Sunday, August 2, 2015

"The Scale-Tree" Reviewed

Lois Tilton has reviewed "The Scale-Tree" at Locus Online. It's thoughtful and appreciative, which is as much as any writer can ask.
The traditional fairy tale has a flat narrative and characters who tend to be types rather than fully-realized individuals: there is the King, the Witch, the Stepmother. One advantage of retelling these tales is the opportunity to add dimension. So that instead of a generic city, we find ourselves in “Enoch, the world-city that surrounds the sea on three sides like a giant omega”—not only a neat image but an example of the way the text mixes words from the Hellenic and Hebrew. Here live Zeuxis, an artist who takes aerial photographs from a sort of ultralight flier, and his wife Helen, who, like many aging couples in the tales, want to fulfill their lives with children. They perform a rite that brings them a son and a daughter. All is more or less well with them until a brute happens to see a picture of the daughter, Philomena, and immediately covets her. Before long, Zeuxis is dead, the brute has become Mena’s stepfather, and we know his intentions. 
I like the twist of giving the usual stepmother a male guise. The story mingles several classic fairytale tropes, including some that go very far back indeed, but I have to say that the conclusion, which follows one well-known story almost word for word, is rather a disappointment after the creativity of the earlier elements. What I like best here, though, is the well-imagined cosmology behind this world, and the views of Zeuxis on the artist’s life:
“We’re conduits. When we stop the outflow, no more can flow in, and we stagnate. We die daily to live. It’s the flow that matters, not the possession of what’s not really ours anyway.”
Check out the review here. Incidentally, the dialogue about art mentioned by Ms. Tilton comes from a conversation I had with my six-year-old son, who was very angry at me last summer for selling some of my paintings. I'm still somewhat anguished about the selling process myself, and the story was written partly as a way of coping with my first public exhibition, partly as a symbolic exploration of abstraction in the visual arts, which I pontificated about in Part II of my post on The Arts of the Beautiful. Paul Klee had a lot to do with this story.

In related news, I'm pleased to announce that my story "At the Edge of the Sea" will appear in the upcoming Beneath Ceaseless Skies year's best anthology. Stay tuned for further details.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Two Hundred Million A.D.

As I've mentioned several times, A. E. van Vogt, the famous "pygmy with a giant typewriter," is my favorite golden-age science fiction author. His best novels bear multiple readings, partly because they're so rich in ideas and settings, partly because they're damnably confusing. They're bold yet weirdly naïve, headlong plunges through time and space, peopled with dunderheaded supermen and strong-minded beauties and towering arch-villains, littered with unbearable solecisms and unmotivated actions, touched with sweeping grandeur.

I just finished a repeat visit to Two Hundred Million A.D. (a.k.a., The Book of Ptath), serialized in 1943, published as a novel in 1947. My copy, shown to the right, was printed in 1963.

One thing that strikes me upon this re-reading is that, from a stylistic point of view, the book is very badly written. To wit:
…for a moment he had an enormous, an almost owlish conviction that he had picked a fatal flaw in the whole story.
An owlish conviction? What does that mean, exactly? We seem to be talking about a conviction that is enormous, yes, but, what's more, it's so very enormous that it's almost owlish. As in…like unto an owl?

And then there's this:
These rebels were right, basically. No group had ever been braver, defying an unkillable woman and a religio-slave set-up of temple potentates more powerful than anything that had ever existed anywhere.
An unkillable woman and a religio-slave set-up. That made it into a published novel? It sounds like something I'd use as a placeholder in a rough draft for a rough draft, hoping I wouldn't die before I could revise it.

The plot, on the other hand, is fairly incomprehensible. Restrictions on action shift from paragraph to paragraph. Characters make bold, arbitrary resolutions, then abandon them on the next page. Time crawls by, and then, between two neighboring lines of dialogue, a month elapses. Plot holes yawn like black abysses, unsuspected by their author. Plot points emerge like ships from a dark, foggy night, and vanish vaguely to aft. The whole thing hangs together with a kind of murky dream-logic, not making sense if you look at it as a whole, but seeming to make sense from page to page. Kind of.

And yet, I like it. Honestly, I'd rather read it than a lot of things that make more sense. In Imaginary Worlds, Lin Carter gushes about it on pp. 85 – 86, winding up by calling it van Vogt's "single best novel." He gets a number of details wrong, in typical Lin Carter fashion, but gives a good overall summary. I can't say I agree with his assessment – certainly I'd rank the Null-A books, the Weapons Shops books, Slan, and The Voyage of the Space Beagle as far superior – but it's definitely worth a read.

There's the setting, for one thing. The action spans two continents and the isthmus joining them, moving through jungles, rivers of boiling mud, smoking volcanoes, and stupendous cities, two hundred million years in the future. The earth, it's suggested, is exhausted of ores. Battles are fought with crude weapons of varnished wood and carved stone, but high technology is also present. The human population is in the tens or hundreds of billions. Once-human goddesses pit armies of loyalists and rebels against one another in a strange game where mastery is the prize. In a curious reversion to geological antiquity, the southern supercontinent, where most of the story takes place, is known as Gonwonlane (Gondwanaland), and the sea adjoining it, Teths (Tethys). The armies employ prehistoric-seeming beasts like elephantine grimbs and leather-winged screers.

As a matter of fact, I'm struck by how many material elements of The Book of Ptath remind me of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. I wonder if it served as a partial inspiration?

The protagonist is the god Ptath, returned to the present from a sojourn among the humans of the past, his most recent incarnation being Peter Holroyd, a soldier and casualty of World War II. At the opening he is blank-minded and physically inexorable; later on the Holroyd psyche takes over for some reason that I don't quite understand.

Ptath's age-long merging with the human race has something Christ-like about it, in a Gnostic sort of way, an attempt to grow in compassion and root out the sort of divine cruelty that has conquered the goddess Ineznia. But religion, though the source of Ptath's power, is treated in a coldly scientific, utilitarian way. "Religion is fear," he says on the penultimate page.

Power accrues to the three divinities through the use of prayer-sticks, but only women can pray to the god (Ptath), while men pray to the goddesses (Ineznia and L'onee). This god-power consists of the ability to possess other people (though only of the same sex) and, eventually, depending on the piety of the populace, the ability to transport oneself bodily through space. No, it doesn't make sense to me, either. And van Vogt is, as ever, on the side of the superman.

But still, look at the sheer number of ideas we have thrown together here. Any one of them could have been the basis for an entire novel. As usual, I find myself slightly frustrated that van Vogt didn't develop his speculations more fully or make a better attempt at narrative coherence. But it's hard to think of another science fiction author so useful to steal from, or (for me at least), so enjoyable to read.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"Love in the Isle of the Combinators": Free Fiction

This is my first published story. It originally came out in The Colored Lens, but their rights are non-exclusive now, so I'm placing it here for whomever might be interested. You can still buy the magazine from Amazon.
The ghulim around which the story is centered play a role in my stories, particularly in Dragonfly and "Witch of Anûn." They represent some theological / psychological / biological speculations on my part. 
I see rationality as a black-and-white trait: an organism either is or is not rational and self-aware. This is a philosophical view. It accords well with modern biology, though, because inheritance does seem to be "digital" rather than "analog," characterized by genetic on-off switches, Punnett squares, and the rest, not by gradual continuous changes.
So, what if rationality in mankind began in only a few (say, two) individuals? What of the other members of the species? Scientists have recently told us that mankind could not have stemmed from a single female, and, perhaps with a similar motivation, children at parochial schools have for untold years delighted in asking their teachers whom Adam and Eve's children married.
Well, perhaps the rational soul was passed on as a "dominant trait," so that the offspring of a human being and a beast in human shape would be another true human being, not a "mixture" of the two. And perhaps the force and/or forces (I'm trying to be ecumenical here) responsible for the awakening of these anthropoid apes tasked them, not only with the care of the earth and the naming of the creatures, but also with the husbandry of their fleshly kin, treating them, not as equals, but not exactly as animals, either, with the possibility of "intermarriage" as a kind of religious vocation akin to celibacy.
The state of grace would then be characterized by the gradual diminution of the sub-rational population, which would continue to be nurtured with the dignity due their station until only rational descendants remained, while the fall from grace would be characterized by the persistent presence of the sub-rational and their treatment as animals or chattel. In such a fallen world, the dominant culture might regard inter-couplings as taboo, and the stature of a man might be measured by the dignity with which he treats his fleshly kin, though all such dealings would be tainted with "original sin." 
My ghulim are inspired partly the sub-rational deep-sea mermen glimpsed by Ransom in C. S. Lewis' Perelandra, partly by Mike Flynn's amusing and thought-provoking essay "Adam and Eve and Ted and Alice," and partly by my own reading of Thomas Aquinas and Etienne Gilson. But they have been filtered through the turgid medium of my wayward brain, so I wish to emphasize that none of these authors bear any blame for what is to follow.
The text has been lightly edited so as to accord with the current state of my invented terminology. It has also been made slightly less crass. It's a story about true love in a cracked world. I hope you enjoy it.

Love in the Isle of the Combinators

Linimer's fingers caressed the brass dial. Six plus four minus one choose four. The engine rang out its answer, one note in a mechanical symphony. Sixty combinators danced along the face of the machine, up and down the Hall of Computation.

Nine choose four and nine choose five is ten choose five. Six hundred fingers flew over the cogs and stops. Slanting sunbeams streamed through the high windows, making gnomons of the workers and gold dust of the whirling motes. It was evening.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

"The Scale-Tree" at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, MigrationMy newest story, "The Scale-Tree," is out at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, together with "The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew and an audio podcast of "Stone Prayers" by Kate Marshall. On the cover this month is Migration by Julie Dillon.

As always, it's an honor to have my work appear in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a wonderful venue for literary adventure fantasy, and the first and only magazine I really aspired to when I started trying to get published.

My story is inspired by brother-and-sister fairy tales like "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Juniper Tree"; as I've mentioned here several times, my evenings are often spent reading Andrew Lang's collection of many colors to my kids. I'd seen The Night of the Hunter for the first time not long before writing it, so that's doubtless in the mix as well. It also goes somewhat more deeply (and elliptically) into the mythological-topological underpinnings of the world in which my novel, Dragonfly, is set.

I hope you read and enjoy my story, and the others as well.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Why Final Fantasy IV Is So Great

The Characters of Final Fantasy IV, Square Enix, Airi Yoshioka
I recently made a video game purchase. It's the first such purchase I've made since…oh, 1996 or so. Yeah, I've been out of it. The problem is not that I don't like video games, but that I like them altogether too much. If I have them around, I play them. I ditched the game console and the TV at the same time, and have never regretted the decision.

Except that I miss some of the RPGs I used to play back in the day. Most especially, I miss the 1991 game Final Fantasy IV, released for the Super NES in the United States as Final Fantasy II in a super-easy version with truncated options and a dumbed-down script. This version is the one I came to know and love as an eighth-grader. Later on I acquired the original Japanese version with an English-language patch (the so-called J2e version), which made me realize how much I'd been missing (including, among other things, that porno mag in the basement of the dwarves' castle). The game has been remade and rereleased several times since then. When I became aware that the iOS/Android version (itself a port from the Nintendo DS remake) had been ported and released to Steam for playing on Windows, I knew I had to have it.

In my younger days I played various other Square RPGs for the SNES, including Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu III, and Chrono Trigger, and, for the Gameboy, Final Fantasy Legend II and Final Fantasy Legend III. (Yes, this is a post that could just as well have been written in 1997, because I basically went into cryo-sleep with regard to certain aspects of pop culture then.) But Final Fantasy IV was the first, and remains dearest to my heart.

Various things about the Steam version, controls- and graphics-wise, are less than optimal, of course. It's a port of a port, so what can you expect? I'm still used to the extremely crude SNES version, though, so it wows me every time. I mean, you can actually move the sprites diagonally – uh, they still call them that, right? – and tell that they represent people. Amazing! The music is awesome, and the 3D rendering of the overworld and towns and dungeons is quite lovely. My teenage self would have swooned with delight.

As to the plot, the characters, and the settings, the Steam version preserves and amplifies everything I love about the original. To wit:

Things I Love about Final Fantasy IV


The Spiraling Plot

The main character of FFIV is Cecil, who begins his story a black knight and conscience-stricken airfleet commander. From there the story literally spirals around the world, introducing the player to its geography bit by bit, exposing ever wider narrative vistas, with little side-plots coming and going at intervals. Once the upper world is largely explored, the action shifts to the plains of the underworld, and eventually the moon, with the biggest reveals saved for the very end.

Here's what I think FFIV has to teach us about plot construction in fantasy writing:
  1. Maintain reader interest by holding back information, settings, and characters until the proper time. Keep new plot points coming at regular intervals. Never dump too much at a time. This contributes to re-readability as well, which to my mind is just as important as readability. When I read a favorite old book, there are always parts (settings or characters) to which I constantly look forward; but with some books, I run out of those things too soon, and feel dejected when I realize that the rest is just a resolution of stuff that's already gotten under way against a backdrop that I'm already familiar with. As often as not, I stop reading at that point.
  2. Spiral out from your starting point, revisiting old problems and old scenes but with ever-increasing "radius" from the center, letting the complexity build up on its own. Let the end get way out there while still tied to the earliest parts of the plot. Certainly FFIV, which begins with a medieval castle and an errand to a nearby village, and ends with a cosmic battle at the core of the moon, gives us something to aspire to.
  3. Meander a bit, while keeping it tied to the main plot. Obstructions are your friends: no obstructions, no plot. Always try to do something other than what's expected. Case in point: Cecil journeys with his friends via ship to Baron, with the plan of sneaking in to steal an airship. But they're attacked by Leviathan en route. Edward disappears. Rydia is swallowed by the beast. Yang leaps overboard in an effort to save her. Cecil is washed up on the beach of a land in which he once committed atrocities. The party eventually gets to Baron, but everything is different from the player's expectations, and the characters have grown and changed. It's a sleight-of-hand trick, really: build up expectations with one hand, while preparing to spring something on the reader with the other.
  4. Reveal something major toward the end (a la The Empire Strikes Back) to make the reader say aha! or oh my! and come back to savor the sudden recognition. This is a matter of style: it's not as important to keep them guessing as to build up to the point without belaboring it. Even a well-worn story can "surprise" every time if it's handled properly.

The Restrictions

One thing I like about Final Fantasy IV in comparison to subsequent Square games is the extent to which each character has his or her unique abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. You're forced to figure out how to make them work as a team. The characters in the next couple of Final Fantasy games are too customizable for my taste. Most egregiously, every character in Final Fantasy VI can be transformed into a magic-using demigod through judicious use of magicite, eroding their distinctiveness and rendering their unique abilities superfluous.

Everything good in life has restrictions. Restrictions add color and variety and structure and romance. It's the Morlocks of the world who want to do away with them, because their aim is to make everything formless and gray. FFIV has many restrictions, and that's what makes it such a cool game.

Furthermore, being a romantic at heart, I generally play RPGs for the story. FFIV is very structured (with some optional side quests available toward the end), which allows it to have a powerful, poignant story. A game like Seiken Densetsu III, in which the resolution depends on what characters you're using, or even like Final Fantasy VI, in which the complete freedom to choose your own party in the latter half reduces character interaction to generic conversation, has much less narrative impact.

The Seamless Combination of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Elements

Here is a world in which swordsmen and magic-users travel around in hovercrafts and whale-shaped space ships, in which ninjas and lunarian mages sneak into giant robots brought to the earth via interdimensional elevators, in which dwarves fend off airships with tanks and fighting monks destroy giant cannons in high-tech quasi-biblical towers reaching from the underworld to the stratosphere. Cool.

But I'm going to stop right there, lest it become too obvious to my readers that I owe more to a 16-bit video game than to Conrad and Melville.

Let me just say, though, that I can't stand genre restrictions on material elements. The work should define the elements, not vice versa. Writers should be bold and take risks. Once something gets labeled, you have to worry that it's on the way to the grave.

The Allusions

There are lots of beautiful mythological elements in Final Fantasy IV: Greek, Hindu, Semitic, Norse, &c. The Four Fiends of the Elements are named from Dante's Inferno. Somehow they're all knit into a fairly coherent whole. These are fairly obvious. But revisiting it now after many years, I'm delighted to find a fierce lunar feline named after A. E. van Vogt's coeurl ("The Black Destroyer") and an allusion in the Feymarch library to the wonderful archives in Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer. Incorporating elements from my favorite sci-fi authors is a sure way to my heart.

The Characters

Final Fantasy IV has a girl with green hair, Rydia the Summoner, my favorite character. Her mother dies at the hands of the protagonist, but she forgives him, overcomes the tragedy in her life, and grows up (relatively quickly, thanks to differing time-streams) into a formidable sorceress with gods and monsters at her beck and call. She also wields a whip and, as a grown-up, wears a slinky green dress.

Mostly, though, I just like her green hair. What is it about green girls? From Orion slave girls to The Green Girl of Jack Williamson to Marvel Comics' Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy), pop sci-fi is sprinkled with attractive green-hued females. It's hard to think of other colors so singled out in this way.

But the other characters are also memorable: Cecil, the dark knight who undergoes a personal purgatory to become a paladin; Kain, the cool yet conflicted dragon knight; Rosa, the kind-hearted white mage loved by both; Tellah, the rash and angry old wizard; Edward, the soft and sad yet tenacious spoony bard-prince; Yang, the modest and disciplined fighting monk; Palom and Porom, the lovable wizard twins; Cid, the crotchety airship engineer; Edge, the sanguine and virile young ninja; Fusoya, the lunarian mage.


Final Fantasy IV appeared on Steam with little or no fanfare last fall. If you like such things, go check it out. It'll set you back just $15.99. Worth every penny.

While you're at it, peruse these seven lessons to be learned from old-school RPGs over at Black Gate.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


What did I win, you ask? One month ago, I posted that I was entering a reading contest with the county library. Several days ago, I posted that the reading period was over, but that the drawing hadn't taken place yet. Well, the drawing has now taken place, and...



[dull roar of cheering crowds]

Yes, I, homely homebody Raphael C. Ordoñez (my pen name doesn't have a middle initial but I added one in there for dramatic effect), will get to rub elbows with the high society of the remote Texas county in which I live. I may even meet my neighbors, those Toads of Toad Hall, those proud proprietors (scroll to the bottom) of Ascot Park, whose ongoing construction project has expanded to include extra tree-felling, driveway-jackhammering, brick-sawing, road-gouging, and geothermal drilling.

Ahem. But you see why they think nothing of grinding us bohemian intellectual types into formless pulps of misery. They can always resort to the country club! And, for one happy night, I, Raphael C. Ordoñez, will be one of them.

My only points of concern are (a) whether I can get a good steak there, cooked just as I like it, tender and slightly pink in the middle, and (b) whether they'll let me buy a drink. As to point (b), my wife has eaten there for a ladies' club she belongs to, and they wouldn't serve non-members alcohol. So I'm filled with trepidation.

I case you were wondering, here's what ended up on my reading log:
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • The End of the Story by Clark Ashton Smith (Night Shade Books)
  • The Last Hieroglyph by Clark Ashton Smith (Night Shade Books)
  • History of the Conquest of Peru by William H. Prescott
  • Fourier Series and Orthogonal Functions by Harry F. Davis
I received one ticket for every three hours read, for a total of eleven tickets (the first three hours just count toward a certificate). I didn't count reading to my kids, because they counted that on their logs, and it seemed like cheating somehow.

Well, that's all for now. I need to go compose my acceptance speech.

Monday, July 6, 2015

History of the Conquest of Peru

One month ago I announced the commencement of my reading of William H. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Peru, to be attended, it was hoped, with the just fruits my labors, in the form of dinner at a local Mexican food restaurant or a weekend getaway at a river resort. The drawing has not yet taken place, but I have at any rate completed the book.

All told, it was five hundred pages in small print, fairly bristling with footnotes. Fortunately the allotment of raffle tickets respects hours of reading rather than page count. Much to my discredit, it's been a long time since I've read such a large, dense book, I, who once spent a week of Christmas vacation tearing through Gibbon!

I have several times mentioned my longstanding interest in the Spanish exploration and conquest of the New World. In the past my acquaintance has been mainly with the exploits of Cortés in Mexico, the fullest and most enjoyable account of which is Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico. (I have the two volumes in a Modern Library edition.) The conquest of Peru presents a very different picture. Cortés, it is true, was little better than a freebooter, waging a war of avarice and rapine against an empire that had done the Spanish crown no harm, but it's hard to think of a crueler nation with more iniquitous social institutions than that of the Aztecs. We needn't admire Cortés the man to appreciate his skill as a commander, and, while we may regret the extinction of the civilization from a romantic point of view, it's hard to mourn the end of its bloody subjugations and diabolical sacrifices.

But the Peruvian empire was of a gentler sort, waging war for the sake of expanding its dominions, and exerting an iron sway over its people, but never indulging in the refined cruelties of Mexico. And their conqueror, Francisco Pizarro, far exceeded Cortés in audacity, perfidy, and vindictiveness. He destroyed the empire in one bold stroke, by seizing the person of the Inca, without anything like the thrilling campaign that conquered Mexico. After his capture, that prince offered to ransom himself by filling a room with gold; though he fulfilled the terms of the agreement, his continued existence was too great an embarrassment, and Pizarro had him executed on a pretext. The mode of execution was to have been the stake, but, upon the Inca's acceptance of the Christian faith, this was commuted to strangulation, and a mass was said for the repose of his soul. The empire of the Inca dissolved like a dream.

It's the clash of civilizations that draws me to these histories, the seeming anachronism of Spanish caballeros encountering a scene out of Herodotus, the virgin beauty and splendor of the American empires crumbling before the Spanish crown. The book opens with a comprehensive description of Peruvian civilization: its system of roads and hanging bridges, its tiered crops rising on one mountain from the tropics to temperate climes, and, of course, its cyclopean architecture.
But the most renowned of the Peruvian temples, the pride of the capital, and the wonder of the empire, was at Cuzco, where, under the munificence of successive sovereigns, it had become so enriched, that it received the name of Coricancha, or "the Place of Gold." It consisted of a principal building and several chapels and inferior edifices, covering a large extent of ground in the heart of the city, and completely encompassed by a wall, which, with the edifices, was all constructed of stone. [...] 
The interior of the temple was the most worthy of admiration. It was literally a mine of gold. On the western wall was emblazoned a representation of the deity, consisting of a human countenance, looking forth from amidst innumerable rays of light, which emanated from it in every direction, in the same manner as the sun is often personified with us. The figure was engraved on a massive plate of gold of enormous dimensions, thickly powdered with emeralds and precious stones. It was so situated in front of the great eastern portal, that the rays of the morning sun fell directly upon it at its rising, lighting up the whole apartment with an effulgence that seemed more than natural, and which was reflected back from the golden ornaments with which the walls and ceiling were everywhere in crusted. Gold, in the figurative language of the people was "the tears wept by the sun," and every part of the interior of the temple glowed with burnished plates and studs of the precious metal. [...]
Adjoining the principal structure were several chapels of smaller dimensions. One of them was consecrated to the Moon, the deity held next in reverence, as the mother of the Incas. Her effigy was delineated in the same manner as that of the Sun, on a vast plate that nearly covered one side of the apartment. But this plate, as well as all the decorations of the building, was of silver, as suited to the pale, silvery light of the beautiful planet. There were three other chapels, one of which was dedicated to the host of Stars, who formed the bright court of the Sister of the Sun; another was consecrated to his dread ministers of vengeance, the Thunder and the Lightning; and a third, to the Rainbow, whose many-colored arch spanned the walls of the edifice with hues almost as radiant as its own.
As for the narrative, I most enjoyed the slow progress of Pizarro from the mangrove swamps and deserts of the coast, through the icy pinnacles of the Andes, and into the sheltered green vales of the thither slopes.
The descent of the sierra, though the Andes are less precipitous on their eastern side than towards the west, was attended with difficulties almost equal to those of the upward march; and the Spaniards felt no little satisfaction, when, on the seventh day, they arrived in view of the valley of Caxamalca, which, enamelled with all the beauties of cultivation, lay unrolled like a rich and variegated carpet of verdure, in strong contrast with the dark forms of the Andes, that rose up everywhere around it. The valley is of an oval shape, extending about five leagues in length by three in breadth. It was inhabited by a population of a superior character to any which the Spaniards had met on the other side of the mountains, as was argued by the superior style of their attire, and the greater cleanliness and comfort visible both in their persons and dwellings. As far as the eye could reach, the level tract exhibited the show of a diligent and thrifty husbandry. A broad river rolled through the meadows, supplying facilities for copious irrigation by means of the usual canals and subterraneous aqueducts. The land, intersected by verdant hedge- rows, was checkered with patches of various cultivation; for the soil was rich, and the climate, if less stimulating than that of the sultry regions of the coast, was more favorable to the hardy products of the temperate latitudes. Below the adventurers, with its white houses glittering in the sun, lay the little city of Caxamalca, like a sparkling gem on the dark skirts of the sierra. At the distance of about a league farther, across the valley, might be seen columns of vapor rising up towards the heavens, indicating the place of the famous hot baths, much frequented by the Peruvian princes. And here, too, was a spectacle less grateful to the eyes of the Spaniards; for along the slope of the hills a white cloud of pavilions was seen covering the ground, as thick as snow-flakes, for the space, apparently, of several miles.
For me the climax of the history is the moment Hernando Pizarro and Hernando de Soto ride up to the Inca at the steaming baths of Cajamarca. The death of Atahualpa takes place halfway through the history, most of the rest of which is concerned with the Spaniards' wrangling for control of the empire. For my money it might have closed with the assassination of Pizarro in Lima.
At length, Pizarro, unable, in the hurry of the moment, to adjust the fastenings of his cuirass, threw it away, and, enveloping one arm in his cloak, with the other seized his sword, and sprang to his brother's assistance. It was too late; for Alcantara was already staggering under the loss of blood, and soon fell to the ground. Pizarro threw himself on his invaders, like a lion roused in his lair, and dealt his blows with as much rapidity and force, as if age had no power to stiffen his limbs. "What ho!" he cried, "traitors! have you come to kill me in my own house?" The conspirators drew back for a moment, as two of their body fell under Pizarro's sword; but they quickly rallied, and, from their superior numbers, fought at great advantage by relieving one another in the assault. Still the passage was narrow, and the struggle lasted for some minutes, till both of Pizarro's pages were stretched by his side, when Rada, impatient of the delay, called out, "Why are we so long about it? Down with the tyrant!" and taking one of his companions, Narvaez, in his arms, he thrust him against the marquess. Pizarro, instantly grappling with his opponent, ran him through with his sword. But at that moment he received a wound in the throat, and reeling, he sank on the floor, while the swords of Rada and several of the conspirators were plunged into his body. "Jesu!" exclaimed the dying man, and, tracing a cross with his finger on the bloody floor, he bent down his head to kiss it, when a stroke, more friendly than the rest, put an end to his existence.
Two things subsequent to the death of Pizarro stand out, however. The first (which actually took place at the same time) is the disastrous expedition of his brother, Gonzalo Pizarro, from Quito into the Amazon basin.
At length the way-worn company came on a broad expanse of water formed by the Napo, one of the great tributaries of the Amazon, and which, though only a third or fourth rate river in America, would pass for one of the first magnitude in the Old World. The sight gladdened their hearts, as, by winding along its banks, they hoped to find a safer and more practicable route. After traversing its borders for a considerable distance, closely beset with thickets which it taxed their strength to the utmost to overcome, Gonzalo and his party came within hearing of a rushing noise that sounded like subterranean thunder. The river, lashed into fury, tumbled along over rapids with frightful velocity, and conducted them to the brink of a magnificent cataract, which, to their wondering fancies, rushed down in one vast volume of foam to the depth of twelve hundred feet! The appalling sounds which they had heard for the distance of six leagues were rendered yet more oppressive to the spirits by the gloomy stillness of the surrounding forests. The rude warriors were filled with sentiments of awe. Not a bark dimpled the waters. No living thing was to be seen but the wild tenants of the wilderness, the unwieldy boa, and the loathsome alligator basking on the borders of the stream. The trees towering in wide-spread magnificence towards the heavens, the river rolling on in its rocky bed as it had rolled for ages, the solitude and silence of the scene, broken only by the hoarse fall of waters, or the faint rustling of the woods,—all seemed to spread out around them in the same wild and primitive state as when they came from the hands of the Creator.
It was an ill-fated expedition, stricken by starvation and betrayal. Down in the jungle, almost overcome with sickness and fatigue, the men constructed a crude boat from felled timber, with nails made from the shoes of devoured horses, and the cavaliers' rain-rotted clothes to stop the holes. This was sent ahead to the populous village which, the natives assured them, was just downstream. The scouts, upon reaching the Amazon and finding no village in evidence, decided to explore the river down to the Atlantic and win the glory of its navigation rather than labor back upstream, and so abandoned their comrades to their fate. After months of waiting, Gonzalo marched the rest of the way to the confluence, discovered what had happened from a starving maroon, and, undaunted, led the survivors back to Quito, two and a half years after setting out. He went on to make himself tyrant of Peru before the inevitable turn of events saw him beheaded as a traitor to the crown.

And that's the second thing subsequent to Francisco's death that stands out to me: the deposing of Gonzalo at the hands of a humble ecclesiastic, Pedro de la Gasca, sent by Charles the Fifth to sort out the mess into which Peru had fallen.
Pizarro could not discern, that under this modest exterior lay a moral power, stronger than his own steel-clad battalions, which, operating silently on public opinion,—the more sure than it was silent,— was even now undermining his strength, like a subterraneous channel eating away the foundations of some stately edifice, that stands secure in its pride of place!
Without any ostentation or display of force, this unassuming, politic little man conquered the conquerors, and saw Pizarro beheaded and his ferocious octogenarian lieutenant, Francisco de Carvajal (the "Demon of the Andes"), drawn and quartered on the same day without having had to strike a single blow. He returned to Castile after setting the empire in order, and died a bishop many years later. Though the death of Francisco Pizarro seems the most logical place to end the history, Prescott seemingly has a rhetorical or artistic purpose in closing with Gasca.
After the dark and turbulent spirits with which we have been hitherto occupied, it is refreshing to dwell on a character like that of Gasca. In the long procession which has passed in review before us, we have seen only the mail-clad cavalier, brandishing his bloody lance, and mounted on his war-horse, riding over the helpless natives, or battling with his own friends and brothers; fierce, arrogant, and cruel, urged on by the lust of gold, or the scarce more honorable love of a bastard glory. Mingled with these qualities, indeed, we have seen sparkles of the chivalrous and romantic temper which belongs to the heroic age of Spain. But, with some honorable exceptions, it was the scum of her chivalry that resorted to Peru, and took service under the banner of the Pizarros. At the close of this long array of iron warriors, we behold the poor and humble missionary coming into the land on an errand of mercy, and everywhere proclaiming the glad tidings of peace.
Take-aways? It makes you queasy, the extent to which men will debase themselves for material gain. Latter-day preachers will tell you that the besetting sin of our age is materialism, by which they mean avarice, but to my mind our chief vice is sloth, acedia. But the Spaniards, now – they knew avarice. What's strange about it is the facility with which these freebooters mixed their bloody pursuits with religion. Prescott several times refers to the Crusades, but the Crusades, whatever course they may ultimately have taken, were to a great extent a matter of defense. The Turks besieged Vienna as late as the seventeenth century – think of that! But the American conquests – what mundane purpose did they serve, other than to fill the coffer? You can say, well, the Conquistadors' "religion" was just a matter of convenience, a pretext for doing what they wanted to do. Perhaps in some cases that's true. But that's too easy an out in general. No, you just have to accept that these men thought of themselves as righteous, as devout, even, while committing the cruelest atrocities. Such a chimera is man!

Still, the trouble with condemning the vices of historical figures is that you might very well be condemning their virtues. Each era has its own excesses and enormities and blind spots, our own no less than others. Prescott recognizes this, and I found Peru much less opinionated than Mexico, especially on the score of religion. Or perhaps I'm just less touchy now. At any rate, they're both excellent histories. We've made great advances in historical research in the last century and a half, but books like them just aren't written anymore.

As usual, I will conclude by saying that I want to get down to see the sites sometime. My father spent the better part of a year in Ecuador and Peru on state business when I was in college. He was stationed near the headwaters of the Amazon, in an environment similar to that encountered by Gonzalo Pizarro's expedition, I suppose. While there he sent me a fine watercolor bought from a street vendor. It depicts a mountain village with a church and natives in traditional garb, and hangs at a prominent place in my bedroom. I'm sitting here looking at it now, hoping that a trip to South America is in the cards for my future.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Literary Chorizo

I continue to labor away at The King of Nightspore's Crown, the sequel to Dragonfly. Various things are going into the stew, including ancient Athenian lawgivers, Prairie School architecture, medieval bestiaries, the national park system, Heart of Darkness, Andrew Lang's fairy tale collections, the history of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, and assorted giant monsters and prehistoric creatures, not to mention all the usual suspects among my favorite genre writers. They say you should never watch sausage being made (or, around where I live, chorizo), but I tend to assume that people who visit my blog have strong stomachs.

Incidentally, I have a story called "The Scale-Tree" coming out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies sometime in the not-so-distant future, which will provide interested readers a glimpse into the topological-mythological underpinnings of the counter-earth at the cosmic antipodes.

It's kind of strange, really, but I get the feeling sometimes that I'm exploring a world that's already there, rather than inventing a new one of my own. It's a bit like mathematics, which is accomplished much more by fiat than people suspect. The mathematician says, Let it be so!, and it is so, and he or she goes down into the world that he or she has made and explores it. That's how I feel about Antellus. Its axioms established, it developed on its own, down to the least detail. Fortunately, as Gödel's incompleteness theorems have established, I still have infinitely many avenues of freedom open to me. Or something like that.

In other news, I'm toying with the idea of creating a new edition of a public domain fantasy classic, like The Worm Ouroboros, for sale through Hythloday House. I have sketch of a wrap-around cover inspired by Persian miniatures that I may try to work up over the remainder of the summer. I have no idea if there'd be a market for such a thing (well, ha ha, of course there's not, but I'm Quixotic that way), but it would please me to produce it all the same. To my knowledge there's never been an edition with a map, so there's that.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Strange Islands

In my last post, I discussed Martin Buber's philosophy of I-Thou and my own attempts to people my world with minor gods, concluding with a promise to apply these ideas to fantastic literature.

What brought all of this back to my mind was a reading of The Spiritual Canticle by St. John of the Cross. St. John is, they say, one of the great poets of Spanish literature; his Spiritual Canticle is an exposition of his poem of the same name ("Cántico Espiritual"). To me, Stanzas 14 and 15 stand out in particular:
Mi Amado, las montañas,
los valles solitarios nemorosos,
las ínsulas extrañas,
los ríos sonorosos,
el silbo de los aires amorosos,

la noche sosegada
en par de los levantes de la aurora,
la música callada,
la soledad sonora,
la cena que recrea y enamora.
In my deep and extensive knowledge of sixteenth-century Spanish, and lamentable liability to poetic licence, I render this thus:
My Beloved, towering range,
deep-delved lonesome wood,
islands strange,
zephyr's nocturne of love,

the tranquil dim
of dawn's lifting aperture,
silent hymn,
solitude's laughter,
feast that feeds and enraptures.
Regarding Line 3 of Stanza 14, John says:
Strange islands are girt by the sea; they are also, because of the sea, distant and unknown to the commerce of men. They produce things very different from those with which we are conversant, in strange ways, and with qualities hitherto unknown, so as to surprise those who behold them, and fill them with wonder. Thus, then, by reason of the great and marvelous wonders, and the strange things that come to our knowledge, far beyond the common notions of men, which the soul beholds in God, it calls Him the strange islands. 
We say of a man that he is strange for one of two reasons: either because he withdraws himself from the society of his fellows, or because he is singular or distinguished in his life and conduct. For these two reasons together God is called strange by the soul. He is not only all that is strange in undiscovered islands, but His ways, judgments, and works are also strange, new, and marvelous to men. 
It is nothing wonderful that God should be strange to men who have never seen Him, seeing that He is also strange to the holy angels and the souls who see Him; for they neither can nor shall ever see Him perfectly... [O]nly to Himself is He neither strange nor new.
God is strange; indeed, he is much stranger than even the angels could ever imagine. A point often forgotten by the dogma-bound. There is hope here for me. The strange islands of my own mind, which find their way into my stories, are, I suppose, not the strangeness of which John speaks, but perhaps they touch those outer waters as the net of islands and shifting shadows ring Tolkien's blessed Aman. Then again, perhaps not.

Regarding Line 3 of Stanza 15, John says:
In this silence and tranquility of the night, and in this knowledge of the divine light, the soul discerns a marvelous arrangement and disposition of God's wisdom in the diversities of His creatures and operations. All these, and each one of them, have a certain correspondence with God, whereby each, by a voice peculiar to itself, proclaims what there is in itself of God, so as to form a concert of sublimest melody, transcending all the harmonies of the world. This is the silent music, because it is knowledge tranquil and calm, without audible voice; and thus the sweetness of music and the repose of silence are enjoyed in it. The soul says that the Beloved is silent music, because this harmony of spiritual music is in Him understood and felt.
This calls to mind the mysterious Psalm 19:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
     and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
     and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
     their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
     and their words to the end of the world.
It seems paradoxical. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. But their voice and words are their very being. By being what they are, they speak. Try to "listen" to them on any other wavelength, and you miss it. Or worse, manufacture their speech for yourself.

For me this is a cogent truth of practical import, for I tried – really tried – to hear the music of the spheres for many years. I'm currently reading A Wrinkle in Time to my kids, and enjoying it very much; but I was almost obsessed with it and Madeleine L'Engle's other books when I was about nine or ten, and, in hindsight, I think they had a tremendous influence on how I saw the world. It wasn't until I finally gave up trying to hear the "voices of the stars" that the cosmos came rushing back like a breaker crashing ashore. St. Augustine speaks of something similar in Book X of his Confessions, in his questioning of the deeps and the heavens, and their answering him in their beauty of order.

This is the kind of thing I think about while composing my sword-and-planet tales.

As I said above, I'm often really looking for a certain kind of silence in fantasy. It's not easy to put your finger on it, but lack of silence seems tied to the flippant or frivolous use of fantastic elements, to the failure to reserve these things for their proper places, to the devolution of the invented milieu into a muddled slurry which bores in its very freedom from restraint. The presence of silence brings about the recovery of which Tolkien speaks, a reconciliation with the universe.

Many modern fantasists have understood this. Their work is characterized by a spirit of listening, a sense of wonder, a willingness to go along and let things happen and see what the world has to show us. Various passages come to mind: Koshtra Belorn; the Night Land; Middle-Earth; Perelandra; Earthsea. Mystical silence isn't limited to fantasy, but fantasy is uniquely equipped to make the most of it. It's not something that can be established through the mere manipulation of material elements, and the works of your safe genre writers possess it to a much lesser degree. For there the sense of wonder has been worn away by familiarity, and the startlement that cleanses the eyes of the soul and brings recovery is no longer possible. The reader's heart becomes jaded, and she looks for new sources, of which this world contains all too few.

In these days of isolation and frustration, I admit that I find myself drawn more to hard-boiled writers like Hammett and Chandler, or to amoral S&S and weird horror by the likes of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Lieber, or Michael Moorcock. But perhaps here, too, there is a kind of silence. In Hammett, for instance, there's his unrelenting desire to pare away everything but the naked skeleton of the narrative. The utter absence of any kind of moralizing (which is really just chatter in a story) comes as a great relief. To quote Nietzsche on the point:
The desert…where the strong, independent spirits withdraw and become lonely – oh, how different it looks from the way educated people imagine a desert! – for in some cases they themselves are this desert, these educated people.
To be continued!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Seila in Living Color

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you a colorized version of Seila, lovely odalisque of the Enochite underworld. It's a companion to my Zilla painting; both illustrate characters from my novel Dragonfly.

Painted in watercolor on Arches hot-pressed, mostly with my trusty Winsor & Newton 0000 Cotman round, it measures three and a half by five inches, hence is probably smaller than seen in your browser. I continued to listen to the stories of Clark Ashton Smith as I painted it; as a matter of fact, I was listening to "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles" as I painted the girdle. I'm starting to regard these audiobooks as much material as pigment, paper, and memory.

(Incidentally, I very highly recommend the CAS audiobooks put out by Night Shade Books; I'm picky about narration, and have enjoyed them thoroughly.)

So, my plan to begin illustrating my stories proceeds apace.

Because I paint on such a small scale, it amuses me to examine my work up close. For me, the final step of scanning and zooming in is an integral part of the process.

When I was in high school, and (as my art teacher and I thought) a future artist, I was often chided for working on too small a scale: I would take a big, 16" x 20" sheet of paper and make a tiny drawing right at the center. At the time I coped with Mr. Jones' demand to embiggen things by dividing the paper up into a square grid and filling in one square at a time. Now that I'm an independent adult, I simply make tiny little paintings. This is convenient for practical reasons, in that I have a tiny little studio and a tiny little bank account.

Mr. Jones would also sometimes circle the lower extremities of my figure studies, with a derisive HUMAN FEET??? scrawled in red ink. Hands, however, I had always excelled at. In fact, on the first day of sixth grade (I took art from Mr. Jones throughout both junior high and high school), our assignment was to draw our own hands, and mine was so realistic that he hung it up at the front to shame his advanced high school students. It was literally the first time I'd ever drawn anything from life; I've read of similar incidents in the lives of other people with autism disorders. Other body parts came less easily, but under his sarcastic tutelage I progressed steadily.

Now, throughout high school, as one advanced in the ways of art, I was suffered to work independently, and generally did pretty much as I pleased. My efforts were directed exclusively toward art, though a variety of extracurricular activities were pursued by my classmates. The art lab was in the vocational building, i.e., the outlands; it had once been a shop class, and possessed various storage rooms, locker rooms, and other dark and secret little corners. Among other things, the loft, up above the drop-ceiling tiles, was known as a good place to take a few tokes.

One day, when I was a freshman, Mr. Jones told me to go into the locker room, where freshmen were seldom allowed. Obeying, I found the ceiling lights turned off, and a pretty girl wearing a ruffled black-and-white polka dot bikini enthroned at the end of the room, brown hair pulled back in bouncing curls, basking in the glow of spotlights that set out her contours in warm chiaroscuro. She wasn't in our class, but had been commissioned, so to speak, for my personal instruction that day. She was a couple of grades ahead of me, just to add a little extra spice to the experience.

We were alone in the room the entire period. As far as I can recall I said not a word to her, though she tried to engage me in conversation several times. I'd drawn more male figures than I could count, but I'd never drawn a female. I was pleased with the result. The girl came over afterward and examined my work. She was less pleased, and complained bitterly to Mr. Jones.

He laughed heartily and said, "Yes, Raphael draws what he sees." I still don't know whether he was commenting on me or the girl.