Odyssey, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, […]
Which, to be honest, might be very good advice in its way, but it's phrased in an excessively moralistic, lurid tone. ("Debauch"?)

Sixth and final point:
Names not too good. They ought to be beautiful and suggestive as well as strange: not merely odd like Enaj (wh. sounds as if it came out of Butler's Erewhon).
Here he seems to be in a hurry to wrap up. Immediately following this admonition, with no further nuggets of sparing praise, he hastily concludes:
I hope all this does not enrage you. You'll get so much bad advice that I felt I must give you some of what I think good.
     Yours sincerely
     C. S. Lewis
Again, bear in mind that this is a letter he sent to a sixteen-year-old girl who had just written her first novel. Am I crazy, or isn't it a little bit weird?


Last exhibit: "The Shoddy Lands" (1956)**, a bizarrely misogynistic story which describes a man's phantasmagoric journey into the psyche of a young woman – a reader of Women's Magazines, no doubt – where almost everything is vague and ill-defined, with the exception of daffodils, men's faces, women's clothing, and shops selling jewelry, dresses, and shoes. Toward the end he's confronted with the monstrous apparition of the girl's own self image:
The gigantic Peggy now removed her beach equipment and stood up naked in front of a full-length mirror. Apparently she enjoyed what she saw there; I can hardly express how much I didn't. Partly the size (it’s only fair to remember that) but, still more, something that came as a terrible shock to me, though I suppose modern lovers and husbands must be hardened to it. Her body was (of course) brown, like the bodies in the sunbathing advertisements. But round her hips, and again round her breasts, where the coverings had been, there were two bands of dead white which looked, by contrast, like leprosy. It made me for the moment almost physically sick. What staggered me was that she could stand and admire it. Had she no idea how it would affect ordinary male eyes?
After his return to the real world he concludes:
My view is that by the operation of some unknown psychological – or pathological – law, I was, for a second or so, let into Peggy's mind; at least to the extent of seeing her world, the world as it exists for her. At the centre of that world is a swollen image of herself, remodelled to be as like the girls in the advertisements as possible. Round this are grouped clear and distinct images of the things she really cares about. Beyond that, the whole earth and sky are a vague blur. The daffodils and roses are especially instructive. Flowers only exist for her if they are the sort that can be cut and put in vases or sent as bouquets; flowers in themselves, flowers as you see them in the woods, are negligible.
Various interpretations have been given to this story. I'll let it speak for itself, merely remarking that it seems consistent with the other things I've mentioned here, and not particularly wholesome from a psychological point of view.

Sure, I have a low opinion of the kinds of trash you find in the supermarket check-out line. I want my daughter to be formed by stuff that's worth reading, not garbage. But I also want her to have a positive view of her own body, and Lewis' weird tendency to attach moral weight to superficialities is just as calculated to make her self-conscious as any Photoshopped Cosmo cover.

The upshot is that we're on an extended (and possibly permanent, so far as my reading aloud is concerned) C. S. Lewis hiatus at our house. I continue to owe him a tremendous debt in many ways, but right now I have other things to think about.

* The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950 1963, Walter Hooper (ed.), HarperCollins, 2007.

** "The Shoddy Lands" first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1956), and can be found in The Dark Tower and Other Stories.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Eternal Return

Thereupon distilled from the neck of the alembic a white oil incombustible, and the King dipped his rod in that oil and described round the seven-pointed star on the floor the figure of the worm Ouroboros, that eateth his own tail. 
Like a black eagle surveying earth from some high mountain the King passed by in his majesty. His byrny was of black chain mail, its collar, sleeves, and skirt edged with plates of dull gold set with hyacinths and black opals. His hose were black, cross-gartered with bands of sealskin trimmed with diamonds. On his left thumb was his great signet ring fashioned in gold in the semblance of the worm Ouroboros that eateth his own tail: the bezel of the ring the head of the worm, made of a peach-coloured ruby of the bigness of a sparrow's egg. His cloak was woven of the skins of black cobras stitched together with gold wire, its lining of black silk sprinkled with dust of gold. The iron crown of Witchland weighed on his brow, the claws of the crab erect like horns; and the sheen of its jewels was many-coloured like the rays of Sirius on a clear night of frost and wind at Yule-tide.  
The Worm Ouroboros 
A friend recently facebooked about Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence. I read Nietzsche from time to time, mostly because I find him entertaining, and good fodder for story-writing. But he had quite a few keen insights, too. At any rate, the discussion brought to my mind the following passage from Beyond Good and Evil:
…the ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably da capo [from the beginning] – not only to himself but to the whole play and spectacle… [Beyond Good and Evil, Section 56, trans. Walter Kaufmann]
There are a number of other references to the idea in Nietzsche's works. My friend was thinking about a possible influence on Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury ("literature"? yawn!) but of course what it made me think of was…The Worm Ouroboros.

The worm Ouroboros is, as we all know, the worm that eateth its own tail, and this is the structure of the eponymous romance. (Spoiler alert.) Our heroes, the Homeric supermen Juss, Goldry Bluszco, Spitfire, and Brandoch Daha, having defeated their dastardly enemies at long last, have in fact defeated themselves in ridding the world of strife and conflict, which to them is the very game that makes life worth living. They realize this, and lament it, bringing about the appalling miracle that takes them from the story's tail to its teeth.
Queen Sophonisba covered her eyes, saying, "My lords, I see no more. The crystal curdles within like foam in a whirlpool under a high force in rainy weather. Mine eyes grow sore with watching. Let us row back, for the night is far spent and I am weary." 
But Juss stayed her and said, "Let me dream yet awhile. The double pillar of the world, that member thereof which we, blind instruments of inscrutable Heaven, did shatter, restored again? From this time forth to maintain, I and he, his and mine, ageless and deathless for ever, for ever our high contention whether he or we should be great masters of all the earth? If this he but phantoms, O Queen, thou'st 'ticed us to the very heart of bitterness. This we could have missed, unseen and unimagined: but not now. Yet how were it possible the Gods should relent and the years return?" 
But the Queen spake, and her voice was like the falling shades of evening, pulsing with hidden splendour, as of a sense of wakening starlight alive behind the fading blue. "This King," she said, "in the wickedness of his impious pride did wear on his thumb the likeness of that worm Ouroboros, as much as to say his kingdom should never end. Yet was he, when the appointed hour did come, thundered down into the depths of Hell. And if now he be raised again and his days continued, 'tis not for his virtue but for your sake, my lords, whom the Almighty Gods do love. Therefore I pray you possess your hearts awhile with humility before the most high Gods, and speak no unprofitable words. Let us row back."
And the next morning, wonder of wonders, the episode that began the chronicle recurs, and the reader contemplates the heroes' "happy" fate, doomed, deathless in glory, endlessly to repeat the events of the story with infinite variations. It's the perfect "ending," terrifyingly joyous, both satisfying and appalling in its adherence to the story's inner logic and philosophical outlook. It could very well be the best ending to any fantasy novel ever written – a vision of a strange and alien moral topography that may be fine to visit, but not someplace you'd ever want to live.

The superhuman lords and ladies that populate the book's pages are Nietzschean heroes, joyous, strong, carefree, and utterly unconcerned with the peasantry. We encounter peasants on only one occasion, when Eddison adopts the curious narrative device of relating the upshot of a battle through the words of a soldier returning home to his farm. Actually, for someone bent on celebrating the martial deeds well-armed aristocrats, Eddison is strangely reticent to describe an actual battle. We have this second-hand account of the battle at Krothering Side, for instance; the sea-battle off Melikaphkhaz in the Impland seas and the final battle before the gates of Carcë in waterish Witchland take place off-stage as well, while the extermination of the Ghouls that forms the novel's thin backstory is related only through brief allusions. In a way the device reminds one of Elizabethan drama, which is not unfitting, but no Shakespearean actor ever scaled an icy mountain, rode a hippogriff, or fought a brain-eating mantichore, either. So it seems more likely that Eddison simply didn't feel that his talents were equal to the task. Which, to my mind, is just as well; book battles usually read like accounts of volleyball matches to me.

But back to Nietzsche. I'm not certain how much of a direct influence on The Worm Ouroboros Nietzsche actually was. People always talk of Eddison's characters as following a Nietzschean moral code, which I suppose they do, but both authors were really looking to Homer's heroes as exemplars, and you could just as well call the Worm's moral code Homeric. However, this idea of the great da capo and eternal return makes it seem more likely that Eddison did know something of Nietzsche's philosophy.

Tolkien, as is well known, was an admirer of Eddison's fantasies, despite adhering to the exact antithesis of Eddison's personal philosophy, so we'll let him have the final word.
I read the works of [E. R.] Eddison, long after they appeared; and I once met him… Eddison thought what I admire 'soft' (his word: one of complete condemnation, I gathered); I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly 'philosophy', he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty. Incidentally, I thought his nomenclature slipshod and often inept. In spite of all of which, I still think of him as the greatest and most convincing writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read.*
* From a letter to Caroline Everett dated 24 June 1957, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Bone Tomahawk

Did you know that there were two westerns starring Kurt Russell last fall? There was Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, and then there was S. Craig Zahler's Bone Tomahawk. The latter was an indie film by a first-time director. It did well at festivals but had only a limited release, meaning that there was zero chance for me to see it in the theater. But I finally watched it on the small screen the other night, and, dang, that was a good movie.

First off, I have to say that I'm not a huge fan of westerns. This is not due to lack of exposure. Quite the contrary, perhaps. I live half an hour from the Alamo Village movie set, where they filmed both the John Wayne film and Lonesome Dove. Growing up, I watched John Wayne movies until I had them memorized. When the local UHF station featured one in 3D (I forget which), we actually went out to the county courthouse – in a different town, mind you – to pick up the glasses to watch it as a family. There's some good old-fashioned red-blooded American fun for you. (It was like John Wayne's horse's nose was popping right out at us!) But, sadly, I simply can't stand westerns now. At least ones that don't involve some combination of Sergio Leone or Clint Eastwood.

However, Bone Tomahawk is better described as a horror-western, certainly an unusual combination of genres. It's like The Searchers stitched by a degenerate backwoods psychopath onto The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. So here let me also say that I'm not the target audience for brutal slasher horror films. So, why would I like Bone Tomahawk so much?

Well, I first became interested in it when I encountered this interview with the director. In it he trashes both The Hateful Eight and The Revenant, and explains that what inspired the story "comes a little bit more from the disciplines of lost race fiction, like H. Rider Haggard kind of stuff, really, than from westerns."

H. Rider Haggard kind of stuff? Sign me up!

So, the basic plot is this: A young foreman's wife (who happens to be a doctor) gets kidnapped by a tribe of degenerate cannibal troglodytes. The sheriff (Kurt Russell, who is and will always be awesome) forms a mismatched little posse to rescue her. They cross the wilderness, experiencing various Old West setbacks, and then step right into the mouth of Hell.

Really, most of film consists of these four men riding across the landscape with each other. The characters are well drawn and quite enjoyable to watch. The mood is quiet and brooding, with a rising sense of menace as they get deeper and deeper into this back corner of the wilderness. The horror is only hinted at until the last thirty minutes or so of the film. And then...hold onto your chair. Seriously, don't watch this movie if you're sensitive to graphic violence. I've never seen anything like it. What makes it hard to watch is that the characters never lose their basic humanity in the viewer's eyes. There's no emotional detachment, as you might have in a straight-up slasher. But the horror is also offset by a kind of grim but compassionate humor. And Kurt Russell is the man.

The main feature, of course, is the cannibal troglodytes. There's a lot to love here, but I don't want to say too much. They're very scary and very cool. And I love this idea of riding deeper and deeper into the American wilderness, encountering stranger and stranger things as you go, until you come to the final horror of all. In the interview mentioned above, Zahler says this:
If I could have picked anywhere to shoot this movie, probably my first choice would have been New Mexico, and certainly the thing I am least happy with in the entire movie are the exterior locations [...] I had a very specific geographical progression throughout this movie from hills and green, to flatter and green, to green and dirt, to dirt and red, to white, to rocky, to an almost primordial setting that someone compared to Journey to the Center of the Earth. It was very specific in the script how the landscape was supposed to progress, and I spent an enormous amount of time going around with different people in Los Angeles trying to find the best substitutions I could.
Too bad. I can just imagine what he could have done with a free choice of locations in New Mexico, where I've traveled, camped, and backpacked more times than I can count. But he does a very fine job with what he has at his disposal, and it's just a beautiful, beautiful movie.

So, if you want something a little different, but well worth your while if you like H. Rider Haggard kind of stuff, give Bone Tomahawk a chance. (It's currently available for free streaming if you have Amazon Prime.)

Friday, February 26, 2016

Tower and Fish

Midnight painting madness continues apace. I am happy to report that I have almost one half of the cover (whether the front or the back I don't yet know) of The King of Nightspore's Crown more or less completed:

I say midnight painting, though of a truth much of this was produced on weekends, mostly while "napping" the baby by bouncing her little chair with my foot. She wakes up the instant I stop this motion, and it takes quite a bit of coordination to keep the bounces out of the picture. And yet somehow I've never been able to dribble a basketball.

At any rate, here we have an abstracted version of the pseudospherical Tower of Bel reaching up into the stratosphere against an Enochite skyline, with the Leviathan that symbolizes both primeval Chaos and the all-powerful State swimming into a brackish hemlath swamp. Some aspects remain to be touched up, but I like how it's going so far.

In case you've forgotten, here's the original sketch of the cover in toto:

The pigment is somehow mixed with the identical purple dresses of Cora and Clarice, the resurrection of the mummy Xaltotun, the beheading of the vampire Lucy Westenra, the squashing of the witch Gagool beneath a heavy door, the revelation of Pip's benefactor on a storm-tossed night, and the horrible spontaneous combustion of the rag-and-bottle merchant Krook. As you can see, I paint very, very slowly.

I am tentatively to have another art show this summer. My friend who runs the gallery, a forward-thinking MFA and art instructor at the local college, is always just a tiny bit disheartened by my staid attention to naturalism, my addiction to illustration, and my meticulous planning. So I hope to complete a few more abstract and spontaneous pictures before now and then to gladden his spirit. To that end, I'm working on the Chicken Man:

He was originally drawn to please my four-year-old daughter; the ghostly image of Margo, her orange dinosaurian crony, may be seen through the Chicken Man's right leg, on the next page of my sketch book. Why he's called the Chicken Man I don't know. Perhaps because it's a hard world for little things. His pathos fills me with sad tenderness.

His body is formed from turning a random squiggle into a surface by converting the crossings into shaded twists, forming (in topological terms) a punctured surface. This particular surface happens not to be orientable, as an examination of his right hip suffices to indicate. It follows that he's not a Seifert surface, though I wouldn't tell him this to his face. His genus is nine. Well, ten, if you count his little toe-loop.

Man, the obscure geometry and topology references just keep coming tonight. Maybe the pressure is starting to get to me.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

I CALL our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in Space.
Having recently re-read Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884), a late Victorian novella which I assign as reading in the geometry course I teach every spring, I am struck with the fact that here is a bona fide fantasy that rarely makes the canons of fantasy fiction. British fantasists like H. Rider Haggard, William Morris, and George MacDonald are always named, though rarely (one suspects) read. Earlier satires like Gulliver's Travels and Utopia receive honorable mention. But Flatland, which is enjoyable as both a fantasy and a satire, is sadly excluded, and its author, a clergyman, unknown to fantasy-lovers.

It is easy to see why self-appointed historiographers like L. Sprague de Camp (Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers) and Lin Carter (Imaginary Worlds) left it by the wayside, if they were aware of it at all, and why the latter excluded it even from very eclectic collections like Golden Cities Far and Dragons, Elves, and Heroes. A novel that takes place in a two-dimensional universe wouldn't have been in their line, fixated on material elements as they were, despite the large role world-building plays in the work. There really is nothing quite like Flatland.

The narrator, A. Square, begins by helping the reader imagine what life in Flatland is like.
Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows – only hard and with luminous edges – and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.
A busy thoroughfare in Flatland
Alas, a few years ago, I should have said "my universe": but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things.
With perceptions limited entirely to the plane, the world appears to its denizens as a line, much as our three-dimensional world is perceived by us through a two-dimensional field of vision (as in a television screen, which is flat).
As there is neither sun with us, nor any light of such a kind as to make shadows, we have none of the helps to the sight that you have in Spaceland. If our friend comes closer to us we see his line becomes larger; if he leaves us it becomes smaller: but still he looks like a straight line; be he a Triangle, Square, Pentagon, Hexagon, Circle, what you will – a straight Line he looks and nothing else.
This exposition of Flatland society and history continues through half the book, touching on the stratification of social classes according to number of sides, the operation of schools and prisons, domestic arrangements, relations between the sexes, the rise of Chromatistes and the art of painting, the Universal Colour Bill, the machinations of the Chief Circle Pantocyclus, the violent suppression of the chromatic sedition, and so forth.

Before the Sanitary and Social Board.
The satire of late Victorian society is heavy but not (to me, at least) altogether transparent. For instance, women in Flatland are both despised and feared – despised, for they are regarded as irrational and foolishly sentimental, and feared, for their bodies are extremely sharp line segments, and they are capable of unthinkingly slaughtering their own families if provoked. A. Square belabors the point in several passages, but it seems plain from the forward that this is to be taken ironically. What precisely Abbott was driving at escapes me, unless it was to ridicule Victorian mores by showing a society in which the strait confinement of women really was a cogent necessity, though even this is questioned within the narrative itself.

A well-bred Hexagon yielding to a Lady.
The second half of the book presents a sequence of visions and visitations. In the first, A. Square descends upon Lineland in a dream, coming to revile its King for his narrow-minded inability to conceive of more than one dimension
"Besotted Being! You think yourself the perfection of existence, while you are in reality the most imperfect and imbecile. You profess to see, whereas you can see nothing but a Point! You plume yourself on inferring the existence of a Straight Line; but I can see Straight Lines, and infer the existence of Angles, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and even Circles. Why waste more words? Suffice it that I am the completion of your incomplete self. You are a Line, but I am a Line of Lines, called in my country a Square: and even I, infinitely superior though I am to you, am of little account among the great nobles of Flatland, whence I have come to visit you, in the hope of enlightening your ignorance."
Hearing these words the King advanced towards me with a menacing cry as if to pierce me through the diagonal; and in that same moment there arose from myriads of his subjects a multitudinous war-cry, increasing in vehemence till at last methought it rivaled the roar of an army of a hundred thousand Isosceles, and the artillery of a thousand Pentagons. Spell-bound and motionless, I could neither speak nor move to avert the impending destruction; and still the noise grew louder, and the King came closer, when I awoke to find the breakfast-bell recalling me to the realities of Flatland.
Our narrator is then visited in his turn by a Sphere from Spaceland, who appears to him as a circle (or priest) who can change sizes at will, and before whom A. Square is no better off than the denizens of Lineland were before him. When arguments fail, the visitant resorts to deeds:
"The higher I mount, and the further I go from your Plane, the more I can see, though of course I see it on a smaller scale. For example, I am ascending; now I can see your neighbour the Hexagon and his family in their several apartments; now I see the inside of the Theatre, ten doors off, from which the audience is only just departing; and on the other side a Circle in his study, sitting at his books. Now I shall come back to you. And, as a crowning proof, what do you say to my giving you a touch, just the least touch, in your stomach? It will not seriously injure you, and the slight pain you may suffer cannot be compared with the mental benefit you will receive."
Before I could utter a word of remonstrance, I felt a shooting pain in my inside, and a demoniacal laugh seemed to issue from within me. A moment afterwards the sharp agony had ceased, leaving nothing but a dull ache behind, and the Stranger began to reappear, saying, as he gradually increased in size, "There, I have not hurt you much, have I? If you are not convinced now, I don't know what will convince you. What say you?"
Though at first bewildered by his subsequent elevation above Flatland, which permits him to see "through" walls, A. Square is eventually led to posit the existence of more than three spacial dimensions.
[T]ake me to that blessed Region where I in Thought shall see the insides of all solid things. There, before my ravished eye, a Cube, moving in some altogether new direction, but strictly according to Analogy, so as to make every particle of his interior pass through a new kind of Space, with a wake of its own – shall create a still more perfect perfection than himself, with sixteen terminal Extrasolid angles, and Eight solid Cubes for his Perimeter. And once there, shall we stay our upward course? In that blessed region of Four Dimensions, shall we linger on the threshold of the Fifth, and not enter therein? Ah, no! Let us rather resolve that our ambition shall soar with our corporal ascent. Then, yielding to our intellectual onset, the gates of the Sixth Dimension shall fly open; after that a Seventh, and then an Eighth –
The Sphere, overcome with ire at this impertinence, returns A. Square to Flatland. There the narrator inevitably shares the fate of all enthusiastic visionaries out of step with their ruling classes when he tries to spread the "Gospel of Three Dimensions."

The "still more perfect perfection" of the cube referred to above is the regular polytope now known as a hypercube or tesseract. The latter term was coined by Charles Howard Hinton in 1888. Incidentally, this figure (or, rather, its five-dimensional analogue) plays a large role in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, in which the dimensional analogy is pursued considerably less competently; that novel also glances upon a two-dimensional world, and would seem to be partly inspired by Flatland. However, in treating time as a fourth "spacial" dimension, it adopts the erroneous conception of space-time expounded upon by H. G. Wells in The Time Machine (1895).

Two recalcitrant revolutionaries executed after trial.
Abbott's lucid approach to the fourth dimension by way of analogy is almost astonishing, considering that it comes from a clergyman (presumably) untutored in such matters, and well before the theories of Ludwig Schläfli were well known. Schläfli, a Swiss mathematician, originated the idea of regular polytopes in the 1850s, but his work did not receive recognition until much later. In Regular Polytopes (1947), H. S. M. Coxeter notes that regular polytopes were independently rediscovered by nine different mathematicians between the years 1881 and 1900, even as Flatland was being written. The time, evidently, was ripe.

Though relatively obscure at its publication, Flatland went on to receive widespread acclaim among mathematicians and physicists in the twentieth century. In our own time, theoretical physics has for a number of years been feeling its way toward the possibility that more than three spacial dimensions play a role in the structure of the universe. My doctoral work focused on higher-dimensional geometry and applications to particle physics, so this is something I know a bit about.

But the book as a whole is quite enjoyable purely as a work of speculative fiction. At every point it compels the reader to ponder what life would be like in a two-dimensional world.
There being no sun nor other heavenly bodies, it is impossible for us to determine the North in the usual way; but we have a method of our own. By a Law of Nature with us, there is a constant attraction to the South; and, although in temperate climates this is very slight – so that even a Woman in reasonable health can journey several furlongs northward without much difficulty – yet the hampering effect of the southward attraction is quite sufficient to serve as a compass in most parts of our earth. Moreover, the rain (which falls at stated intervals) coming always from the North, is an additional assistance; and in the towns we have the guidance of the houses, which of course have their side-walls running for the most part North and South, so that the roofs may keep off the rain from the North. In the country, where there are no houses, the trunks of the trees serve as some sort of guide.
Stephen Hawking suggests in The Universe in a Nutshell that such a creature would be unable to digest food, since a "tube" through the body would separate the unfortunate polygon into two halves. But, perhaps, like flatworms, the Flatlanders expel waste material through the mouth, which, Abbott tells us, also serves as the eye, indicating a physiology markedly different from our three-dimensional preconceptions.

Two small country houses with an antiquated square outbuilding.
Other questions arise. Writing is mentioned, for instance. Flatland writing must needs be one-dimensional, however; of what does this writing consist? Something like printed Morse code, perhaps? What are books like? Does Flatland geometry predominantly consist of the study of magnitudes on a line, much as ours consists of shapes in a plane? What would they think of the Cantor set, I wonder?

Whatever could the hills and mines mentioned by the narrator be like? And what of trees, which are referred to as growing from south to north? And so on.

Alas, the book is much too short to begin answering such questions. Not that most other readers would be as interested in them as I am. I happen to know the ins and outs of classical Euclidean geometry and its modern extensions and generalizations pretty well, and I can imagine any number of brave new worlds for A. Square to explore. Others have tried their hands at sequels before now; perhaps I shall join their number some day.

Lately, though, I've been piecing together digital collages of Flatland life in spare moments here and there, ostensibly to put an illustrated version of Flatland on my faculty website for my students to peruse. (These are the color pictures on this post; the drawings are Abbott's.) I have to say, I rather like the results, not that that means much.

When I took art as a teenager, I quickly found myself at the front of the class; however, every year, my teacher would begin by tasking us with forming a composition out of geometrical shapes, and I inevitably received F's on these assignments without ever knowing why. It was quite maddening.

In recent years, I've spent a good bit of time pondering the relation between artistic and mathematical abstraction, as a perusal of my artsy posts will show. (See here and here, for instance.) These collages are, like my fractals, a step toward abstraction in art from the far side. In making them I'm reminded of my old composition assignments. What I'm trying to say is, I hope I wouldn't still get F's on them.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Into the Vortex

As promised in my curmudgeonly Star-Wars-flogging post, here are reviews of two more from the seventies.

Zardoz (1974)

If you ever have a hankering for a film whose opening scene depicts a generously mustachioed Sean Connery wearing an orange diaper and cowering before a giant floating stone head that booms "THE GUN IS GOOD! THE PENIS IS BAD!" while spewing heaps of firearms through its stone teeth into the arms of worshiping orange-diaper-clad warriors, then, my friend, this is the movie for you.

My brother apparently thought it was the movie for me, because, after he caught it as a midnight cable flick last spring, he immediately ordered me a copy in anticipation of Christmas. (I got him The Thing and They Live.) Admittedly, we do share a warped taste in movies, which makes sense, seeing as we rented videos together during our formative years.

But I digress. Amazingly, Zardoz was directed by John Boorman, fresh from his success with Deliverance (1972). I've never seen Deliverance, though my understanding is that it involves, er, hillbillies. I have seen another Boorman effort, Excalibur (1981), so many times that I'm embarrassed to attempt a count. It's as clunky and awkward as its knights, who insist on wearing their big, shiny suits of armor while relaxing and eating dinner around the Round Table, but, oh, how I love it. The Grail sequence and closing scenes are simply sublime, and redeem much that has gone before.

But I digress again. After Deliverance, Boorman was given free rein to make the movie of his heart's desire. Zardoz was the outcome. Because it jumps around a lot and doesn't explain itself, it can be a little hard to follow. It's one of those movies that you suspect are best enjoyed in small doses while high on some controlled substance. With only my staid and sober brain to guide me along, however, I seem to grasp the following:

It is the year 2293. The world, unsurprisingly, is a whacked-out place. Mankind is divided into two groups: the Brutals and the Eternals. The Brutals are grimy peasants who live in a sad wasteland. The protagonist, Zed (Sean Connery), is an Exterminator, a Brutal whose job is to ride around shooting extraneous peasants. But there's a bit more to him than that, as we later discover: secretly, he's a super-intelligent mutant not over-fond of the works of L. Frank Baum.

The Eternals are immortal, though sometimes they're aged a few years as a penalty for rule-breaking. They're very pretty, both men and women, with the men wearing little crocheted sweaters with low-cut necklines. They're also quite impotent. They spend all their time eating fruit and getting mellow in small-group sessions. Their society is run by the Tabernacle, an A.I. resembling a talking Wikipedia, which they can access through their mood rings. They seem very smart and have mind-control powers, but there's something of the Eloi about them.

The Eternals live in the Vortex, a beautiful green valley enclosed by a force field, where they manage an old (Irish?) farmstead. It has one building painted blue to make it look futuristic, some plants growing in plastic bubbles, a mirror door leading to a complex filled with famous statues and paintings, and a bunch of groovy interiors whose spacial relation to the farmstead buildings is never elucidated, including an orange one that looks like the set of an old TV game show and another with sloping crystal walls behind which nude women float through space.

Not all is well in the Vortex. The Eternals have stagnated. Some, overcome with ennui, have become Apathetics who just stand around looking at one another all day. Others, recalcitrant troublemakers, have become Renegades, who are made old and senile but can never die. They're housed apart, whiling away their days in mawkish fancy-dress parties.

Zed rides the floating head into the Vortex. He becomes a domesticated animal and symbol of male potency. In time he's revealed as a messiah-figure come to bring the gift of death to the Eternals, which arrives in a crazy tragicomic bloodbath, the victims gleefully crying "Kill me! Kill me!" to their murderers. It ends with Zed siring a child with Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), an Eternal who had wanted to destroy him but now loves him, in the giant floating head, which is no longer floating. Their son leaves and they grow old and turn into skeletons, all to the tune of Beethoven's Seventh.

Visually, this movie is actually quite beautiful. Certain images and scenes definitely stick with you. On the other hand, it is horribly awkward in parts, beginning with the prologue, in which the cut-out, barely-mustachioed head of one Arthur Frayn (the voice of the stone head) floats around on a black screen, saying things like, "In this tale, I am a fake god by occupation, and a magician by inclination." Then there's the part where they show Zed some weird porno films to see if he'll get an erection, and the part where…well, you get the picture.

All in all, it's one of those trippy and highly symbolic but opaque movies they made in the late sixties and seventies, that leave you with a feeling of wondering what you just watched. The nuttiness of its plot as I try to summarize it reminds me of the fictional movie described by Philip K. Dick in VALIS, which for some reason remains one of my favorite science fiction novels. Dick himself was inspired by The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring the late David Bowie, which is another of those movies.

So, is Zardoz worth watching? Well, I enjoyed it, so I'm going to come down on the side of...yes.

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

A Hugo-winner based on a story cycle by Harlan Ellison, this one is genuinely worth watching, if you have the stomach for it. It's crass and brutal, and there's arguably a misogynistic slant to the whole thing, especially the ending, so be warned.

Taking place in the post-nuclear wasteland of Arizona (as opposed to the pre-nuclear wasteland of Arizona), it centers around the titular teenage boy, Vic (Don Johnson), who roves the landscape in search of canned food to eat and women to rape, and his titular dog, Blood (voice of Tim McIntire, who also sings the main theme), with whom he communicates telepathically. Vic is vicious, shallow, and not particularly intelligent; Blood is the real leader of their team. (There's an unsubstantiated rumor that the dog is Tiger from The Brady Bunch, which I dearly wish were true, but strongly suspect is not.)

The only civilization shown on the surface is a camp where wanderers can trade food for the opportunity to watch surreal pornographic films. There Blood sniffs out a female human, whom Vic follows with ungentlemanly intentions. But after he saves her from scavengers (shown) and mutants (not shown), she seemingly falls for him, and they proceed to do things that bore and disgust Blood. In reality, the girl, Quilla June (Susanne Benton), has been sent by her father (Jason Robards) from their underground city ("Topeka," a bizarre totalitarian parody of Midwestern culture) in order to entice Vic down so that he can be captured and impregnate all their females. This is not as happy a fate as Vic at first imagines...

The movie remains genuinely interesting and darkly humorous throughout. While horrifying in a way, there's a certain hilarious justice to the end, although Mr. Ellison objected to the last line, which he characterized as moronic and chauvinistic. The whole thing has a low-budget feel, but does well with what it has, and evokes classic science fiction literature in a way that most movies do not.


To read more of my rambling yet uniquely entertaining and insightful reviews of seventies science fiction movies, start here:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Force Awakens: A Belated Non-Review

Oh, Star Wars, how you hurt me! Against my better judgment, I went to see your new movie last month, only to have my heart finally steeled against caring anything about any of your installments ever again.

No, I don't intend to review your feeble attempt to recover from the embarrassing prequels, through which I continued to hope against hope that one day things would be like they were in the beginning, fool that I was. I won't give you that much time. In fact, I won't even take the trouble to insult The Force Awakens, except to say that it's an imbecilic retread of the original Star Wars (or whatever you're calling it nowadays) with a monumentally stupid, contrived plot (um, no one has a complete star map? really?) that serves as the thinnest of excuses (see right) for Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher to mug the camera, winking and simpering like idiots and prancing about in their old costumes, while giving in-character endorsements as though doing product placement spots for poorly conceived, inconsistently drawn, shallow, whiny, adolescent non-characters who run around shrieking like fanboys/girls and to whose further adventures and shocking familial revelations we will no doubt be subjected in the sequel, though it matters little to me since I'm certain never to put down the money to see another of these idiotic attempts to cash in on my childhood ever again.

Man, I loved you, Star Wars. It hurts me to say this. But it's true. You think I'm being too harsh? You should be thankful that I at least waited until all the people who were going to go see The Force Awakens went and saw it, so that I wouldn't ruin it for any of the poor benighted souls, even though, deep down in their hearts, they know the truth. You think I'm exaggerating? You know what? It's got 3.7 stars on Amazon right now, as opposed to, say, The Fifth Element, which has 4.4. Ouch. But you know, when I come to think of it, I too would rather slog through two hours of Ruby Rhod and that blue singing alien lady than The Force Awakens again.

Wait, what's that? Oh, you think this one is different from the original, because, instead of having a Death Star destroyed by a ragtag group of resistance fighters, it has a Starkiller Base destroyed by a ragtag group of resistance fighters? Sure, I guess it's different, in that the latter has pine trees growing on it, and, instead of immolating millions of innocent people I don't care about except insofar as their deaths make me feel like the bad guys are really bad, man, it immolates billions of innocent people I don't care about except insofar as their deaths make me feel like the bad guys are really bad, man. But then again, the first Death Star is handled in a dramatically effective way, whereas the Starkiller Base is…not.

Eh? What's that? You think your Storm-Trooper-turned-hapless-hero is pretty clever, eh? Yeah, I can just imagine the moment he was conceived in the writers' minds: "What if, like, we had this Storm Trooper, but he, like, turns out to be a good guy. And he's, like, all goofy and clumsy. That would be really cool." I especially appreciate how he has an utterly unmotivated change of heart because Blood! and rescues that Rebel Resistance guy because it's "just the right thing to do" and then gleefully blows away scores of his former fellows who presumably were kidnapped as children and subjected to the same brainwashing he was.

What? No. No, listen. This is it between us. Never again am I going to let you hurt me. If you really still loved me, you would at least have the decency to release the original trilogy on DVD, with the original special effects and no added scenes. But you won't, will you? You're just going to go on pretending that the insertion of that awkward computer-generated conversation between Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt was a good idea. Yeah. I thought so.

I don't do this lightly, Star Wars. I remember how we first met. It was the Eighties. Those cool long-haired denim-jacketed teenage boys who lived next door had practically every single action figure and vehicle ever made, including the Millennium Falcon, an X-wing, a TIE fighter, and an AT-ST walker, with all the characters stored in a set of snap cases, and they let me and my brother play with them when our mom went over to smoke cigarettes with their mom, who had one of those little trees with gold leaves in her living room, which isn't really relevant but helps set the scene. And then I saw The Return of the Jedi, which was somewhat bewildering, since I had no idea who the characters were, but also really, really cool. And in time I saw the others, and, after that, whenever we got to rent something from Videoland, it was a Star Wars movie, over and over again, so that we might as well have just bought the tapes for ourselves.

Well, listen, Star Wars. I've been seeing other sci-fi movies from the seventies. Movies like Silent Running and Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Logan's Run. Movies like The Omega Man and Soylent Green and Westworld. They aren't always great. Actually, sometimes they're pretty bad. They could never be as awesome as the original Star Wars. But they'll never break my heart, either.

Where the real money is made!
Stay tuned for my review of two more science fiction gems cult classics items from the seventies.