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:

Badlands
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.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Alone with Alone

From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were — I have not seen
As others saw — I could not bring
My passions from a common spring —
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow — I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone —
And all I lov'd — I lov'd alone —
—Edgar Allen Poe
When I was a boy I never fit in. Growing up in the big city, this was no problem. My school was cosmopolitan enough that eccentricities were tolerated. But things changed when we moved out to a small town in the country. I was nine at the time.

For one thing, I discovered that I could make rather cutting remarks without meaning to. This didn't improve my social status any. But I had little use for people anyway. Entomology was my great passion. I'd memorized the orders, families, and so on, but chiefly I was interested in hymenoptera. I often spent my recesses watching honeybees at the trash can. This bothered the monitors, who were always trying to make me play with other children, so I eventually took to collecting twelve-spotted cucumber beetles in the back corner of the playground. Another great passion was Greek mythology. I pored over the family trees of the gods and heroes and great houses, and decorated my bedroom with genealogical charts. My specialized interests have carried over into adult life, though I've managed to route them into productive activities.

Other peculiarities abounded. Anything colored, such as cereal or candy, I had to eat one color at a time in spectral order. I talked to myself under my breath. My appearance was always disheveled. Certain loud noises made me almost frantic, as did buttons on clothing. (To this day I don't even like saying the word "button.") I stuttered. I had about as much difficulty telling faces apart as some people would have distinguishing two sheep, which led me into embarrassing situations. (This is still the case. Once I recognized my wife's nose from a distance in a crowded public place, but it wasn't until I was walking past her that I realized my wife was attached.) Direct eye contact was unbearable, and I was sometimes accused of lying, as often happens now when I have the misfortune to interact with law enforcement officers or border patrol agents. I am also often accused of being on drugs.

Eventually I did make two friends, boys, and we joined the scouts together. Without them, and the scouts, I don't know what would have happened to me. They helped me to become a more integrated person. I'm friends with them to this day.

At any rate, adolescence was bad enough as it was. The cracks and crannies of the school day were filled with jabs of physical pain against a background of fear. But even when I was safe from the maladjusted, overdeveloped cretins who swung through our junior high like rogue orangutans, I was constantly reminded of my deficits through being unable to interact with my peers. They were maturing in ways that I was not. The social cues they thought obvious were to me a secret language. Also, I felt remote from myself, watching everything through inverted telescopes, moving my limbs as though my body were a skill crane, hearing my voice as from the mouth of a stranger.

As I've matured, I've come to realize that I lack the ability to interact with strangers or acquaintances. I have to study a person for a long time, learn their mannerisms and way of speaking, before I can interact with them in anything like a normal way. I have a set of rote responses and gestures that I use on people I haven't researched, but when these run out, as they quickly do, I become an inert object. Before I knew better, I generally gave monologues on my interests, but my schoolmates broke me of this habit.

It wasn't until grad school that I started to realize there might be something wrong with the way my brain works. Once I passed my qualifying exams my difficulties suddenly became almost insurmountable. It wasn't that I was unintelligent. I'd graduated with a 4.0 in my upper-level math classes; on the GRE, I'd scored in the ninety-eighth percentile on the analytic portion, and in the ninety-sixth on the language. But, you see, I'd gotten to the point where I was no longer able to learn from lecture notes and books. Taking and passing tests wasn't enough. I had to learn from people, and this I was unable to do. It just sounded like gibberish to me. And I couldn't socialize. One time, for instance, I asked my wife to the department barbecue. My mute inertness, to which I was of course quite used, so distressed her that she burst into tears, and we left early and never went to such an event again. (It didn't help that my political and religious views were, shall we say, in the minority, but that's another story.)

I also discovered that I had a hard time seeing the mathematical forest for the trees. In all things I have this narrow, hyperfocused, and perhaps rather pedantic view. What's worse, my field was differential geometry and global analysis, which is all about the big-picture view. What drew me to the subject and my advisor was this very view, and I believe it had a salutary effect on my mind. But at the time I was continually vanishing down rabbit-holes and getting lost in a maze of abstract considerations. My advisor, by all accounts a most terrifying teacher, a renowned geometer who contributes to string theory and listens to research lectures in his car on the way to work, had a way of turning me into a gibbering lump when I tried to tell him what I'd been about, and in order to communicate with him intelligibly I had to spend a significant part of my week just rehearsing for our regular meetings. My officemates sometimes referred to me as a "robot" (a term used by my junior high schoolmates) or forgot I was in the room, I was so intent on my studies and unresponsive to anything that went on around me.

Then by chance I read a story about an eccentric mathematician who never looked anyone in the eyes, and who, when invited over for dinner, ended up under the table with an encyclopedia. I'd never crawled under a table, exactly, but I'd done plenty of peculiar things, and his traits reminded me so much of my own that I felt certain we shared the same disorder. He had been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.

So, I sought out a psychiatric clinic specializing in cognitive disorders, where I was given a battery of tests. The upshot was indeed a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. The results of the IQ tests were especially intriguing. They showed that I was at the top of the population in some respects, but below average in others. This spiky pattern is apparently quite typical in the autistic. It explains why I can do some things so well, but still be hopelessly incompetent in others. Most significantly, I have a slow processing speed, so casual conversation is difficult, especially in the presence of background noise or music. Thinking about math while talking to another person is out of the question.

Paul Klee, Ad Parnassum
I gathered that my psychiatrist found my case an interesting one. I suppose I should be honored. At any rate, the clinic had asked for samples of my work (in younger patients this would be schoolwork), so I took in copies of my paintings. They were mentioned in the evaluation because of their obsessive, repetitive detail. This tendency of mine is something I'm conscious of, and have worked hard to bring under control.

At one time I'd wanted to be a fantasy artist like Frank Frazetta. But I was put off by the lack of freedom most illustrators have. After I switched from art to math I continued to produce fantasy illustrations, mostly not very good because my sense of proportion (or lack thereof) makes it difficult to draw good figures in a global sense. I've been practicing a lot, though, so perhaps one day soon I'll start producing some pulp illustrations. Recently I held an art show in a local gallery and sold ten pieces or so, and not all to my mom, either. But my approach to art is so different from my approach to writing that these days I'm feeling stretched a bit thin. So I'd like to illustrate some of my stories soon, as a way of relieving the tension.

And I guess that's really what this post is about. I'm analyzing where I've come from and where I'm headed because, for various reasons, I'm feeling discouraged right now. Teresa of Avila* says: begin and end with self-knowledge. So, what am I? What am I doing? Why am I doing what I'm doing? Is it really worth it? Is every single thing I do, every thing I produce and every judgment I make, warped by my disorder? Am I truly able to make contact with other people, or am I just shouting at passers-by from my little island in the middle of Town Lake?

Let's say I'm considering self-publishing my novel, with a Ballantine-style cover, maps, and illustrations prepared by yours truly. If I knew that only ten people would ever buy it (nine of them being me, my mom, and my seven aunts), and that only two of those (me and my mom) would actually read it, and that my mom would write a glowing Amazon review that would somehow make it clear that she's my mom, would I still do it?

And the answer, of course, is yes, because what the hell else am I going to do?

* I'm in formation as a Carmelite Secular, about to make First Promises, if the Council approves me, which they may not, since I make trouble for them just like I do for everyone else.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes

The other day I mused and complained a bit about the current Apes reboot. Well, I can now say that I've read Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes, originally published in French as La Planète des Singes in 1963, and have some further thoughts.*

To begin with, I'm a bit surprised that the book isn't better known, because it's quite good. I can't recall having seen it for sale or heard it discussed. My copy was picked up in a resale shop in Wichita Falls, and appears to be the first paperback edition in English. It doesn't exactly stand in the line of mainstream sci-fi at the time of its writing. Actually, the style made me think of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, William Henry Hudson, and the like. Perhaps it's overshadowed by the franchise it spawned.

It's a first-person narrative, via a framing story involving a bottle with a note (!) discovered in space, and has many synoptic descriptions and musings but little dialogue. I suppose it reminds me of The Time-Machine more than anything else, especially in the darkness of the tale. It ends with a horrific twist worthy of Rod Serling, though one more appropriate (to my mind) than the one in the movie. Tim Burton's much-maligned adaptation (2001) is closer to the novel in this respect, if in nothing else.

The story was, to me, quite gripping. The surprise ending wasn't hard to guess from the outset, but that didn't decrease my enjoyment. In general the movie follows it fairly closely, except that here the planet is a satellite of the star Betelgeuse. There are three travelers, as in the movie, and their respective fates are fairly similar. The exception is Professor Antelle ("against earth"? "counter-earth"?), who reverts to bestiality in a zoo, whereas his cinematic counterpart is merely lobotomized.

Yes, I say merely. The reversion of a great mind to that of an animal is terrifying to contemplate. In the novel we're given to understand that the humans of the planet weren't wiped out by nuclear war or plague. No, they lost their lofty seat through ennui and laziness, happy to be released from the shackles of thought and responsibility by becoming animals, driven at last into the jungles by the apes they'd raised as servants. This idea plays some part in the original Apes series, but never so starkly. A woman's racial memory holds the terrifying recollection that when the ape army finally descended upon them they carried whips, not guns.

At the same time, the novel contains some very humorous satire. To wit:
"With only two hands, each with short, clumsy fingers," said Zira, "man is probably handicapped at birth, incapable of progressing and acquiring a precise knowledge of the universe. Because of this, he has never been able to use a tool with any success. Oh, it's possible that he once tried, clumsily... Some curious vestiges have been found. There are a number of research projects going on at this moment into that particular subject. If you're interested in these questions, I'll introduce you someday to Cornelius. He is much more qualified than I am to discuss them." 
"Cornelius?" 
"My fiancé," said Zira, blushing. "A very great, a real scientist." 
"A chimpanzee?" 
"Of course... Anyway," she concluded, "that's what I think, too: our being equipped with four hands is one of the most important factors in our spiritual evolution. It helped us in the first place to climb trees, and thereby conceive the three dimensions of space, whereas man, pegged to the ground by a physical malformation, slumbered on the flat. A taste for tools came to us next because we had the potentiality of using them with dexterity. Achievement followed, and it is thus that we have raised ourselves to the level of wisdom."
Which just goes to show how meaningful a posteriori judgments can be.

Ape civilization in the novel is represented as on a level with twentieth-century Earth. I've read that the movie's Ape City was intended to follow suit, but that budget limitations forced a different approach. I wonder what other plot elements owe to this exigency? At any rate, I've always rather liked the set design of Planet of the Apes; it kind of reminds me of the crappy churches that got built in the seventies. The mixture of different levels of civilization – horse-drawn wagons and bronze-age architecture together with automatic rifles and brain surgery – continues to fascinate, but doubtless originated in this alteration.**

Why the filmmakers decided to set the story on Earth I'll never know, unless it was for financial reasons. Certain things left unexplained – the absence of the moon, for instance – seem to come from the novel, but don't make sense in the movie. Did they start filming before the knew how the movie would end?

In the final analysis the novel is far more powerful than the original movie, which descends too often into cheap vulgarity, while the recent reboot, however compelling an action-drama it may be, hardly merits comparison. The rise of the apes in the latter is represented as stemming from human experimentation, echoing in part the incoherent backstory of the original Apes prequel-sequels. But the novel's ape revolution, which is supposed to have begun in laboratories, is due to human degradation rather than some exterior calamity or biological chance. It could happen anywhere, whenever men are willing to lay aside their humanity as too burdensome. It's a cautionary tale, not about nuclear war or tinkering with nature, but about the potentiality of losing our dignity as human beings.

Made in the image of God. That is a truth placed on the narrator's lips. Terrible things happen when man forgets it.

* Pierre Boulle, I discover, also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai.

** Apes must ride black horses. It's a requirement.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Going Ape for Apes

Last weekend I went and saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. These are my thoughts.

First let me say that it's quite a decent sci-fi flick. It's convincing and thought-provoking. No small accomplishment for an nth-iteration movie about super-intelligent apes taking over the earth. What's especially well done is the constant tension between the humans and the apes. For these chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans are not just humans in ape suits. They are members of different species. This has to be handled much as one would treat man's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, except that here we have the complicating factors of prejudice (on man's part) and resentment (on the apes' part).* After decades of movies about alien life forms, it's pretty hard to capture the wonder and fear and insecurity that would attend such a meeting. That Dawn does so is, as I say, a major feat.

The action is very finely done and, like the first installment in this incarnation of the franchise, has a good, slow build-up for a climactic finish. The sets and atmosphere are excellent. Once again the human characters are a bit two-dimensional next to Caesar and his fellow apes, but that's understandable, because this isn't really a movie about humans at all. And that's as it should be.

Call me a doubly misanthropic quisling if you like, but I am and have always been wholly on the side of the apes. If I have any quibble with this movie, it's that it's too limited in scope. It doesn't go far enough for my taste. I wanted to see an ape-led conquest of the planet (it's called Planet of the Apes for a reason!), with the human survivors driven into tunnels or turned into mindless cattle. Horrible, I know, and not something I should admit in public – there's a reason I write with a pen name! – but there it is. If I'm watching a movie about the downfall of man as a species, there'd better be some major mayhem. Well, perhaps the sequel will hold more.

Admittedly this isn't a movie I could just watch over and over again. That doesn't mean it's not a good movie. There are lots of great films I'd pay money not to see. There are lots of B films and cult classics that I've watched till I memorized them. Dawn is...well, it's good, but it doesn't have the re-watch value of the original Planet of the Apes. More on that in a moment, after I descend into an enumerated rant below the jump break.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Upcoming Fiction ~ Updated


I'm pleased to announce that my story "Day of the Dragonfly" has been accepted by Beneath Ceaseless Skies and will appear there some time in the not-so-distant future. This will be my longest published story to date. It's inspired by various myths, Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, hardboiled fiction, and a well-known tale I liked when I was a boy but always felt ended the wrong way.

Update: I've just been notified that my first pro-published story, "Misbegotten," has been selected for the fifth annual Beneath Ceaseless Skies best-of anthology. As usual, I'm both pleased and honored. Check back here for future updates.