Friday, July 29, 2016

Oodles of Doodles

I have an art show coming up in September and am working to make a few quick pieces to fill out the exhibit. I've gotten two done in one week, which must be some kind of record for me. (Lately, anyway; in my tumultuous youth I used to dash paintings off in an hour or so.)

My art shows generally attract a few of my math students, so I've been under some pains to make mathematical art, dangerous though this is, beauty and truth being distinct transcendentals, &c., &c. A while back a student sent me a YouTube video about topological doodles. Being both a doodler and a student of topology, I added one technique contained therein to my Long Meeting Repertoire. Begin with a squiggle, turn each crossing into a twist, and, Voila!, you have a surface with boundary. In the fullness of time, this led to the advent of...the Chicken Man:

Chicken Man, 5" x 7", watercolor and ink on hot-pressed paper.
Born from a drawing completed on my mother-in-law's kitchen table. Is he a chicken? A man? An indeterminate embryo? A once-punctured non-orientable surface of genus 10?

He is, at any rate, inspired by Paul Klee and the ideas expressed in his highly mathematical Pedagogical Sketchbook. I regard Klee as one of the great artistic geniuses of all time; that I might link the present discussion back to the main topic of my blog, perhaps it would be apposite to recall that time I received the following disapprobation from the famous sci-fi author and political commentator John C. Wright for my opinion:
You sound very reasonable, but then I looked up the works of Paul Klee, and they were so abominably ugly and deranged that I admit the gulf between us can never be crossed. Artistically, it is the same as trying to reason out the sound of one hand clapping: you are looking at something meant to hinder the ability to admire art, to blind the eye and benumb the brain. It is garbage, pure and simple, and even simple drawings by comic book artists or commercial artists doing magazine covers show far more skill, sanity, proportion, color, composition, and execution. [...]
Why do you vainly tell me to ignore the evidence of my eyes, which I trust, and believe the conclusions of your judgment, which even the limited experience of this exchange proves is execrable.
Had you pointed me to some painting that was merely odd or incomprehensible to me, my reaction would be different. I could continue to give you the benefit of the doubt. Instead you have pointed me to the most absurd, ghastly, and disproportion bits of ugly lunacy imaginable, pieces that make me physically sick to look at, and call them good work. [...]
I am an artist. I know what art is because I can do it. I also know when I am looking at something far better than I do because I lack the skill, and I can see the garbage you like and I know I could draw as well with my left foot after my foot was run over by a tractor and I was pumped so full of painkillers that the lower half of my brain was sloshing.
It is also obvious that no further comment is needed. Why do you think words can make me see beauty where there is nothing but filth?
I like to look that over every so often, as a message addressed to me personally by a famous person, and a perfect specimen of some art form of which the name escapes me. Good thing I'm so indefatigably ebullient, or it might have hurt my feelings. But, as my father-in-law says, opinions are like, well, you know. Everybody's got one.

My Long Meeting Doodle Repertoire is quite extensive, and consists solely of mathematical explorations. That way, when my colleagues look over and see me doodling during an important meeting, they'll just think I'm a brilliant mathematician working out some new theory. Actually, I have to draw so I can listen attentively and recall what I hear, a fact that my fifth grade math teacher didn't fully appreciate. These days my sketches consist mainly of Platonic solids and the like, as I've been developing a graduate course on regular polytopes. Here's a few sticky notes:


My aunt bought me these "Dr." sticky notes for graduation, incidentally; I don't buy them for myself.


Why, you ask, am I showing you doodled-upon sticky notes from my office? Perhaps, my friend, you are looking for one of those "sensible" blogs.


Anyway, inspired by such, I spent the first part of this week super-doodling a sketch of the rhombic triacontahedron:

Triacontahedron, 5" x 7", watercolor and ink on hot-pressed paper.
The triacontahedron is a zonohedron, which, well, I won't bore you with the details. It's formed from thirty golden rhombi and is the basis of that cool lampshade you see in coffee shops sometimes. The coloration is determined by five intersecting cubes contained in the solid. The layout shamelessly mimics Leonardo da Vinci's polyhedron illustrations for Luca Pacioli's Da Divina Proportione. Pacioli is one of my mathematical ancestors I am "descended" from him, advisor to student, down through the centuries, along with about two hundred thousand other mathematicians – so this is something of an homage to him, as well as to H. S. M. Coxeter, from whose book Regular Polytopes I first learned of zonohedra.

My multicolored sketches were the wonder of my graduate algebraic topology class, so perhaps I'll continue to produce a few more watercolors along the same lines, for old times' sake.

Monday, July 25, 2016

On Reptoids from Alpha Draconis

In keeping with my time-honored tradition of writing a blog post whenever I encounter a network of ideas connected in any way, shape, or form with speculative fiction, but also in keeping with my equally time-honored tradition of not commenting on current affairs, I hereby commence a post about

THE REPTOIDS AMONG US


without explaining what, precisely, has motivated me to pursue this particular avenue of discovery.

I will tell you what set me upon the path, however.

One day at the office, whilst devouring the salami sandwich, granola bar, and green apple that constitute my lunch, I happened to watch a Mental Floss YouTube video about weird conspiracy theories. Among the factoids presented therein is the assertion that 12 million Americans believe that shape-shifting lizard people secretly hold the reins of world government. This is according to Public Policy Polling.

Now, if a survey company called me to ask whether I believe shape-shifting lizard people are in control of the government, I would respond with an enthusiastic YES, YES, I DO STRONGLY BELIEVE THAT. And surely I'm not alone in my love of trolling the strangers who call my house to ask stupid questions. So, perhaps the number is a little misleading. Still, there must be some truly devout lizard-people believers, right? A little googling (not for the faint of heart in this case) would seem to confirm that, yes, there are some believers out there.

The leading proponent is one David Icke, British ex-footballer and conspiracy theorist. He asserts that reptilians (or reptoids, as I prefer to call them) from Alpha Draconis have been selectively breeding the human race since its inception, creating the Babylonian Brotherhood, a hybrid race of Illuminati who now control the world. He suggests that the aliens first came to earth in search of monatomic gold, which enhances the capacity of their nervous systems ten thousandfold.

Hm. A race of superintelligent extraterrestrials who inhabited earth long before man's coming and now treat the human race as a pet project and secretly orchestrate events from behind the scenes? Remind you of anything? Here we have the connection with my blog's purported focus. It has been suggested that the Reptoid Hypothesis owes a large debt to the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith; they, in their turn, took much of their material from nineteenth-century theosophical writings on Atlantis and Lemuria.

The idea that disguised aliens secretly control everything of course puts me in mind of John Carpenter's They Live (1988). I love eighties sci-fi actioners, and They Live is one of the most enjoyable. The screenplay was written by Carpenter under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, an allusion to Dr. Henry Armitage of "The Dunwich Horror." Like most Carpenter assays, They Live has a B-movie feel, but it's also hilarious, sharply satirical, and eerily contemporary. It takes place in a not-so-distant future when the middle class is being squeezed out of existence, the underemployed live in shantytowns on vacant lots, racial discord and police brutality are on the rise, and a media-induced malaise seems to have overcome the human race. One day, a down-and-outer (played by pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper) discovers a pair of cheap-looking sunglasses that let him see a whole new reality. Turns out the rich and powerful are all aliens or people who have sold out to the aliens. This leads to one of the greatest and cheesiest one-liners in action sci-fi history: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum."

Now, it's one of my little pleasures in life to post extremely weird links and opaque commentary on Facebook to see if my aunts, cousins, in-laws, coworkers, and high school friends will think I've gone off my rocker. (I used to go in for politics, but eventually you learn what everybody is going to say, so why bother?) So I recently posted the above picture of George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Queen Elizabeth II as reptoids. Imagine my surprise when, immediately afterward, the "people also posted" thing popped up with three stories about...Donald Trump.

Let me pause here to assure whomever might be reading this that I, for one, welcome our new reptilian overlords.

Now, what's interesting to me about They Live (which is awesome and you should watch soon if you haven't yet) is that it appeared shortly before David Icke began his career as New Age prophet. Was it an influence on his ideas? Icke is also supposed to have been influenced by 1940s non-fiction writer Mark Doreal, who took some of his ideas from Robert E. Howard. So apparently there's been a strange cross-fertilization between weird horror and cranky fringe conspiracy theories. Each influences the other; both grow together.

For all that, though, there's a distinct psychological line between the weird horror fan and the wild-eyed conspiracy theorist. For the former, there's a big element of play, of fun. The latter is in deadly earnest. I would even assert that the fan is the unlikeliest person to go down that rabbit hole. They're inoculated by their sense of humor.

But what does make someone start thinking that the celebrities and politicians they see on TV and in the news are all reptoids in disguise? That, I'm afraid, is a question above my pay grade, so I'll just conclude with a word from our sponsor:


ADDENDUM: D'oh! While writing this, I forgot to mention another ridiculous eighties movie making use of the same idea: the inimitable The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984), which pits humans and Black Lectroids against the evil Red Lectroids of Planet 10. Less pointed, much weirder, with an awesome cast. I'll have to start reviewing fantasy and sci-fi schlock from the eighties sometime soon.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Comic Book Adventures

So, I've been reading me some Batman comics. Surprised? I don't put them down in my "Books I've Read This Year" list because I have my dignity, you know? Anyway, it's been a very, very long time since I read an actual honest-to-goodness comic book. But I like Batman so much that it seemed high time to delve deeply into the actual, um, literature. Graphic literature.

So far I've focused on the iconic entries of the eighties and nineties. I think my favorite is Year One (1987) by Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, et al. I love the way it drops the Batman story into the gritty urban reality of a Scorsese film. It was obviously inspired by Taxi Driver at several points. It also reminds me of Serpico. The art is awesome: clear, dynamic, and distinctly noirish, with dark, muted colors and free-flowing hand lettering. I much prefer it to the polished, digitized look of more recent comics. And the part where Batman battles the police in a bombed building and calls bats to make his getaway is super cool.

I also think Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986) is really great. It cracks me up, actually. With its over-the-top TV segments and epic brutality, it reminds me of Paul Verhoven's satirical sci-fi actioners, especially RoboCop (of which I'm rather fond). Its Batman is like a humongous, creeptastic Dirty Harry; the girl Robin looks about the size of his thigh. I know it's a polarizing comic. Personally I don't care much for the art. But as for the general plot, I think that Batman and Superman are big enough to take a little satire. Some people need to take a chill pill. It's got a storyline of almost mythic proportions, with tank battles, atom bomb detonations, apocalyptic showdowns, and Batman retreating to the underground with a creepy race of mutant followers at the end.

Another fave is The Long Halloween (1997) by Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, et al. It's got more of a slow-burning mystery plot, using the origin story of Two-Face to describe the descent of Gotham from merely crime-ridden to downright maniacal. The story, though suffering a bit from serialization (and the apparent need to work just about every single villain into the plot), is supremely engrossing. And the expressionistic art, with its big pools of black, snaky pen lines, and dynamic linear perspective, is simply beautiful. Every page is a joy to behold.

One thing that gets on my nerves a little bit is its constant use of one-liners from the Godfather movies. Do it once or twice, and it's a sly allusion. More than that, and it gets cute. All the time, and I start thinking that maybe the writer hasn't done all that much homework on the Mob. Halloween also takes a lot from The Silence of the Lambs. In general, I've noticed that comics are much more open to lifting material from mainstream sources than, say, books or movies. Not that that's a bad thing, as William Blake says in my sidebar. But it has to be done artfully.

Still, The Long Halloween is a monumental piece of work, and the chief inspiration for what's probably the greatest superhero movie ever made: Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.

A more recent entry that I've enjoyed, though not nearly so much, is Hush (2003) by Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee, et al. The art is beautiful, though so polished that I find it a bit boring at times. It does have lots of heaving bosoms, rippling muscles, and gritted teeth, if you like that sort of thing. The story is OK, too; it just suffers from expanded universe syndrome.

You see, unlike practically every other fanboy in the galaxy right now, I prefer my superhero stories to be self-contained. I avoid Marvel movies for that reason. They're like sitcom crossover episodes, or The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones. Ugh. To me it makes the superhero concept too familiar. I like Batman to exist in his own dark little universe, where you never quite lose the surprise and wonder that there is such a person as Batman. Bring Superman into it, and superhero-dom starts to feel like an exclusive yet chummy clubhouse.

But I do very much like Superman on his own turf. I'll probably delve into some of his comics before long, though I'm more familiar with them from of old. For me, Batman represents the mythologizing of hardboiled fiction and film noir, the melding of gothic horror with urban drama. Superman, on the other hand, seems to more akin to John Carter, Tarzan, and the supermen of early sci-fi. Both are inspirations in my own writing.

Oh, last but not least, I also read The Killing Joke (1988) by Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, & Co. A little sadistic for me, but I like the way it explores the weird love-hate relationship between Batman and the Joker. Its "origin story" for the Joker, presented through flashbacks in a delightfully noirish, nightmarish style, is distinctly underwhelming, but then again the Joker himself undercuts its reliability at the end of the comic. And the ending about as artful as they come. I mention this one mainly because the animated film, starring the voice talent of Mark Hamill, is soon to be released. I watched Batman: The Animated Series every day after school when I was in junior high, and, to me, Mark Hamill is the Joker. (Never knew it was him at the time, though.)

So, what's next? Do I venture into the New 52? I don't know if I'm ready for that yet, especially with all the dithering about DC has been doing lately. There are still a few titles from the eighties and nineties that I have my eye on.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

D.O.A.

I can breathe and I can move, but I'm not alive because I took that poison, and nothing can save me.
I watch a lot of film noir. To some people, the term means trenchcoated detectives, laconic voiceovers, femmes fatales, and cigarette smoke. I think of it more as a directorial style, a style that uses harshly geometric, minimalistic (= dark) photography and unpityingly logical plots taking place beyond the boundaries of "normal" society to create an atmosphere of emotional detachment and alienation. Yes, chain-smoking dicks and dames figure largely in such films, but that's because the world they inhabit lends itself so readily to the style. Some of my favorite films noir don't involve detectives at all.

That includes D.O.A., a film that wasn't appreciated at the time of its release (1950) and isn't very well known today. It's in the public domain, and you can watch it at the Internet Archive, which no doubt has to do with its obscurity. Edmund O'Brien plays Frank Bigelow, an accountant and notary public who, months prior to the opening, notarized a seemingly innocuous transaction, a chance happening that sends him down a black rabbit-hole of madness and murder. Most films noir have a certain sense of predestination, but this one takes it a step further: it's narrated by a dead man.

Grim humor and dark irony punctuate Bigelow's nightmare urban odyssey. In confronting his nonsensical, undignified position (the human position), he seizes control of his destiny, loses all fear, and achieves a kind of justice, only to keel over in the film's final minutes. One of the last lines is the homicide captain's dispassionate "Call the morgue!"

D.O.A. has some corny elements toward the beginning, as many films noir do, but rapidly descends into darkness, madness, sweat, and grit. I appreciate it a little more every time I watch it. It also has an almost science-fictional feel, with a search for stolen iridium and a "luminous toxin" that glows in the dark. And it must have one of the best openings of any movie ever:
Bigelow: I want to report a murder.
Captain: Sit down. Where was this murder committed?
Bigelow: San Francisco, last night.
Captain: Who was murdered?
Bigelow: I was. 
Anyway, because this is my blog, and I can do whatever I like, here's some of my favorite stills:
 
The opening sequence. Bigelow marches through a dark police station.

"I want to report a murder."

Pamela Britten plays Paula, Bigelow's sweet but slightly clingy
secretary-girlfriend back home.

The madness begins: a San Francisco jive club.

"He's flipped. The music's drivin' him crazy." Meanwhile, the faceless
killer prepares the luminous toxin.

"You've got it, all right." A doctor confirms his diagnosis with a glowing
test tube. Bigelow has one day to live.

"I don't think you fully understand, Bigelow. You've been murdered."
Bigelow races down a crowded street. A neat sequence filmed without
permit, and without the bystanders' knowing what was happening.

Irony.

Now on the trail of his own killer, he journeys to Los Angeles, where he
encounters tart, unprofessional secretaries...

...and gun-toting models.

Soon he's getting shot at...

...and chasing phantom gunmen through abandoned warehouses.

Someone doesn't like him sticking his nose in.

But he's utterly fearless now. "He's not afraid," says Majak. "You can tell
from a man's eyes when he is afraid. Look at his eyes."

Chester, one of the creepiest henchmen I've seen. "That's the way I wanna
see you go, Bigelow...niiice and slooow."

But it's Chester who goes, in a drugstore shoot-out.

Beautiful on-site night photography.

The final interview with a not-so-grieving widow.

Surrounded by people but utterly alone.

Crawling on hands and knees to gain a few hours of life.

A few hours to go to the final confrontation at...

...the Bradbury Building, Los Angeles. Is this actually the exterior of the
Bradbury, though? I don't think so.

This, however, is clearly the interior. Recognize it? It's where the climax
of Blade Runner takes place. A lot of movies have been filmed there.

The faceless killer.

The final shot. "Better make it 'Dead on arrival.'"

Friday, July 8, 2016

The City in the Sea

The print edition of The King of Nightspore's Crown, the second book of my Antellus tetralogy, nears completion. I hope to have it out sometime in late July or early August. This works out perfectly, as my novelette "Salt and Sorcery" is due to appear at Beneath Ceaseless Skies in early August. Don't miss it!

But, to tide you over, here's some images. First we have the (tentative) front cover.

 
Then my personal favorite, the spine:

 
And the back cover:

 
In case you can't read it, here's the back pitch as it currently stands:
It has been one year since Keftu, the last phylarch of Arras, established an itinerant society of misfits in the bowels of Enoch, the rust-stained city of stone, mankind's omega. The end of all change is at hand, hastened by the machinations of the veiled warlock Zilla. What can one outcast warrior do to halt the slow slide into tepid chaos? Keftu is about to find out. His quest will take him from the crumbling tenements of Enoch to the black jungles of Ir. He will form alliances the like of which he would never have dreamed. In the end, he may lose his soul to gain...
THE KING OF NIGHTSPORE'S CROWN
Last but not least, here is the map, turned sideways, as you will have to turn it if you wish to consult it while reading the story:


However, I consider it sloppy writing to rely on extraneous objects like maps, and the attentive reader should be able to gather all relevant geographical details from the text. On the second or third reading, at least. Also, I'm always wanting to get into Rhûn and Harad when I read The Lord of the Rings, so it's possible that this map is not entirely adequate...

Rather than pontificate on the story's various influences and antecedents, as I am wont to do, I'll leave you with Edgar Allan Poe's "The City in the Sea," which provides a fitting epigraph.
THE CITY IN THE SEA 
Lo! Death has reared himself a throne 
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie. 
No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently—
Gleams up the pinnacles far and free—
Up domes—up spires—up kingly halls—
Up fanes—up Babylon-like walls—
Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers
Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers—
Up many and many a marvellous shrine
Whose wreathéd friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in air,
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down. 
There open fanes and gaping graves
Yawn level with the luminous waves;
But not the riches there that lie
In each idol's diamond eye—
Not the gaily-jewelled dead
Tempt the waters from their bed;
For no ripples curl, alas!
Along that wilderness of glass—
No swellings tell that winds may be
Upon some far-off happier sea—
No heavings hint that winds have been
On seas less hideously serene. 
But lo, a stir is in the air!
The wave—there is a movement there!
As if the towers had thrust aside,
In slightly sinking, the dull tide—
As if their tops had feebly given
A void within the filmy Heaven.
The waves have now a redder glow—
The hours are breathing faint and low—
And when, amid no earthly moans,
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones.
Shall do it reverence.
If you haven't yet, I hope you'll consider checking out Dragonfly, the first book in the series, which is available from Amazon.

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Frontispiece and Map for Nightspore

A possible frontispiece for my upcoming novel, The King of Nightspore's Crown:

I spiraled silently down through the night,
slipping in and out of the pyramid's glow.
Scratch drawing in India ink. Since the cover is so organic and curvilinear, I felt that something starkly geometrical and minimalistic was in order.

And here's a pencil sketch of the map. It shows all the small sea of Tethys, rather than just its northeastern corner, where the first installment played out. Obviously the lettering has yet to be worked into it.

 
The Tower of Bel stands in the middle of the sea, linked to the coast-long city by a web of jointed viaducts. The equator, which I haven't drawn, runs through the Tower. This should go without saying, since the Hanging Gardens of Narva (reached from the Tower via space elevator) are in geostationary orbit, and such an orbit must lie over the equator, at a height about equal to the earth's circumference. (There, I knew I didn't take all those physics courses for nothing.)
 
I've decided that the image needs to sit sideways on a single page, rather than be split across two facing pages. The latter expedient is often resorted to in paperbacks, but here seems particularly unsatisfactory, seeing as how everything in my map lines up on the central meridian. The sideways map is a compromise, too, but The Silmarillion features one, at any rate.
 
Anyhow, Enochites imagine the solar system as revolving like a Ferris wheel rather than a carousel, so I suspect that they'd be OK with this either way.

Here, for comparison, is a draft of the map that appeared in Dragonfly:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Bit More Burroughs Art

As promised, here's some more wrap-around Edgar Rice Burroughs cover art. First we have a series of Ballantine editions printed in the sixties and seventies with paintings by Gino D'Achille. I bought them for a quarter apiece at our county library's book sale; no doubt some fortunate fellow townsman is in possession of the first three installments, a murrain seize him/her. I'm less enthusiastic about this art than I am about my Frazetta covers, but – what can I say? – I purchased them solely for the art. My favorite is probably the delightfully bizarre crab-people painting.








While each is more or less monochrome, they're in spectral order, ranging from red through purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and back to red again. In fact – get ready, I'm about to blow your mind here – in fact, I say, a certain amount of transitional coloration on the left-hand side of each image leads me to conjecture that they're all actually part of a crazy super-long Edgar Rice Burroughs rainbow mural.


Here I've just stuck the covers together so that you can get a general idea of what I'm talking about. They don't quite line up at the edges, and skip space between successive covers here and there. Maybe they're from several panels rather than a single one. In some instances at least I seem to see a single horizon extending from one cover to the next. Searching around the Internet yields images that corroborate the idea without quite confirming it. Here's the artist's website, which makes me think, eh, maybe not, but it's still cool to think.

Finally, here's one wrap-around cover painting by Michael Whelan (copyright 1979). He's a well known fantasy artist – he also did a very creepy wrap-around painting for a volume of H. P. Lovecraft stories that I own – and you can see much better images of his various Burroughs illustrations by performing a judicious Google Image search. The Thuvia painting is my favorite, because, with its dusky, dusty golds and blues, it most closely resembles how I imagine Barsoom.

 
The original is even more beautiful that this mass-produced and rather trashy-looking cover would lead you to believe. But I'll leave it to you to find this out for yourself, and instead conclude by contemplating Thuvia of Ptarth soothing the savage banth, which, to my mind, would look just right airbrushed onto an old van.