Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Neverending Story

You know, one fantasy novel I never hear much talked about these days is The Neverending Story. Published originally in German as Die Unendliche Geschichtein in 1979, it became popular here in the United States in the eighties thanks to that terrible, terrible kids' movie of the same (except for a capitalized E) name. Of course I loved that movie (which is terrible) at the time, and especially that sweet theme song. But just read the book (which I did when I was a teenager) and you'll see what a hatchet job the movie is. The author, Michael Ende, would seem to have agreed with that assessment. Let's not even discuss the sequel.

I recently read the book to my kids. I'd forgotten what a mind-bending piece of meta it is. We read it as originally published, with the page-size capital letters at the beginnings of the chapters (from A for Chapter 1 to Z for Chapter 26) and the dual colors of ink (red and green) to help you navigate between metafictional modes. I'm not exactly sure what Ende was getting at with all those layers of self-reference, so here's where you get to see me puzzle that out.

If you haven't read The Neverending Story, watch out, because I'm about to spoil it all, though I don't think it's really the kind of book that gets spoiled by your knowing the plot ahead of time.

Bastian, a doughy, wimpy schoolboy with a deceased mother and an emotionally frigid father, steals a strange book from an enigmatic dealer, and holes up with it in the schoolhouse attic. In it reads the adventures of Atreyu the Greenskin, the chosen savior of Fantastica, which is being devoured by the Nothing while the Childlike Empress languishes from a mysterious illness. (Unlike in the movie, the Nothing literally looks like nothing, as though you'd gone blind.) (The clouds in the movie look pretty cool, though.) The Empress, it seems, must be given a new name by a human, but humans have stopped coming to Fantastica. We gradually learn that the purpose of Atreyu's quest and all his sufferings are solely to get Bastian, the human reader, interested in the book. At the Magic Mirror Gate, it's revealed that Bastian and Atreyu are, in some sense, the same person, an allusion to the identification of a reader with the protagonist.

Bastian, in his reluctance to say the (slightly goofy) name he's thought up, forces the Childlike Empress to go to the Old Man of Wandering Mountain and have the story told again from the beginning, within the story itself. Here (and elsewhere) I catch just a whiff of both Nietzsche (the eternal return) and – just maybe! – The Worm Ouroboros. AURYN, the talisman borne by Atreyu and the symbol of the book as a whole, consists of two snakes biting one another's tails…

Once Bastian says the name (I'll let you read the book to find out what it is), he finds himself in Fantastica. In 100% green ink now, he cuts an impetuous and increasingly disturbing swath across a succession of bizarre landscapes in an adventure that reminds me a bit of A Voyage to Arcturus. The one command laid upon him is DO WHAT YOU WISH, which seems great at first. But it turns out that each wish costs him a memory. He starts to become insufferable as he forgets what he once was.

What everyone tells him, though, is that he has to go right through Fantastica, making whatever wishes come to him and following wherever they lead. Whenever he stops wishing, he starts going in circles. He tries to make himself emperor (no one can see the Childlike Empress twice), which doesn't go too well, and almost results in his becoming the demented resident of a city of mad would-be emperors superintended by a creepy monkey. Eventually the wishes divest him of everything – his very last memories – and leave him an empty shell.

The strange thing about The Neverending Story is that, despite its having more layers than a premium nacho plate, it's enjoyable as a story in its own right. The world of Fantastica is convincingly portrayed, and Ende's powers of invention are seemingly inexhaustible. One of the main pleasures in reading the book is experiencing all the surprising and beautiful things he comes up with. The story ends with…well, with something heartwarming and sentimental. I won't knock it, but if that were the point of the novel then it wouldn't have the power it has.

To me a lot of it seems to be a parable about storytelling. Bastian is the one person in Fantastica who can tell stories. The stories he tells come true as the tells them, but there are always unintended consequences: dragons that cause suffering, clown-butterflies who vandalize. What's more, Bastian's path of wishes and growing lack of self-knowledge make him less and less capable of telling stories at all.

The Childlike Empress is portrayed as indifferent to good and evil, but her mandate, to go on wishing, while not exactly "good," is fitting, appropriate, right. It's what Bastian's got to do. Similarly, telling a story is a spiritually draining process, but the teller must go where it leads. If it's worth telling it's got a certain logic that has to be obeyed. In her indifference, I think the Empress is merely Story personified. Morality for the characters in a story is one thing; the "morality" of the storyteller (which is neither more nor less than the virtue of good craftsmanship) is another. Someone I follow online, who professes not to read fiction, recently said something to the effect of, what kind of person takes pleasure in the misery inflected upon a character by a cruel author? I suppose it's possible to get a sadistic thrill in reading a novel, but for me it's really more the pleasure of seeing a pattern fall into place.

As I said, telling a story is a spiritually draining process. Literally, perhaps: it sucks something out of you. It's also fraught with peril. In setting yourself up as the emperor of your (invented) world, you  may find yourself doing violence to your own conceits and being relegated at last to the city of demented might-have-beens.

But maybe I'm just saying all that because I've been going in circles myself lately…

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Reviews, Local Fame, Cosmogony, Crime, Etc.

Charles Payseur of Quick Sips Reviews fame has reviewed Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Issue 35, and appears to have enjoyed "White Rainbow and Brown Devil." There's no better feeling than knowing that you wrote something that gave someone pleasure, so, thanks, Charles!

On the other hand, there's no worse feeling than knowing that you wrote something that brought someone nothing but annoyance and impatience, so I won't link the other review I've gotten so far.

I haven't been posting here much lately, have I? That's partly because I got a monthly column (about STEM matters) in the local paper, and the samples for my pitch and the first installment have sucked up most of my light nonfiction-writing energy. But now I'm so famous that people tell me all over town that they enjoy my writing, so it's definitely worth it. This month I wrote about honeybees and melon-stacking. The next installment will be about the tesseract, because a movie based on a certain book is coming out in March and will undoubtedly be showing in the local theater. I have small hopes for the movie, alas.

I have revised the Eladogran Cosmogony a bit, bringing my translation more in line with the original texts. You can now find it under the Library of Enoch tab at the top of the page.

I've been reading quite a bit of crime fiction from the forties and fifties lately, mostly thanks to a Library of America collection I checked out at the library. I'm also still working through the correspondence of Flannery O'Connor and The History of the Conquest of Mexico and a few books about four-dimensional geometry. I recently read and greatly enjoyed several volumes of Hellboy comics graphic novels. I got into these through the excellent Guillermo del Toro movies. A big red devil with sawed-off horns battling Nazis, Rasputin, and evil gods out of H. P. Lovecraft: what's not to love? The art is wonderfully expressive and minimalistic; I find that I'm not a big fan of the hyper-realistic, cinematic presentation of superhero comics these days.

All matters that might get turned into full-fledged posts at some point, if I feel like it...

Monday, February 5, 2018

"White Rainbow and Brown Devil" at HFQ

The vagabond conquistador Francisco Carvajal y Lopez continues his grim, rapacious, and not-terribly-successful trek across southwest Texas in the latest installment of his exploits, "White Rainbow and Brown Devil," a tale of high adventure and weird horror appearing in Issue 35 of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. Published out of chronological order because of the awesome Triple Crossover Event that, as the perspicacious reader may have noticed, took place at HFQ last year, it falls between "Heart of Tashyas" and "I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds," being a sequel to the former but preceding the latter by an as-yet-undetermined-by-historians amount of time.

"White Rainbow and Brown Devil" takes place in a geographically telescoped version of what's now Val Verde County, following the Rio Grande and the route of U.S. 90, from Sycamore Creek in the east, past San Felipe Springs, across the Devil's River, and through Seminole Canyon, to the Pecos River in the west. As my bio states, I'm a circuit-riding professor; this is one of the circuits I ride. (In a pick-up truck, not a horse.) Past Del Rio, the country is desolate, torturously prickly, beautiful, and slightly sinister, with ruined stone buildings here and there, and abandoned bridges from the old highway paralleling the modern one. The bed of the Devil's River is under the Amistad Reservoir now; one wonders what other dark secrets those placid waters hide.

Fate Bell Shelter, Seminole Canyon
Seminole Canyon, which is named after Black Seminole Scouts posted there by the U.S. Army in the nineteenth century, was first inhabited something like 10,000 years ago, with paintings in Panther Cave and the Fate Bell Shelter dating back some 8,000 years, among the oldest in North America.

Other items of note appearing in HFQ Issue 35 include stories "That Sleep of Death" by Mary-Jean Harris and "Things of Shreds and Patches" by Norman Doeg, and poems "Washer at the Ford" by James Byers and "Dragon Mountain" by Mary Soon Lee. The issue also contains HFQ's first foray into audio, with the poem "Fire Lover" written and narrated by Karen Bovenmeyer, who also narrates for the horror podcast Pseudopod. Please go check it out!

The picture that accompanies my own story is an original watercolor. You can read about it here.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Four-Dimensional Lord of Dance

I wrote two posts last year dealing with the fourth dimension:
The focus was mathematical, but along the way I looked at how the fourth (spacial) dimension appears in the works of authors like H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Heinlein, H. G. Wells, Jorge Luis Borges, and, most memorably, Madeleine L'Engle, whose A Wrinkle in Time is about to appear as an uninspired-looking Disney movie in March (sigh). I also talked about mathematical visionaries and mystics like Paul S. Donchian and Charles Howard Hinton, both of whom made real contributions to the field, if only in the sense that they developed and humanized what the academics were saying in their inaccessible research articles, and both of whom might be labeled as cranks or crackpots.

Since then I've done a little research on Hinton, Donchian, et al., and have found a number of other links between the idea of a fourth spacial dimension and various forms of spirituality or mysticism. For instance, the German astronomer Friedrich Zöllner (1834 – 1882) apparently tried to use the fourth dimension explain Spiritualist phenomena. In his eagerness, he was imposed upon by the medium Henry Slade in experiments that have since been debunked. Fantasy and horror authors in their turn used the claims of Spiritualism in their stories; some, like Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, actually subscribed to its views. Hinton, who wrote a number of "scientific romances" himself, was a post-Christian altruist who speculated that spiritual agencies might work by means of the fourth dimension and believed in something like eternal return.

Some Christians of the late Victorian era, disconcerted by the advance of materialism, attempted to colonize the fourth dimension themselves. For other Christians, such as the liberal theologian Edwin Abbott Abbott (author of Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, a book much admired by Hinton), higher spacial dimensions were merely a metaphor for gradual way in which the human mind must approach divine truths. 

Salvador Dalí appears to have used the fourth dimension in a similar way, in his famous 1954 painting Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), which portrays Christ crucified on the net of a tesseract / hypercube / 8-cell (Schläfli symbol {4,3,3}) hovering over a square grid (Schläfli symbol {4,4}), illustrating the incomprehensibility of God to man.

I have in my hands a Dover edition of Speculations on the Fourth Dimension: Selected Writings of Charles H. Hinton, which includes several of Hinton's scientific romances. It's edited and has an excellent introduction by Rudolph v.B. Rucker, also known as Rudy Rucker, author of the Ware Tetralogy and a modern tribute to Flatland and all-around sci-fi author of note. So no doubt I'll soon be posting about all of this yet again.


My post on four-dimensional arts and crafts includes an account of my building the sections and net of a 120-cell. More recently, I've printed and built the sections and net of a 24-cell, which is a regular four-dimensional polytope built from twenty-four octahedra.

The sections proceed as follows, with colors given as the craft paints I bought at Wal-Mart: (I) the octahedral cell at the "south pole" (Parchment); (II) the truncated octahedral section cut by a hyperplane through the midpoints of the edges "above" the south pole (Parchment and Real Brown); (III) the cuboctahedral equatorial section cut by a hyperplane through the set of vertices to which these edges connect (Look At Me Blue and Real Brown); (IV) the truncated octahedral section analogous to Section II but in the "northern hemisphere" (Look At Me Blue and Real Brown); and (V) the octahedral cell at the "north pole" (Coffee Latte).

The net has the "south pole" at the center and the "north pole" at the base. For reasons fully known only to my subconscious, but partly inspired by Dalí's painting above, I decided to model it after traditional depictions of the Hindu god Shiva as Nataraja or Lord of Dance, with three-fold rotational symmetry.

Shiva is the destroyer, and his dance is the cosmic dance of creation / destruction. That puts me in mind of the line from the Bhagavad Gita, uttered by Krishna, quoted by Robert Oppenheimer, and used by me in the title of a short story: "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds."

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Francisco Carvajal y Lopez: A (Self) Portrait

My story "White Rainbow and Brown Devil" is set to appear in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Issue #35 in February. It's a direct sequel to my first Carvajal story, "Heart of Tashyas," coming between it and "I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds," and takes place in the Southwest Texas border region, which is where I live, beginning at Sycamore Creek and traveling up the Rio Grande across Devil's River and Seminole Canyon to the Pecos crossing. (The geography is somewhat telescoped.)

The story will be accompanied by an original watercolor painting of its protagonist, the vagabond conquistador Francisco Carvajal y Lopez:

That is, essentially, a self portrait, except that I don't have long hair, I don't wear earrings, I don't encourage birds of the American subtropics to perch on my shoulder, and I don't go about armed to the teeth. Ultimately it's just a picture of the guy in my story, but to me it also asks the question To what extent do I identify with my protagonist? without really answering it. I looked to Frida Kahlo for inspiration.

Here's the slightly modified version that will accompany the story:

That's a green jay on his/my shoulder, incidentally. In the United States, green jays are found only in South Texas. The sewage treatment plant outside the town I live in is pretty much the northern limit of their range. I sometimes go there to bird-watch, and the jays are my favorite thing to see. A magnificent, lime green bird with a dark blue head. Much of the adjoining nature reserve occupies an old landfill covered with thickets of prickly pear; Carvajal's first adventure in "Heart of Tashyas" began at the foot of the small extinct volcano just across the highway, on a site now occupied by trailer homes and the ruins of a fort.

Here's the initial sketch:

The background is a prickly pear cactus wallpaper design of my own devising:

There are exactly seventeen types of wallpaper symmetry. My design is described by the group known as pg in the IUC (International Union of Crystallography) notation. I created it by drawing a single prickly pear image and copying it via translations and glide reflections.

I cast this wallpaper upon the Internet for noncommercial use, but I urge the reader to employ it in papering a room only with extreme caution.