Monday, September 8, 2014

The Best of BCS, Year Five

I would be remiss in not mentioning that Beneath Ceaseless Skies' fifth annual "best-of" anthology will be made available on September 10. From the release:
A woman climbs an ice-mountain, feeding her
companion her own blood to stave off Death.... 
A fisher discovers the sagas and songs sung
by centuries-dead barrow ghost women.... 
An asexual sun goddess sets impossible challenges
that fail to deter her incessant suitor.... 
A lover wends through city canals and told
tales in a living boat to woo a golden woman....
View full versionThese and other awe-inspiring fantasy stories await in The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Online Magazine, Year Five, a new anthology of seventeen stories from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, the Hugo Award-finalist online magazine that Locus online credits with “revive(ing)... secondary-world fantasy as a respectable subgenre of short fiction, raising it from the midden of disdain into which it had been cast by most of the rest of the field.” 
The Best of BCS, Year Five features such authors as Richard Parks, Gemma Files, Seth Dickinson, Alex Dally MacFarlane, and Benjanun Sriduangkaew. 
It includes “Boat in Shadows, Crossing” by Tori Truslow, a finalist for the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Awards and the Parsec Award, and “The Telling” by Gregory Norman Bossert, winner of the 2013 World Fantasy Award.
It also includes "Misbegotten," my first pro-published piece, which made Locus' recommended reading list for 2013. Please take a look here for a complete table of contents and purchase information.

The anthology will be made available on September 10 for $3.99 from all the major ebook retailers. All proceeds from the anthology go toward paying authors and artists, including your humble servant, for their work. Please consider buying a copy to support one of the only professional venues for secondary-world fantasy!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Logan's Run

The most recent selection in my program of seventies sci-fi films was Logan's Run (1976). (Previous entries here and here.) I'd been putting it off, as the reviews seemed somewhat middling, but I actually thought it was a really cool movie. It's based on a book, which I haven't read, but I understand that the plot is quite different aside from the basic premise. (FYI, this post contains a number of spoilers, so beware if you haven't seen it yet.)

The premise is a hedonistic future society where everyone is euthanized at age thirty so that no shadow of degeneration or death can cloud the universal satisfaction. Those who wish can undergo the quasi-religious rite of the Carrousel, rising up in a column of light toward the ceiling of the arena, with screaming throngs cheering them on, in a bid for rebirth. The ones who don't make it explode in mid-air. (Guess what? No one makes it.) Those who seek to evade their fate illegally are called Runners. They're hunted down by agents known as Sandmen. The city sees to reproductive matters, and the people are classified into genetic breeds with color-coded clothing; delinquent youth are shut away in the Cathedral, where they go feral in darkness.

The city is enclosed by an opaque dome, so that no one is even really aware that there is an outside. It's like a huge combination shopping mall and resort apartment complex (a lot of the film was shot in shopping centers and other businesses around DFW). But it's all very futuristic in a retro way, with lots of glass and neon lights, kind of like that salon you still see in malls nowadays, the one with all the black and mirrors. (Is it called Regis? I think it's Regis.) I've always been both fascinated and repelled by malls; when I was a teenager I had this recurring nightmare about being lost in a busy mall by myself. They're gigantic indoor spaces that just go on and on into infinity, kind of like the Library of Babylon, but with everything screaming for your attention, urging you to forget everything but pleasure and comfort. It's interesting and appalling to imagine a culture living inside a giant mall.

Incidentally, the set design (and plot) reminded me a lot of Blade Runner, though bright and glittering where the latter was grimy and rainy. The effects are generally good.

The protagonist is Logan 5, a Sandman assigned a secret mission by the city computer to find the location of the legendary Sanctuary where all the Runners go. He's artificially made a Runner but slowly becomes one in truth. Eventually, after various bizarre adventures and narrow escapes, he and his love interest find their way though the interstices and out into the world, where rocks are hard and plants are prickly, and come upon a ruined, overgrown Washington, D.C., evoked by some nice matte paintings. (I wish movies still used matte paintings. Crazy, I know.) There, in the Capitol, they come upon the Old Man (Peter Ustinov!), the first old person they'd ever seen, living by himself with a large number of cats.

For me this is the heart of the movie. The Runners are like children in the lap of their grandfather as they ask about his white hair, ask to feel his wrinkles. The film gets quiet and still, and just lets him ramble on as they question him, quoting bits of T. S. Eliot, mumbling about this and that, making little jokes. It's quite a shift from the frenetic pace of the first half of the movie. Logan 5 and the girl are filled with wonder to realize that there's nothing fearful about growing old and dying, that these are natural and even beautiful things. They resolve to take the Old Man back to the city to show everyone how mistaken they've been, imagining that their word and his presence alone will convince everyone.

Here I had the delightful surprise of discovering that some of the final scenes were filmed at the Fort Worth Water Gardens, which I visited this summer. I'd stayed downtown about a block away and taken my kids all over them. The most famous one (shown here in a picture taken by Yours Truly) provides the Runners a point of entry to the city, while the Old Man waits outside. It was neat to discover that I'd walked down the same steps as Peter Ustinov, though I didn't know it at the time.

The message preached by Logan is received with jeers and incomprehension. But when the computer melts down upon receiving his intelligence, and the city starts to destroy itself, he escapes and leads the people outside. Here the film assumes almost mythic dimensions as Logan harrows the "underworld" of the city. The liberated young people discover the Old Man and gather around him in wonder.

The point here, which I think many reviewers misunderstand, is not so much that people can live so long, as that it's okay to get old. I was surprised to discover the film to be so warm and life-affirming at the end. It's not a message you hear much nowadays, with celebrities striving to remain about thirty in appearance while aging well into their seventies, disfiguring themselves at last with countless plastic surgeries until they all start to look the same.

There's nothing wrong with growing old. Don't fly from it. Embrace it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Thoughts on Diversity in Speculative Fiction

Author's Note: This post continues to get a lot of hits, so allow me to add something in preface.

I sweated over the post for many days before making it public. Since making it public I've continued to edit it, amplifying something here, removing something there, as continued reflection has seemed to call for. My blog is merely where I think aloud, and what's most important to me is that I be clear in expressing my thoughts, wrong though they may be. I'm conscious that this is a controversial topic, and it would probably be the part of discretion to leave well enough alone. But I'm a person of color in addition to being a "neuroatypical," and I desire my own voice to be heard, on my rather obscure blog if nowhere else.

What I discuss here is very difficult to talk about without being offensive to someone, and I sincerely wish to avoid that. If I have written something that offends you, dear reader, I would ask you to please consider it in its proper context. If I seem uncouth, arrogant, or ignorant on certain points, this can probably be chalked up to my limited experience or knowledge. But criticism is also welcome. Though I come from an ethnic minority, this doesn't make me immune to racism. It's the part of wisdom, I think, to recognize that one has never really "arrived," and to continue to grow at all times.

*     *     *

I don't like to go into politics and current events on my blog, so I'll just say that I've been thinking about racism lately. Certainly it's on a lot of people's minds.

A while back I wrote a post about declining to join the SFWA because of what I perceive to be an emphasis on "diversity" (scare quotes chosen advisedly) as opposed to writing. And I still stand by that decision. Authentic diversity is laudable, but "diversity," well, it's tied up with all kinds of things, and I don't want people telling me what I should and shouldn't write. Or rather, I don't want to pay people who are telling me what I should and shouldn't write. I'll grant that maybe my opinion is mistaken – I'm trying to find my way here – but anyway I don't have a lot of spare cash, and I already spent my SFWA money on a trip to the beach.*

On the other hand, there is to be found among those who decry the alleged political correctness of the SFWA a touch of bona fide racism. It's not universal, and it's not even as prevalent as some people say it is, but it's definitely there, a dark but very reasonable-sounding undercurrent. And there are a lot of people who deny that racism even exists anymore, or, if it does, then it's racism against white people.

Part of what's got me thinking about all this is Rachel Swirsky's "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love," published last year in Apex Magazine and winner of the 2013 Nebula for Best Short Story. It can be read here, if you're interested. It's very short, and (to my mind, anyway) rather sweet, though sad. It appears to be the soliloquy of a woman beside the bed of her fiancé, a paleontologist, who lies in a hospital, beaten within an inch of his life by yahoos with pool cues. She imagines what it would be like were he a dinosaur, a T-Rex, and able to disembowel his attackers.

It's nicely written, more of a prose poem really than a story. What strikes me is that there aren't any speculative elements. So it was chosen for something other than its qualities as a science fiction or fantasy story. To a guy who writes yarns about warriors rescuing princesses and slaying dragons, this is kind of disheartening in a way.

So, what stood out to the judges? I'm guessing it was the part that speaks of "five blustering men soaked in gin and malice […] calling you a fag, a towel-head, a shemale, a sissy, a spic, every epithet they could think of, regardless of whether it had anything to do with you or not, shouting and shouting as you slid to the floor in the slick of your own blood." Five derogatory terms. Three related to sexual categories. One directed at persons from turban-wearing countries. And one directed at Hispanics.

We aren't told what sent this luckless paleontologist into a pool hall, nor what made him a target of gin- and malice-soaked pool players, nor what made them think he was a transsexual. The scene seems merely symbolic or representative, because it's hard to imagine such people calling someone both a towel-head and a spic, unless perhaps they suspect him of being a Morisco. Also, pool players are more likely to be soaked in cheap beer or whisky (and cured in cigarette smoke), at least in my experience. And "spic," well, I know the word, but I've never heard it in real life. Local usages differ, of course.

So the scene is clearly symbolic, an idealization. We're dealing with types here, not individuals.

One suspects, though, despite the choice of drink and terminology, that this story takes place in the boondocks, somewhere deep in the heart of Murica. Here's my projection, which may or may not be accurate: the paleontologist, exhausted from excavating fossils all day at a remote dig, yet exulting in his discovery of a nearly complete Acrocanthosaurus skeleton, decides to check out the local night life at Bob's Country Bunker. A savage beat-down follows.

Facetiousness aside, I once had an unpleasant experience of this nature, and I'd like to offer it by way of comparison. Read on if you dare.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Generations of Star Trek

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you the greatest Star Trek selfie ever, as seen on The Verge today:

What makes it so truly awesome is William Shatner's expression. He's like, "Who are all these people? I wish Spock were here."

(Who is that there on the right-hand edge? Is that Michael Dorn, a.k.a. Worf? Poor guy can't ever feel the love. And who is that guy in the back? Who are you, guy? Are you from Star Trek? No? Then get out!)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Archangelic Knight

My most recent piece:

Saint Michael the Archangel
5" x 7"
Oil on clay ground.
There's nothing particularly original about it. The format was sort of inspired by Pieter Brueghel's Fall of the Rebel Angels. Brueghel is one of my favorite painters. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was listening to The Book of the New Sun as I painted it, and I like to think that that came through a bit in the colors.

I'm hoping to sell it somewhere around here once I get tired of sitting back and admiring it. Saint Michael was a popular subject in the old Spanish days; one often encounters images like this in mission churches across the Southwest, which I'm fond of visiting.

For my next project I'm doing a big watercolor piece that's supposed to look like a groovy wrap-around mass-market book cover from the seventies. Whether it will actually be used for its intended purpose remains to be seen. But hopefully it'll at least be nice to look at as a painting.

Here's an initial sketch for the front:

It recalls certain Ballantine covers, but I've also been looking a lot at the Art Nouveau designs of Alphonse Mucha. The negative space will be filled out by mosses, critters, and swirls, of course. My plan is to use watercolor, like I said, though I suppose inks were used on the Ballantine covers. It's an experiment, so we'll see how it goes!
"O see not ye yon narrow road,
  So thick beset wi thorns and briers?
  That is the path of righteousness,
  Tho after it but few enquires. 
"And see not ye that braid braid road,
  That lies across yon lillie leven?
  That is the path of wickedness,
  Tho some call it the road to heaven. 
"And see not ye that bonny road,
  Which winds about the fernie brae?
  That is the road to fair Elfland,
  Where you and I this night maun gae."

Friday, August 22, 2014

Three from the Seventies

Lately I've been on this kick of watching sci-fi movies from the seventies. Being a child of the eighties, I grew up on Terminator and Robocop, and have never seen most of these. I started with The Planet of the Apes (which is 1968, I know, but close enough) and then Soylent Green (1973), which I reviewed here. Strangely, this is one of my most visited posts. Anyway, I've gone through a few more lately, including The Omega Man (1971), Silent Running (1972), Westworld (1973).

The Omega Man. Wow. I thought this one was really great. Based on the novel I Am Legend (more recently made into a film starring Will Smith), the premise is that biological warfare has wiped out practically the entire human race, except for one man, an Air Force doctor (Charlton Heston) who managed to inoculate himself during the catastrophe. He's the Omega Man.

The movie opens with Heston's character driving down a perfectly silent, empty L.A. street. There's something mesmerizing about these first scenes depicting his utter isolation in the quiet earth. Then he spies motion in a building, and opens fire.

For there are a few other survivors, but they're are all infected with the virus. Instead of killing them it's turned them into psychotic nocturnal albino mutants. They call themselves the Family, and live a communal, quasi-religious lifestyle under the leadership of a former news anchor. They dress like Dominican inquisitors, and their only purpose in life is to destroy all vestiges of the old culture and learning that brought about the downfall of man. Every night they assail the Omega Man's fortress-like townhouse, whose interior has a really cool, seventies-style ante-bellum décor going on. The Omega Man divides his time between playing chess against a statue and throwing firebombs out the window at the Family.

Every time he gets into a fight with the Family, this funky seventies music starts playing. It's just really awesome. And Heston is great at playing the cynical, self-confident a-hole with a penchant for snappy one-liners. Eventually he finds this enclave of people – children, mostly – who have the virus but haven't yet turned into psychotic nocturnal albino mutants, though this could happen at any moment, especially when the plot seems to call for it. They rescue him from execution when he's captured by the Family, and there's a great chase scene with him and Lisa, played by the lovely Rosalind Cash, together on a motorcycle. The seemingly ice-cold Lisa eventually warms up to him. Complications ensue. The finale is luridly dramatic and unsubtle as can be, complete with religious imagery, but still quite powerful.

All in all a pretty neat movie, and one I'm surprised I hadn't heard more about. I guess people find it dated. There are a lot of references to the Black Power movement, Woodstock, etc.  And the music, as I said, is pretty funky. Maybe it comes of being more a fantasist than a scientifictionalist, but things like that never bother me. The more authentically period the piece is, the better. My only real complaint with the movie is that the lighting is pretty bad in some interior scenes.

Silent Running. And then there's Silent Running. Silent Running is...special. It opens with a throaty Joan Baez song, and close-ups of critters sitting in moss like at the beginning of a Gnomes cartoon. A goofy-looking guy with unkempt hair comes into view, wearing something like a Franciscan habit made from terrycloth bathrobes, cuddling a bunny rabbit and talking to it in soothing tones.

In the future, it seems, man has stripped the earth of all biota, preferring to live in sterile, climate-controlled comfort. The only living forests exist in spaceborne biodomes owned by American Airlines hovering (for some reason) in the vicinity  of Saturn. (Why would the fleet fly into a gravity well like that?) Our very special friend lives and works aboard one of these with three other guys. He lives the life of a Carthusian. The other guys entertain themselves by crushing flowers and teasing him. He responds by blowing up at them and delivering impassioned monologues about nature and organic food. Maybe it's just that I'm a horrible person, but I find these tirades delightfully hilarious. Actually, I suppose it's because I was a lot like him when I was a kid, and would fly into passions in the defense of flowers and insects from the other boys.

The biodomes look exactly like life-size versions of model railroad forests, which I suppose is appropriate, because the models they use for exterior shots are clearly...model railroad forests. (The movie is directed by Donald Trumbull, who did the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. People say the effects for this movie are just as good, but I don't see it. The models are very model-looking, and space backgrounds just look like blown-up photos pasted to the wall behind the ships.) These forests are inhabited by rabbits, leopard frogs, red-eared sliders, squirrels, and garden snails. Basically, the kinds of animals you can obtain for cheap from any biological supply house or pet store, or see in Central Park.

When the crew is inexplicably ordered to destroy all the domes, our friend goes berserk and murders his three companions. He then fakes his death and takes off with the ship. At one point he has his robot drones bury the body of his friend in the garden, and delivers this bizarre, tearful eulogy to the camera he's using to watch their progress. (I guess he's too queasy to do the dirty work himself.) For a while he lives the simple life with his drones, who he names Huey, Dewey, and (posthumously) Louie. These are played by quadruple amputees in little metal boxes.

"This is actually one of nature's greatest gifts!!!"
Eventually our friend notices that the plants are dying. Panicked, he racks his brain for the cause. He consults books, but to no avail. What could be wrong??? Then a chance communication with a rescue ship gives him the answer: it's really dark way out there in space! Of course! Plants need sunlight to live!!! He then sets up some really bright lights. Problem solved. (They're seemingly incandescent bulbs, which can't be used to grow plants, but no matter.) All along I'd kind of been hoping it was all the processed food his crewmate had consumed, his decomposing body releasing the chemicals into the soil, but no dice.

So, one of the things I find strange about this movie is that, for all its tree-huggery, it actually shows an extremely superficial acquaintance with nature. It's like it was made by those granola hipsters who drive tiny cars plastered with self-congratulatory bumper stickers but don't really know the least thing about the real wild or spend any time outdoors aside from the city park. The syrupy Joan Baez ballads just top it off. Being a pretty ecologically aware guy myself, I was kind of disappointed with this.

So, if you like unintentional sci-fi hillarity, or are a granola hipster who drives a tiny car plastered with self-congratulatory bumper stickers, give Silent Running a watch.

Westworld. This is, of course, the famous precursor to Jurassic Park, written and directed by Michael Crichton. Unsuspecting tourists travel to a theme park "where nothing can go wrong." Things go wrong. Death ensues.

Here the park features hedonistic re-creations of the Old West (West World), ancient Rome (Roman World), and the Middle Ages (Medieval World), each peopled by lifelike androids. For a thousand bucks a day you go there and do what you like. This includes seducing lovely robot-damsels, which, to me, is about as appealing as romancing a bowling shoe, but, you know, different strokes for different folks.

The main plotline is about a pair of guys who spend their time in West World. One has been there before, and inhabits his gunslinger role with self-confident gravitas; his naïve newbie friend is less certain of himself, and more enthusiastic. What's cool to me is that when the robots start running amuck, as we knew they would, it's the experienced one who gets killed right off the bat, and his newbie friend who manages to survive.

I really enjoyed this one. You can tell Terminator took a lot from it, especially the sequence when our hapless tourist is being pursued by the relentless Gunslinger robot (played by Yul Brynner, who reprises his role from The Magnificent Seven). In comparing it with Jurassic Park, I find it less a cautionary tale and more a story about the consequences of unbridled self-indulgence. In this it fits in well with all those disaster movies they made in the seventies. The theme park is clearly based on Disney World (which opened in 1971) with its animatronic robot rides and vast network of secret tunnels for workers and technicians. As I hate Disney World, I thought this was great.

Next on the to-watch list is Logan's Run. What I really want to see is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I'm having trouble renting it. I may just have to buy a copy.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why Prince Caspian Sucks

So, I've been reading the Narnia books to my kids. We're reading them in the proper order, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, followed by Prince Caspian. Last night we started The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my second favorite of the series. (My favorite is The Magician's Nephew.) When I was a kid, Prince Caspian was my least favorite. After reading it to my kids, I now know why.

It kind of sucks.

The reason it sucks is that it's basically the same story as Wardrobe, but told in a convoluted way, with a several-chapters-long backstory break in the middle of the novel. What possessed Lewis to write it like this I can't say – I suppose it was his feeling that the boy Caspian was somehow the real protagonist, but that the story needed to be told from the viewpoint of the four children (P, S, E and L), beginning in England as in Wardrobe – but it makes it much harder for little kids to follow than the straightforward, linear Wardrobe. What's worse, the focus is split between the four children and Prince Caspian, resulting in a certain amount of narrative dullness, and there's a lot of secondary characters to keep track of for such a short book. The fairy tale manner of Wardrobe is here replaced with a more contemporary (hence, dated) idiom, with slangy bickering, and cute tongue-in-cheek jokes that have to be explained to young readers. (My children demand that every single thing they don't understand be explained to them, which makes even a short chapter a pretty long read.)

But I guess what really gets me is the self-conscious smugness with which Telmarine society is upended by Aslan, Bacchus, and the rest. Lewis had a lot of axes to grind as an author, and he really lets himself go here. First a bridge is destroyed. I guess that's neither here nor there, but what, after all, is wrong with a bridge? It's a nice stone bridge, not a nasty modern truss bridge. Then there's a girls' school. The one girl of whom Lewis approves joins the throng; the rest, who, we're told, have plump legs, all run away in fear with their mean teacher. A boy is being beaten by a man. The man then turns into a tree, and the boy runs away laughing. (Is the man his father? "Sorry, Dad, you're a tree now! Ha ha!") Then there's a boys' school, where the piggish boys who like to bully their teacher are actually turned into pigs. There's all this wine-drinking and partaking of tasty snacks and dancing and wild chanting and wanton destruction of private property.

Which is not surprising, considering that this is Bacchus, after all. You know, the Bacchus whose maenads ("madcap girls," Lewis calls them) tore the grieving Orpheus to pieces. What is slightly surprising is Lewis' decision to link Bacchus so closely with Aslan, who is (apparently) an incarnation of Christ. There's an old tradition of opposing Dionysus to Apollo, the ecstatic subhuman to the serenely rational superhuman, the bacchanalia to the logiche latreia of Romans 12:1. In The Spirit of the Liturgy Joseph Ratzinger makes the case for siding Christ with Apollo, against Dionysus. Dionysian worship, he says, is dehumanizing, an irrational intoxication that frees the votary from the "burden" of being human, leading ultimately to madness and death. It forms a closed circle, with the worshipers all facing one another, as in the Israelites' ecstatic adoration of the Golden Calf, rather than facing outward together, toward the Shekhinah of the Lord. But Lewis indicates again and again that he takes the opposite view. There is only one formal, liturgical religion in Narnia, and that is the worship of Tash the Inexorable.

Lewis, though no seer himself, comes of a long line of heterodox visionaries, like Boehme, Swedenborg, Blake, Novalis, and MacDonald, all in reaction against ossified human institutions. The Kabbalah is referenced explicitly in That Hideous Strength, implicitly in Wardrobe. Plato, the father, or step-father, at any rate, of Gnosticism, is cited on the threshold of heaven in The Last Battle. To tell the truth, I'm sympathetic toward these strands of human thought, taken in their original context. I would want to rebel against a gray and sterile state church or a tyrannical government, even if it meant going a bit overboard on the other side. I can understand the need to feel like you're escaping from the Matrix. At the same time, well, you know, we need institutions in order to live in a community. Institutions are indifferent; they can be bad or good, or, like most things human, a mixture of the two.

Well, Mr. Lewis is welcome to his views; I'm not really trying to argue for the rightness or wrongness of any particular idea here. It's just that, as a father and a citizen, I try to make the best of the institutions with which I have to deal, like the parish church, the city council, and the public school, and it's kind of demoralizing to have a book I'm reading to my kids be so very negative and subversive about it all.

More irritating, perhaps, is his handling of Susan. Here I tread cautiously, as this is a sensitive topic. I'm familiar with the Neil Gaiman story, &c., though I've never seen fit to read it, having better things to entertain myself with. But I can also see why people are bothered by Susan. She's portrayed from the very first as being whiny, craven, and tiresome. Her besetting sin is trying to be a grown-up. When she doesn't make it to the Narnian heaven in The Last Battle this is explicitly stated as the reason. Lipstick (oh horror!) is mentioned. It's a strange streak of vindictiveness that runs through the Chronicles and, in my opinion, greatly mars their innocent beauty.

Lewis was, in fact, a bit of a misogynist. I use the word in the sense that the narrator of H. Rider Haggard's She (who also happens to be a don) uses it to describe himself, namely, as someone who has little understanding of or use for females, through without specific rancor. A lot of Lewis' apologetic works (and I read them all, many years ago) single out certain personality types that I suppose struck him as being worthy of having their foibles and sins analyzed. The "womanish woman" is the type handled most exhaustively.

My daughter is a bit of a tomboy, but she also likes to look nice and practice ladylike manners on occasion. It's just part of growing up. I don't want to make her feel like she's foolish or frivolous or bad for acting like a lady. I don't really want her to be self-conscious about it at all. And that is precisely what that little remark about Susan's lipstick would do.

So, I suppose we'll have to skip The Last Battle, at least for a few years yet. I have some philosophical objections to it anyway. How I'll do it without making a big scene I don't know, for my children aren't ones to let little inconsistencies slip by, and I don't really want to go into my reasons at this point. I guess the old Blank Wall of Vague Parental Reluctance will have to come into play.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Small Stellated Dodecahedron

The other day my four-year-old daughter asked me to draw her something on her Magna DoodleTM. Happy faces, hearts, flowers, and trees being beneath me, I accordingly drew her a small stellated dodecahedron, which is a Kepler-Poinsot solid. The next morning she came to me, fighting to hold back tears, to tell me that she'd accidentally erased half of it, and to ask me to redraw it for her. So I said, sure, let's do one on paper this time. She went and got me a piece of cardstock and her box of markers, and I whipped out the diagram shown here. I'm posting it for no other reason than to celebrate how awesome I am for being able to draw a small stellated dodecahedron without making any mistakes, just off the top of my head, in the space of a few minutes while I was on the way out the door for work. There are many, many years of doodling during classes and meetings behind that skill, my friends.

The regular or Platonic solids are those convex polyhedra that can be formed each from one type of regular polygon in such a way that each vertex is congruent to every other vertex. There are exactly five: the tetrahedron (formed from four equilateral triangles), the octahedron (eight equilateral triangles), the icosahedron (twenty equilateral triangles), the cube (six squares), and the dodecahedron (twelve regular pentagons). They bear Plato's name because they were mentioned by him in his dialogue Timaeus, but it's his colleague Theatetus who's credited with proving that there are only five. Euclid considered them each in turn in Book XIII of his Elements.

If we relax our definition of "polygon" to allow the sides to intersect one another, then "stars" are also regular polygons, the most familiar being the five-pointed star, or pentagram. It's therefore reasonable to ask if we can form regular "polyhedra" out of pentagrams. The answer is that exactly two are possible: the small stellated dodecahedron (shown) and the great stellated dodecahedron (which has pentagrams meeting in threes instead of fives). They were discovered (or recognized, anyway) by Johannes Kepler, hence are known as the Kepler solids.

Allowing the faces of regular polyhedra to intersect opens up two more possibilities we didn't consider before: the great dodecahedron (assembled from twelve ordinary pentagons) and the great icosahedron (assembled from twenty equilateral triangles). They were discovered by Louis Poinsot, and are dual to the Kepler solids.

So, with these relaxed definitions, there are nine regular solids rather than five.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

God Stalk by P. C. Hodgell

I've just finished God Stalk by P. C. Hodgell. I've had it in the back of my mind since the vespid Fletcher Vredenburgh recommended it at Black Gate and on his blog. Then when I was at the county library the other day I saw it and checked it out.

It's a first-edition copy, published by Atheneum in 1982. Atheneum dropped Hodgell way back when but the book has since been republished by Baen, though unfortunately with the bursting mammary promise that typically graces their covers. I guess they know their readers' interests better than I do, but if I bought the book for its appearance I'd be sorely aggrieved to discover the heroine to be as unencumbered by superfluous flesh as any good thief must be.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. God Stalk is a city tale. It begins with the heroine's entrance upon ancient Tai-Tastigon, and ends with her departure. It even provides us with a schematic map. I like city tales. There's something somehow...well, I don't know if cozy is the right word, exactly, but I can't think of a better. The city is ancient and storied, with curious temples, high towers of oriental resplendence, sprawling ruins, demon-haunted back streets, and, naturally, a healthy thieves' guild. There's even an independent society inhabiting the city's rooftops. The story takes place over the course of a year, marked by the celebration of religious festivals.

Several little details leaped out at me, making me think of C. S. Lewis' list in An Experiment in Criticism. Here's a good one:
Apprehensively, she recited the charm. It usually took Cleppetty half an hour to ready her bread for the oven; Jame's rose in five minutes. When the widow sliced into the baked loaf, however, they discovered that its sudden expansion had been due to the growth of rudimentary internal organs.
That actually made me laugh with delight. There are many others, such as the Book Bound in Pale Leather (disgustingly warm to the touch, and subject to bruises when mishandled), or the Peacock Gloves (embroidered with threads "gleaned over a lifetime from the floor of the city's finest textile shop").

The cast of characters is varied and colorful, with some touches of Dickensian multiplicity and eccentricity, especially around the inn where Jame domiciles for the majority of the book. Hodgell explains on the dust jacket that she's a doctoral student in English, specializing in nineteenth-century literature. God Stalk "in many respects is a Victorian novel," she says. "Readers who have difficulty with the plot might bear this in mind." Hm, I can just imagine putting that in a query letter to a publisher! I suppose I can see what she means by it, though fortunately I have no objection to Victorian literature.

There's a mysterious, almost mythical backstory in God Stalk which I assume gets further revealed in the sequels. I suspect there's more there than what I grasped the first time around, and I think the book would definitely stand a re-reading. Which is my criterion for whether a book is worth reading in the first place.

Hodgell has a website with some biographical information. Her publication history has been difficult, to say the least, with her first publisher dropping her, her second going out of business, and her third going bankrupt while still owing her five years' worth of back pay. Now the series is being put out by Baen. Wikipedia tells me that she taught English at the university but retired in 2006 to pursue writing full-time. She's seems a bit rueful about her academic career, to which I can certainly relate, but also stubbornly intent on getting her work out, which I find inspiring.

Hodgell's website also has pictures of some of her art (stained glass, embroidery, paintings, etc.). Her embroidery is really fine, with a couple of pieces seemingly inspired by Beardsley's illustrations to Malory, and one by Georgia O'Keefe. There's also a few nice paintings illustrating her writing.

I enjoyed God Stalk and will definitely return to it. The county library also has Dark of the Moon, the second in the series (published in 1985), so I suppose I'll move on to that one sometime soon.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Badlands and Baldanders

Another recent painting:

5" x 7"
Oil on gesso on hardboard.
It's not the best scan. I was using a product called Ampersand Gessobord, which has a pebbly tooth. I always just scan my paintings, as I don't have a good set-up for photographing them. Usually I prefer using Claybord, which consists of a hardboard panel coated with a kaolin clay ground. It's very absorbent, which most people don't like, but I like how smooth it is, and don't mind building my paintings up in layers. It gives them a kind of luminous quality, and scans well. I wanted to finish this one pretty quickly, though, so I went with the gesso.

(Some time soon I want to try a painting on tin, as in the Mexican ex voto tradition. An artist friend of mine, who, unlike me, is from Mexico, has been doing a number of these, and knows how to prepare the metal properly. He showed me a couple retablo-style pieces by a friend of his who has a painting in the San Antonio Museum of Art. They looked almost medieval, and I thought them quite beautiful, though of course they have a strong dose of irony. I prefer to do things straight-faced, without self-reference.)

Anyway, the above picture is an homage to Georgia O'Keefe, of course, though her hill and mesa pictures always depict New Mexico. I went camping at Badlands National Park in South Dakota with my kids some time back, and the landscape just made my heart sing out. I'd never seen anything like it. Since then I've been itching to celebrate it in painting.

I have a little studio in the upstairs corner of my house. It gets north light, and I can look over the backyard from the window, and watch my children swinging, or the chickens chasing each other around. Lately I've been listening to audiobooks while painting. This has the amusing effect that each passage of the painting gets identified in my mind with some scene from the book. I was listening to The Lord of the Rings while painting Badlands. A couple watersheds of the main mountain, for instance, make me think of the Prancing Pony. Badlands and the foreground and statue of my Santa Maria sopra Minerva painting required all three volumes of LOTR plus Paradise Lost. I guess I paint pretty slowly.

Right now I'm working on one of Saint Michael the Archangel casting the devil from heaven – perhaps this is rather mercenary of me, as traditional religious pictures are the only things that seem to sell around here, close to the border with Mexico. Most appropriately, I've gone through The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator, but I'm not done with the image yet. I have a couple weeks to wait for my new audiobook credit, though, so Moby-Dick will have to fill in the gap.

I've kind of been working my way toward abstraction from two different directions, mathematical and artistical. My recent show featured both paintings and digital collages. Its title was Abstraction, and my artist's statement is as follows. (As is usual for such things, it's annoyingly assertive, universal, and elliptical.)
By abstraction the rational mind isolates an aspect of nature and examines it in itself. 
Mathematical abstraction. When we see five stones, or five sheep, or five men, we abstract the quantity five, which in itself exists nowhere, and thus begin to people an intellectual universe. This is a leap of insight. There are tribes of aborigines for whom there are no numerical concepts beyond one and many
Artistic abstraction. The artist sees with the corporeal eye (or the mind's eye, which views concoctions whose ingredients came through the corporeal eye) and, selecting some element out of the world of form and color, digests it and creates a new work by hand. 
These are separate and distinct. Beauty is truth, truth beauty. But the beauty of truth is not the truth of beauty. 
Art is neither illustration, nor expression, nor communication. It is creation of the visible.
One of these last assertions  – art is not illustration (though it can of course be illustration in specific instances) – puts me in mind of William Blake, who strenuously asserted the contrary. To him, art was neither more nor less than illustration. I am a great admirer of his work, both his poetry and his illustrations, but here, obviously, I've come to disagree with him. His view makes art subordinate to knowledge, beauty subordinate to truth, and is typical of the gnostic view of things. Etienne Gilson has a good discussion of this controversy in his Forms and Substances in the Arts.