Friday, July 20, 2018

Carload of Conquistadors

Life beyond art has become a perfect s**tstorm of late, which has left me some time and energy for said art, but none, alas, for blogging.

Just to give a fairly innocuous example, I took the fam on a two-week camping trip in June, only to collide with a majestic leaping bull elk in a national park, totaling our beloved Ordoñezmobile and leaving us (me, my wife, our three kids) stranded, first on the side of a mountain (with all our gear, the subjects of intense scrutiny by park police), then in a campsite, for days, with no way to get more food (fortunately we'd just stocked up), no rental car being available due to a massive hailstorm having struck the region, with black bears literally snuffling around our tents at night and leaving muddy paw prints on top of our bear box in the morning, in which we had thankfully thought to enclose our three-year-old's carseat, which is undoubtedly the most smellable thing we own, after all of which we were granted, not a minivan or an SUV as we had been promised by our insurance company, but, ironically, an Impala (another leaping ungulate!) in which we were amazingly able to fit our gear and dependents (as the Egyptians fit their blocks of stone into the pyramids) although we had to bestow our faithful roofbag upon a chance-met traveler at a hotel.


Of course we continued our trip after securing our distant rental car through a devious use of shuttle buses and a laconic and somewhat unreliable taxi driver, because we Ordoñeces aren't quitters, although we were put to the test when we discovered a subsequent campsite, which we'd reserved months before, to have been inundated by a flash flood which had deposited a smooth, foot-deep sheet of white badlands silt, out of which the picnic table rose like something from The Drowned World, which, in another dose of irony, I happened to be reading at the time; then, to take another page from The Drowned World, we arrived back at our home in south Texas, which this summer is like the point of heat focused by a magnifying lens, only to find our air conditioner broken.

And that was my vacation.

I am nevertheless happy to report that the newest installment in the Tashyas saga will grace the e-pages of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly this fall, in my story "Raft of Conquistadors," which relates the first fateful landfall of Francisco Carvajal y Lopez in what's now the Lone Star State. The action takes place on Padre Island, the bleak and strangely remote barrier island that has kept south Texas, from Corpus Christi to Brownsville, sparsely inhabited for generations. The story will be illustrated by me.

Although it may be of interest to no one but myself, these stories excite me because they let me evoke all the varied landscapes and climates that "Tashyas" has to offer; I've been making somewhat frequent trips to the Corpus Christi area since I was a little kid, when my dad would take me on collecting expeditions for his marine biology class. Right now I'm working on a Carvajal story set in central Texas, set in the vicinity of...no, I won't say it.

This summer I've also been working on the cover painting for Ark of the Hexaemeron, which is still in the process of being written, but which will, when complete, be the first heroic fantasy epic that I know of to feature three-dimensional manifold topology (sorry). I haven't done much else in the way of illustration or art-for-art's-sake lately, but I have been doing some mathematical sculptures for a little museum I've created at my college, inspired by the beautiful models and displays math departments used to curate around the year 1900, e.g., here and here.

Here, for instance, is the "dodecahedron family," printed on my 3D printer and subsequently painted:


Going from left to right, top to bottom, we have: the icosahedron, the dual icosahedron / dodecahedron, the triacontahedron (the convex hull of the dual pair, colored as the compound of five cubes), the dodecahedron, the icosidodecahedron (the quasiregular solid associated with the dual pair), the right-handed compound of five tetrahedra (colored as the triacontahedron), the compound of five cubes, and the skeletal compound of five tetrahedra.

While painting these I listened to Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes, an excellent noir set in a New Mexico town modeled partly on Santa Fe.

I have also been experimenting with paper-folding techniques. What especially interest me are the algebraic aspects; theoretically, origami is quite similar to the compass-and-straightedge constructions you did in high school. I've been doing origami for a long time, having been introduced to it as a kid by a Japanese friend of the family, though I don't pretend to be proficient. Just recently, though, I've discovered "kusudama" (a term that gets thrown around rather loosely) or modular origami.

Here, for instance, is the compound of five tetrahedra, assembled, without glue, from 10 sheets of square origami paper cut into thirty 1:3 rectangles, using the instructions found here.


Each strut is one 1:3 rectangle; three struts fit into one another at each point.


The five tetrahedra are not connected to one another in any way. The tricky part was getting them to intersect correctly while connecting the struts at the vertices.


There are some books on modular origami out there; the best I've found are by Ekaterina Lukasheva, who apparently has a math background. Here's one I've made according to her instructions:


It's assembled from 15 square sheets of origami paper cut into two 1:2 rectangles apiece. The 30 rectangles are all folded in exactly the same way and attached to one another without glue. The patterns are chosen according to the compound of five cubes, with six rectangles of each pattern, and one pattern for each of the five cubes. In the end, the piece is roughly the same as a triacontahedron.


Blogging will continue to be light, but I'll probably soon post some thoughts about the things I've been reading and watching.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Ash Indomitable

What did I do to get dropped into this sad alternate universe in which people apparently prefer interminable shambling zombie soap operas to the exploits of a chainsaw-armed, boomstick-toting deplorable from Michigan who battles Deadites all the way from the medieval past to the post-apocalyptic future?

In other words, I just finished Season 3 of Ash vs Evil Dead, which concludes with – I tell you, you wouldn't even believe it! only to find that the show has been cancelled, and that Bruce Campbell has decided to hang up his boomstick…forever.

So here I sit, all alone, while the rest of the world eagerly debates post-credits scenes and wonders what Robert Downey Jr. and Friends will do with their next billion dollars in the search for Infinity Whatsits, and possibly the most glorious slingshot ending in the history of humanity remains a tantalizing, unanswered what-if.

I mean, geez, the show was scary, gory, disgusting, offensive, hilarious – everything a decent show should be – but, on top of all of that, it was kind of inspiring in a weird way, and even – dare I say it? – touching. In that face-meltingly awesome final episode, Ash, the lovable idiot feared by hordes of evil demons, actually…grows a little bit. I don't know. Maybe, in the divine scheme of things, that meant it really was the End. And that's to say nothing of the fact that he actually gave up his own life, descended to hell, released souls from bondage, and ascended on high to sit on his own throne as the "prophesized" savior of humanity. Where do you go from epic closure in the mythos of summer? Narratively speaking, I mean.

Oh, who am I kidding? There are plenty of places to go from there, and the world is a lesser place because we don't get to see them.

Well, at least we can say this. We got fifteen hours of unadulterated awesomeness that the world simply did not deserve. Plus, the show was made by people who care about their fans, and they made sure to bring the story to an emotionally satisfying if sadly truncated conclusion. Maybe in the long run it will be better this way. Maybe I'll find my way into that alternate timeline where Evil Dead Beyond Thunderdome: Ash vs the Army of Dark Ones is a thing. For now, though, I'm just a little sad to see El Jefe ride off into the sunset, and to bid Pablo and Kelly a fond farewell. (Although, to do them justice, "Pablo" and "Kelly" are having none of it.)

I'll always remember you, Ash. Not for what you were, but for what you've become. You've completed your journey from zero to hero. You've become a king by your own hand. And you know what? If, at this point in my life, I do get back up, and continue to fight for what's right no matter what crazy s**t may happen to me, and go on living as though I have a destiny to fulfill even though 100% of the world around me thinks I'm an idiot, it will, in some part, be thanks to Ash vs Evil Dead. Crazy, isn't it?

Hail to the King, Baby.

Yes, that's a tank. We live in a world in which a show about
Ash battling giant demons with a tank wasn't renewed.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Neverending Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Reviews, Local Fame, Cosmogony, Crime, Etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADDED: And here's an appreciative review of "White Rainbow and Brown Devil" by Fletcher Vredenburgh. Thanks, Fletcher!

Monday, February 5, 2018

"White Rainbow and Brown Devil" at HFQ

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

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

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

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

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