Friday, October 2, 2015

The Apeinator

Last year I began a project of watching sci-fi films from the seventies. I was born in the seventies but grew up in the eighties, so I haven't seen much before The Terminator or Escape from New York. Alien and Star Wars are notable exceptions, but I think of those as belonging more to the eighties, given their multiple sequels, and the fact that I watched them when I was a kid.

Anyway, here's a summary of what I've gotten through so far:
  • Planet of the Apes (1968): Not from the seventies but goes with the others.
  • The Omega Man (1971): Very cool and slightly funky.
  • Silent Running (1972): Underdeveloped tree-hugger flick featuring an overwrought, lachrymose protagonist who flies through space in a terrycloth bathrobe-habit and cuddles bunnies to the tune of throaty Joan Baez ballads. Weird.
  • Soylent Green (1973): Surprisingly excellent future noir with three legendary actors who played in major noir films; this is Edward G. Robinson's swan song, with a beautifully intimate farewell between his character and Charlton Heston's that goes beyond mere acting.
  • Westworld (1973): Never trust robots. Especially creepy Yul Brynner robots.
  • Death Race 2000 (1975): How about I just not review this one? For me the high point was the fistfight between David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. Never knew such a thing existed.
  • Logan's Run (1976): Evocative, strangely beautiful, and life-affirming.
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976): Good Lord, what did I just watch? (Actually I kind of liked this one.)
Well, no review of seventies sci-fi cinema would be complete without covering all those damn dirty Apes movies. Well, thanks to my selfless dedication to this somewhat pointless project, this I now undertake to do.

(For my reflections on the recent reboot films and how they stack up against Planet of the Apes, see here; for my review of the original Pierre Boulle novel, see here.)
Damn Dirty Apes Movies

One thing you notice if you watch the original Apes movies through from beginning to end (which my father claims to have done in one night at a drive-in theater) is that they're quite inconsistent in their world-building. Heck, the first installment isn't even consistent with itself. For instance, it draws attention to the absence of a moon, a detail that's never explained, despite the fact that the planet turns out to be earth. (Oops, spoiler alert.) No explanation as to how the astronauts got back to earth instead of the planet they were making for is given, either.

One minor aspect of the world-building in Planet that I particularly appreciate is the fact that there are no birds. This is important, because the apes disbelieve Taylor's story of having come from the sky. If they had seen birds, the paper airplane folded by Taylor wouldn't have been remarkable to them. But, again, no particular attention is drawn to the fact. A less sensitive, more heavy-handed approach would have underscored it too much, or else ignored the issue altogether.

I mention this subtlety because it does seem purposeful to me, and because the second installment, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, blithely abandons it without an afterthought. That's typical of the series: what was a major plot point in one installment might be completely ignored in the next.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

If I were to rank the Apes movies from first to fifth, this would come in fourth (right before the execrable Battle). After a brief opening featuring Taylor (Charlton Heston again), his mute lover Nova, and some embarrassing special effects, the narrative shifts to his fellow astronaut Brent, who has come in search of him, which, for the record, makes absolutely no sense. Brent believes initially that he's on another planet, but, stunningly, discovers that it's actually a far-future earth ruled by apes! Actually, it's not stunning at all, as this is exactly the same plot as the first installment, only much less artfully executed.

As a matter of fact, the actor who plays Brent (James Franciscus) seems to have a Charlton Heston thing going on. It's almost as though they told him, look, just act like him, OK? Unable to get Heston for the whole film, they compromised by hiring a cheap knock-off for the non-Heston scenes. There's actually one part that seems lifted from Ben-Hur, hand gestures and all. Weird.

Toward the end Brent discovers the buried remains of NYC which is ruled by a race of mutant telepathic humans who worship an atomic bomb using a vernacular translation of the mass. So I guess that's a new twist. The sets are pretty cool, I have to say. Brent is captured by the mutants and finds Taylor. The mutants force the two to fight. I kept hoping Taylor would just kill Brent. That would have made up for a lot. Think about it: throughout the movie, Brent's like this irritating, phony, less muscular version of Taylor; then he meets the real Taylor, and is strangled by him.

Instead, disappointingly, they both survive, and go to mass at St. Patrick's.

The mass itself is interesting to me as a Catholic. This was the era in which the liturgy, which had remained unchanged for centuries, was modified and translated into the vernacular. The mutants' worship service reminds me very much of going to church as a young kid, when such usages were still a novelty, and felt banners abounded. It's interesting how, of all things, science fiction is sometimes the most effective time capsule.

Beneath explores various forms of fanaticism and religious extremism, mostly in unimaginative ways, though I do like the idea of mutants worshiping The Bomb as the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. It ends with Taylor detonating the bomb, destroying all life on earth. The final exchange between Taylor and Dr. Zaius is coldly cynical, and the ending is unrelentingly fitting. But, disappointingly, the screen fades to white instead of showing a special-effects nuclear blast. Even Dr. Strangelove has some mushroom clouds. Couldn't they at least have found some stock footage?

Interesting trivia: the actress who plays the telepathic mutant Albina (Natalie Trundy, the wife of producer Arthur P. Jacobs) went on to play Dr. Stephanie Branton in Escape and the chimpanzee Lisa in Conquest and Battle.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Given how unimpressed I was by Beneath, I'm surprised at how much I enjoyed Escape. It follows the lovable chimp couple Cornelius and Zira (and their colleague, who dies to save money on makeup) back in time to the twentieth century. They're captured and caged, then investigated, then celebrated, then persecuted, and finally murdered.

I see Escape as a sometimes dark, sometimes satirical exploration of American culture at the time. The paranoia of the government and the atmosphere of fear into which Zira and Cornelius are received is well portrayed. It's impossible not to reflect on then-current events, e.g., the Kent State shootings. Dr. Otto Hasslein, the President's shadowy science advisor, deeply suspects the apes and the future they represent. He soliloquizes about whether it would be right to kill them to change future history:
How many futures are there? Which future has God, if there is a God, chosen for man's destiny? If I urge the destruction of these two apes, am I defying God's will or obeying it? Am I his enemy or his instrument?
The chimps' exposure to fashion and entertainment (and "grape juice plus") provides a humorous intermezzo to these more sinister proceedings. They show themselves radically out of step with the prevailing culture, which they find bewildering, reprehensible, and crude. They are a sign of contradiction and a threat to the social order.

More than anything, I find myself delighted by the relationship between Cornelius and Zira. To me, their overacted parts are merely irritating in the first installment; here, perhaps because of their isolation, they seem the most human of the characters. Zira's testimony before a government commission is the high point of the film. She is warm-hearted, humane, strong-minded, and intelligent; her more down-to-earth counterpart Cornelius is a perfect foil.

The final act centers around the birth of their child, Milo, and their subsequent flight and murder. Religious references abound. The President and Dr. Hasslein liken themselves to Herod, and the imagery surrounding the chimp mother, father, and child evokes the Holy Family. Señor Armando (Ricardo Montalbán), the circus owner who harbors the fugitives and ultimately adopts their son, presents them with a medal of St. Francis of Assisi; St. Francis was famously a lover of animals and, it so happens, the inventor of the nativity scene. The ending is hauntingly bleak.

All in all, I think this is my favorite of the sequels to Planet. But its place in the series does raise some insoluble problems of causality: Milo leads the future rise of the apes, and Zira and Cornelius owe their existence to said rise, and Milo is their child. My advice: don't think too hard about it.

Final question: Why does Escape from the Planet of the Apes remind me so much of Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain?

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Conquest follows the fortunes of Milo, now named Caesar for some reason, as he is separated from Señor Armando, forced into slavery, and driven to lead a revolution.

The year is 1991. All dogs and cats have died. Apes now supply companionship and labor. For some reason that is never explained, apes from the wild are, with a little training, suited to becoming intelligent servitors in human households, and look more or less like humans in ape suits. It's like we're already in a parallel universe here.

Impacted by the pointless death of the kindly Armando and the mistreatment of his fellow apes, Caesar goes from wide-eyed amazement at the wonders of the city to disillusionment and finally rage. He teaches the apes to organize and fight, and leads a fiery revolution to overthrow the social order. The saga comes full circle as apes gain the ascendancy and humans begin their slow decline.
Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch, and conspire, and plot, and plan for the inevitable day of Man's downfall. The day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we shall build our own cities, in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you NOW!
The ending was softened by studio demands but remains as bleak as any in the Apes cycle.

I enjoyed the stark, vaguely futuristic setting, with its broad, clean sidewalks and blocky buildings, which reminded me of a college campus and was in fact Century City, Los Angeles, with a little UC Irvine thrown in. The scope of the film is strictly local, which makes the sense of global catastrophe at the end a little hard to believe. It's too bad they didn't have more of a budget. But they took what they had and did very well with it.

I've read that Conquest was inspired by the Watts riots that took place in L.A. in 1965 and similar evidences of civil unrest and racial discord that swept the country during the years that followed. The one human worthy of the viewer's sympathy (other than the unfortunate Armando) is MacDonald, an African American to whom Caesar appeals for understanding of the apes' plight specifically because of his race.

The use of apes as stand-ins for minorities is effective but troubling on a number of levels. Unlike species (or sexes), races are not discrete, mutually exclusive categories, but the fact that the apes seemed a fitting symbol reflects a cynical belief that they may as well be. Tension mounts throughout the movie, and in the end no real reconciliation seems possible: once man no longer dominates ape, ape must dominate man.

At any rate, Conquest is a movie that isn't afraid to tackle current events and controversy. Nowadays when a movie explores an old issue with a level of caution that filmmakers forty or fifty years ago might have thought timid, people treat it a some kind of triumph of courage. It's something I've been appreciating about science fiction movies from this era: where filmmakers in the eighties were content to retreat into safe actioners, those in the seventies were all about pushing the envelope.

Now, here the Apes cycle should have come to its bitter end, but instead the world received

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

about which, the less said, the better. I might have enjoyed this movie if it had made an iota of sense, hadn't been riddled with errors and inconsistencies, and hadn't culminated in an epic battle between a handful of humans driving extremely slow-moving yellow school bus and a smallish mob of poorly armed apes living in tree houses in what looks like some California state park.

I will say this for it: the background paintings for the ruined city are pretty good looking. But, overall, it's a terrible, terrible movie. Bizarrely, its framing device features the legendary John Huston dressed as an orangutan and speaking to a group of children. He would star in Chinatown only a year later. Maybe he just wanted to wear the makeup? Who knows.


For the most part, I enjoyed the Apes movies. They're a snapshot of America at a certain point in time, and don't shy from dealing with delicate issues like religion, nuclear proliferation, race relations, governmental intrusion, antiestablishment movements, women's rights, and the treatment of animals. Causally speaking they're a bit like that Escher staircase that goes up and up and leads back to where it started, but in a way that only adds to their mythic dimension.

So here's how I rank them:
  1. Planet of the Apes
  2. Escape from the Planet of the Apes
  3. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
  4. Beneath the Planet of the Apes
  5. Battle for the Planet of the Apes
Now, if I could only find a clip of the Saturday Night Live cold open where Charlton Heston falls asleep in his dressing room and awakens to find apes ruling the studio. Oh well, here's the transcript.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Best of BCS, Year Six

The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year Six e-book anthology is now out! It has twenty-two stories from the sixth year of BCS, including my story "At the Edge of the Sea."
The Best of BCS, Year Six features such authors as Yoon Ha Lee, Helen Marshall, Richard Parks, Gemma Files, Seth Dickinson, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, and Cat Rambo. 
It includes "No Sweeter Art" by Tony Pi, a finalist for the 2015 Aurora Awards and 2015 Parsec Awards, and "The Breath of War" by Aliette de Bodard, a finalist for the 2014 Nebula Awards. 
The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Online Magazine, Year Six will be available in September for only $3.99 from major ebook retailers including Kindle, Barnes & Noble, iTunes/iBooks, Kobo,, and more.
All proceeds from the anthology go toward supporting such humble wordsmiths as yours truly. Click here for more purchase information.

BCS is also running a sale on the anthology at Weightless Books. Any reader who buys Best of BCS Year Six from will get a coupon for 30% all other BCS titles at Weightless, including other anthologies, back issues, and BCS subscriptions.

My story "At the Edge of the Sea" was inspired by Rachel Carson's books about marine life (e.g., At the Edge of the Sea), Adolf Portmann's Animal Forms and Patterns, Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, and childhood collecting expeditions on the Gulf coast with my biology-teacher father. The backstory owes a bit to the banishments that took place during the reign of Augustus.

But more than anything, in my opinion, here's just not enough fiction about horseshoe crab sex out there; I'm doing my part to fill in that gap.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Red Harvest and Dark Knight

I recently re-read Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest for the nth time. It's one of my favorite books. For a great many years I've been a fan of such movies as Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, whose plots feature a nameless protagonist of dubious uprightness who strolls/rides into a town rotten with corruption, plays the ringleaders against one another, using them to conduct a fiery, bloody purgation, and leaving the clean but significantly depopulated community to the survivors. Red Harvest is, as far as I can tell, the basic template for such films.

"Baxter's over there, Rojo's there, me right smack in the middle."
The nameless Continental Op comes into the dreary, corrupt "Poisonville" on a routine job, but when things go awry and an attempt is made on his life, he vows to open it up "from Adam's apple to ankles." And he does, pitting gangster against gangster in a war that escalates from shots in the dark to pipe bombs and machine guns, until the last pair shoot each other's guts out and the national guard is being called in to restore order. It's all so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes.

The Op describes his mode of operation to Dinah Brand, the goddess-muse-fury of Poisonville:
"Plans are all right sometimes," I said. "And sometimes just stirring things up is all right if you're tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you see what you want when it comes to the top."
In other words, he's an agent of chaos.

On the other hand, I'm an admirer of Christopher Nolan's Batman films. I'm not big on superhero films, but I like DC Comics, and Batman in particular. Always have. It's the fashion nowadays to speak rather dismissively of the Nolan films and of dark, gritty superhero films in general, and I get that – the style is hard to do right, and very bad when done wrong. But I tell you what, we'll be talking about the Dark Knight Trilogy long after all the others being made right now are forgotten. Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, etc., did something no one else has succeeded in doing: they made a single-focus superhero film series with a clear beginning, middle, and end – a complete plot arc – with no loose ends and no chance of continuation. And, what's more, they did something beautiful with it.

Really, the DKT is not best understood as a set of superhero films. They stand more in the realm of fantasy. I think of them as film noir meets mythology. I've commented before on the Man With No Name and the ways in which Batman fits that role. (Cf. The Man With No Name; The Dark Knight; The Harrowing of Gotham.)

Recently, though, just after having finished Red Harvest, I was watching The Dark Knight (which I do with embarrassing frequency), and I noticed something that I'd never seen before: its narrative structure is not unlike Red Harvest and its cinematic descendants, but Batman doesn't play the Op's role. The Joker does. Batman is one of the powers pitted against the others! Did I just blow your mind?

But look at it. The Joker has no name and no history. This is emphasized by Jim Gordon while he's in the holding cell at MCU. (In the comic books he had various backstories, which arguably is the same thing.) In his dialogue with Harvey Dent – one of the great scenes of film – he says:
Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just... do things. [...]
I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hmmm? You know... You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." [Finger quotes!] Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds! [Hands Dent a gun and points it at himself.] Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!
By the end of the movie, the three big gangsters are all dead, their money is torched with their launderer, the corruption on the police force is exposed, the national guard is called in to restore order, and Batman is driven out as a pariah. If the Joker had set out specifically to clean up Gotham, he couldn't have been more efficient.

Of course that's not all there is to the movie. For one thing, the Joker clearly did not set out with that in mind. He seems to want to establish a new order, the order, not of organized crime and police corruption, but of insane supervillainy. That he fails is Batman's victory; but that Batman and Commissioner Gordon have to base the new peace on a lie is the Joker's even greater victory.

The Dark Knight films are truly noir. They are consistently ambivalent about the role of Bruce Wayne / Batman. Consider, for instance, that in each of the first and third films, it's a Wayne Enterprises invention that threatens the city. And Batman himself is arguably to blame for the escalation in urban violence and the rise of the Joker.

At any rate, it's interesting to see the plot structure of Red Harvest appear as a subordinate component of a recent film.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Donald Trump and Me

All my life I've been telling myself that one day – one day – I would share the front-page news with Donald Trump. Well, my friends, that day has arrived.

Yes, that's the nice thing about living in an out-of-the-way place. There's a pretty low bar for making the news. As you can see, I even made it above the fold. (Well, partially.) Which underscores something that seems rather quaint by today's standards: where I live, if you want to know what's going on, you have to get a print newspaper subscription. Crazy!

The article is in Q&A format. Even if you read this blog only on rare occasions, most of it will be no news to you. It gets my workplace wrong (I work at a university, not a junior college), but that only serves to keep my real-life persona shrouded in shadows of disinformation, much like Batman.

I offer the article mainly as a curiosity, because I feel fairly certain that this is the first time a magazine like Beneath Ceaseless Skies and (possibly) the Hugo award have made the news in my region.

Now, the last time I wrote about my art show, I pontificated in a faintly self-congratulatory manner on the fact that there is no bookstore within a couple hundred miles of Del Rio. Here you can see that I was not entirely correct, as there was in fact a book sale at the "mall" (ahem) that Saturday. I happened upon it while we were at said mall for the tax-free weekend mentioned on Page 1. (Because, for us, Del Rio is the Big City. I mean, they even have a Starbucks and a Chick-fil-A now.)

Whilst perusing the wares, I ran into the reporter who wrote the article posted here. He told me he had read "The Scale-Tree" and enjoyed it. So there: I gained a reader for BCS in the middle Rio Grande border region.

Also whilst perusing the wares I suffered a small indignity. One of the book-sale ladies, seeing me there with my kids, kept pushing children's books on me. She went so far as to hand my kids book after book (all crummy picture books) and try to convince them to buy them. She kept hovering by us and wouldn't take no for an answer.

Finally, trying to be as civil as I could, I told her that, if I wanted to buy my kids books, I was capable of making the selections myself (with their input, of course), and also that I intended to wait for my wife, who was elsewhere at the time.

Not to be put off, she offered to take the books she'd handed us and keep them at the table, "if," she said, "you're really coming back, and not just saying that."

"No thanks," I said. "We'll get them later if we want them."

"If you just don't have the money," she said, "I'll pay for them myself." (They cost a quarter apiece.)

Through gritted teeth: "No. Thank you."

So I guess I come across as a deadbeat who lies to book-sale ladies, keeps his little waifs starved of books, and probably beats his dog every weekend. In reality, my kids have two bookcases filled to capacity, and I have three large bookcases filled to capacity, plus an antique secretary full of books, plus a shelf of art books in my studio, plus two large bookcases full of math books and great books in my office, plus several boxes of books in a closet, plus a bunch more under my bed. So I'm just kind of selective about what makes the cut. (I also don't have a dog, though I do have a pretty brown hen who comes into the house, flaps up to my shoulder, and clucks tenderly to me.)

But I guess it serves me right after my back-patting. Here's these ladies, working as volunteers, and by that simple act probably doing more for literacy in the region than I ever could. So here's to you, book-sale ladies. We're all in this together!

(For the record, we ended up buying two Laura Ingalls Wilder books, The Sign of the Beaver, Julie of the Wolves, a compact Modern Library edition of Pascal's Pensées and Provincial Letters, and a large book of botanical illustrations, all hardcover. Somehow this ended up costing exactly $4.00.)

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Mad Max in Lego!

"On the road it was a white-line nightmare. Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive."
As I have mentioned before, one of the unexpected joys of parenting is the fact that you get to play with your kids' cool toys – nay, you are lauded as a good parent for playing with your kids' toys – at a time when you can do way awesomer things than you could ever have done when you were a kid yourself.

So, with summer vacation winding down to a close, my son was wanting me to build some Lego cars with him. Naturally I was not content with building mere Legotown jalopies. Naturally my mind ran immediately to Mad Max.

Here we have Max Rockatansky himself in his V8 Interceptor pursued by the vermin of the wasteland across the post-apocalyptic hellscape that is my dining room buffet, with lace curtains billowing desolately in the background. (Pretend that that scalloped cloth made by my great-grandmother is actually a salt pan.)

It isn't perfect, but you have to work with what you're given, being in this case my son's Lego bucket. Still, look at all those cool pieces. I made a fairly crude blower out of this and that, and was proud of my work, only to discover that my son actually has several Lego blowers. It was a bit of a let-down, in fact. But it's hard to argue with something that ups the coolness factor by an order of magnitude at least.

My creation doesn't come from any one Mad Max movie in particular, mostly because I was constrained by the limitations of my son's collection. But it's easy to imagine making, say, the Gyro Captain's autogyro, or the Mack truck used to haul "that fat tank of gas," or Pappagallo's rocket-car, or the hedgehog attack shovel, or the dump/drum truck with its bungee-jumping flame-throwing guitarist, etc., etc.

If only there were Lego mohawks!

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Local Styles of Clark Ashton Smith

Unless you've been living under a rock, or are perhaps a well-adjusted adult belonging to 99.7% of the general population, you are no doubt aware of the recent Hugo award controversy. After careful deliberation, I've decided to signal my views on this embarrassing public display extremely important, historic debate by blogging about something completely different.

While working on various projects over the spring and summer, I had the opportunity to listen to all five volumes of Clark Ashton Smith's collected stories published by Night Shade Press. I was already familiar with Smith's various settings and stories, and indeed had read certain of his stories many times over. But hearing them all at once, from beginning to end, in the order in which they were written (and not grouped according to setting and internal chronology, as Lin Carter attempted to do), I was struck very much by the extreme variability of his work.

Anyone who knows anything about Smith has heard of Hyperborea, Zothique, and Averoigne. Less well-known are his planetary fantasies, his science fiction stories, and his supernatural tales. Here's rough account of the milieus that appear in more than one story:
  • Xiccarph*: a planet described without any reference to earth or human exploration; ancient, weird, sublime, alien, terrifying, and perverse. Cf. "The Maze of Maal Dweb," "The Flower Women." The one Lophai story, "The Demon in the Flower," is pretty similar.
  • Hyperborea*: a prehistoric Arctic realm of steaming jungles and wicked cities that slowly succumbs to the advance of the glaciers. Cf. "The Seven Geases," "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," "The Door to Saturn," "The Coming of the White Worm."
  • Poseidonis*: the last remnant of foundered Atlantis. Cf. "The Death of Malygris," "A Voyage to Sfanomoë."
  • Averoigne: a fictional province of medieval France filled with mysterious forests and ancient ruins and isolated abbeys and quiet hamlets, and inhabited by monks, bishops, witches, and lycanthropes.
  • California: a state on the western coast of the United States, where stories are typically narrated by one Philip Hastane, writer of fantastic fiction. Cf. "The City of the Singing Flame."
  • Colonial Mars (Aihai): man's colonies on the Red Planet, which are shared with enigmatic aborigines. Cf. "Vulthoom," "The Dweller in the Gulf," "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis."
  • The Alcyone: an "ether-ship" on a voyage to circumnavigate the universe. Cf. "Marooned in Andromeda," "A Captivity in Serpens."
  • Zothique*: the "last continent on earth," a far-future amalgam of the Orient of Victorian romance, mysterious and cruel. These works are classics in the Dying Earth canon. Cf. "The Isle of the Torturers," "The Charnel God."
Most of these stories can be found at Eldritch Dark. Milieus with a star (*) were featured as Ballantine Adult Fantasy editions. There are many miscellaneous stories as well, but most fall under one of these headings.

What I've noticed is that Smith's style varies considerably from story to story, but that the mood and voice of a story seem dictated by its setting. Let me give some examples.

The Xiccarph stories are planetary fantasies with a setting quite different from anything I can think of. They are ornate – bejeweled – but altogether joyless. Their telling is luxuriously sedate and cruel and pointless. There is little climax. They are, in fact, expressions of the ennui bred by indolence and splendor. Which is fitting, given that this is what moves the inexorable protagonist (the sorcerer Maal Dweb) to action. Smith's one Lophai story, "The Demon in the Flower," a planetary fantasy that is dark and ornate but not languorous, seems closely related.

The Hyperborea fantasies are typically told in a tone of lofty irony. Most are dryly humorous. Much of the humor derives from the elevated speech of the characters (reminding one of Jack Vance) and the detached commentary on their actions. The protagonists generally come to some high and unpleasant doom.

The Poseidonis stories are similar in some respects, but typically lack the ironic tone. In "A Voyage to Sfanomoë," for instance, the principals escape the final disaster by voyaging via space ship to Venus only to be devoured by teeming flora, but their fate is presented as weirdly joyous and horrific rather than amusingly nasty. Really the effect is rather hard to describe.

The telling of the Averoigne stories is quite different from any of the above. They're elegant without being ornate or florid. They sound like tales from an old book of romances, and have a certain charming naivety. The supernatural elements are rather ordinary, consisting mostly of sorceresses, werewolves, and vampires. Religion, a matter of dark irony in the Hyperborea cycle, is treated diffidently here. Morality is a matter of concern.

(Averoigne, I have to say, is my least favorite of Smith's invented milieus. I don't know what this says about me, but I prefer votaries of Tsathoggua to Benedictine monks.)

The Philip Hastane stories are written in unadorned prose. The tone is earnest and straightforward, the descriptions vivid, the dialogue commonplace. The descriptions of California are well-grounded in reality. The stories generally concern the irruption of cosmic weirdness into the mundane world. Here I see the influence of British supernatural horror writers like Arthur Machen, Oscar Wilde, and William Hope Hodgson.

The voyages of the Alcyone are recounted with stolid prose and reserved, half-humorous dialogue. I could almost imagine Mr. Peabody doing a voiceover. I've never heard them much commented upon, but find their descriptions of alien life uniquely enjoyable. The unfathomability of alien psychology is particularly well handled. Their plots are pretty similar, each involving a sequence of adventures on some mysterious planet, followed by a narrow escape into space. But it's refreshing to read such quaint (by modern standards) science fiction from the thirties.

To me, the Zothique tales recall Victorian imaginings of the Orient as encountered in works like Burton's One Thousand and One Nights or Beckford's Vathek. Their tone is dark and frequently ironic, but never humorous. It has the slow and somber richness of a grand mausoleum, but here the mausoleum is the world itself. Smith wrote more stories set in Zothique than in any other place. It's a pity that the Ballantine edition is so hard to find.

What intrigues me about all this is the fact that Smith, who invented more settings than any other author I can think of, apparently felt that these trappings were inextricably linked to style. I think he was onto something. I've written in the past about style in fantasy, and in particular the opposing viewpoints of C. S. Lewis and Ursula K. LeGuin. I incline more toward the latter, but in my opinion neither quite gets it right. It's a point I'll have to return to sometime soon.

At any rate, compare this to someone like H. P. Lovecraft, who grew out of his early Dunsanian phase (which owed a large debt to its model) only to settle into the stylistically monolithic Chthulu-mythos phase for which he is most famous. The latter stories are all told in precisely the same voice, even when supposedly narrated by a character. The Lovecraft style is easy to parody precisely because it is so uniform. Taken individually, Lovecraft's stories are much more substantial that most of Smith's, but as a stylist I think Smith can skate circles around him.

It's a shame that Smith is not better known (as noted at Black Gate today), because, for sheer versatility and inventiveness, he has no peer.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Battle-Off at Grimdark

In other news, I've entered an excerpt from Dragonfly in the Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off. I don't exactly consider myself a specialist in grim, martial literature, but I do enjoy terse yet vivid action scenes. Perhaps it's a bit impertinent of me to submit my piece alongside those of people who focus on such things, but, as they say, no publicity is bad publicity! I'll enjoy taking a look at the other entries, at any rate.

Really good out-and-out battle scenes are very hard to write. If I were to write a full account of the clash of two (human) armies, I think I'd feel safest hewing close battles I've studied, e.g., those of ancient Greece. I remember my dad, who went through the U. S. Army War College, spending hours upon hours and days upon days reading books and writing papers on the art of waging war. It gave me a lively appreciation for the intricacies of the subject. Of course, the goal is to convince the average reader, not an expert on maneuvers.

As an avid reader of classic fantasy, I find Tolkien's battles thrilling and uniquely satisfying, Robert E. Howard's battles sometimes quite good and sometimes very dull and unreal, and Edgar Rice Burroughs' battles a bit silly but delightful nonetheless. E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, otherwise so meticulous in its description of martial feats (and accoutrements), is curiously reticent when it comes to battles, resorting to a number of subterfuges to avoid them. I wonder if he tried his hand at them but found the results wanting?

So anyway, I see that my battle (involving cyclopes) has garnered nine votes as of now. Alas, the links at Grimdark aren't being generated quite right at this point, and the URL refers to my novel as Firefly, a very different kind of insect, but have no fear, my Dragonfly excerpt is near, a mere two clicks away. You just might have to hunt around a bit.

Albrect Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander at Issus, 1529.

A Black Gate Review of "The Scale-Tree"

Fletcher Vredenburgh offers a nice review of "The Scale-Tree" in his July short-story roundup over at Black Gate:
Raphael Ordoñez dives into the blacker depths of storytelling in the “The Scale-Tree.” Zeuxis, a “flying artist and geometer”  and his family live in a tower in Enoch, the great world-city that features in several of Ordoñez’s other stories as well as his novel, Dragonfly. Zeuxis tries to provide for his family by selling his paintings but it’s a constant struggle. 
When he dies in a flying accident his wife and two children wind up in the middle of a tale inspired by the Grimm’s “The Juniper Tree” (think creepy step-parent, a child at severe risk, and a meal you should definitely not eat). This is one of the more unsettling stories I’ve read in months and one of the best. Ordoñez’s writing is rooted in the less genre-bound styles of early fantasy and fairy tales, coupled with a contemporary concern for creating more complex and fully human characters. If you haven’t read any of his work till now, this is the perfect place to start.
I keep up with Black Gate because a shocking number of people who like to read the same slightly obscure things I do hang out there (thank you, Internet), so as always it's a pleasure to have my name appear in its cyber-pages.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Bosque-Larios II

Bosque-Larios II, 5" x 7", watercolor on hot-pressed paper.
There is, locals claim, an extensive network of caverns underneath the town where I live. The first I'd heard of it was a few weeks ago, when the newspaper published some old timers' recollections, and others wrote in to corroborate. Apparently it's a town secret of sorts.

The caverns were discovered in the early twentieth century when someone was digging for a well. This was right in the middle of town, about half a mile down the street from my house. A number of adventurers descended into this civic underworld, using candles for light, it being the Great Depression. The explorers found chambers and long passages and lakes and flowing waterfalls. There were abortive attempts to seal off the system because of the dangers it posed, but these came to naught. The fun ended at last when a couple of young men lost their way and had to be rescued. Aunt Polly triumphed, and the hole was plugged with concrete.

And there it sits to this day, a circle of concrete in someone's back lot on the south side of town, forgotten by all but a few. But the newspaper had one old picture of several men in a sizable chamber hung with speleothems. Just to think, that could be right under my feet!

Other people wrote in to say that they remembered a cave mouth in a field up north of town, but no one knows where it's at now. It led to an extensive cavern that was accessible only by rope. It's thought that the systems connect. One person claims that someone once walked underground all the way here from Bat Cave in the hills north of town, but that is a manifest falsehood. Still, the testimony is unanimous that there is a secret subterranean world underneath our houses.

All of which immediately made me think of the girl of the Gueiquesales, whose image I painted in Bosque-Larios I last winter:

Being the romantic that I am, I conjecture that her incorrupt body reposes somewhere beneath the town. The natives doubtless had access to the system from some opening that is now lost.

I painted Bosque-Larios I as the first installment of a series of paintings depicting local legendry, especially that which comes down from the Spanish colonial era. This particular story (which I recount here) is not very well known. I became interested in it after reading a historical marker about the High Mass on the Nueces River.

I've just completed the second installment, Bosque-Larios II, which depicts said High Mass with no particular regard for historical accuracy (see above).  It measures 5 inches by 7 inches and is painted in watercolor on Arches hot-pressed paper. The landscape is typical of the area. In the background we have a cottonwood and a couple of ash junipers; a palo verde (a lovely green-skinned acacia with bright yellow flowers) hangs over the group, and prickly pear, cenizo, and agave occupy the foreground. The slightly crazy perspective is inspired by Henri Rousseau (or so I tell myself), as are various other elements; there's a bit of Diego Rivera as well.

I've been showing my art locally, hence the emphasis on local culture. This painting and others are currently on display in a one-man show at a gallery and community center called Casa de la Cultura, located on the historic Brown Plaza in Del Rio, Texas. La Casa has kindly put me up for a couple of nights in town at a cool retro motel called Whispering Palms Inn, and that's where I'm writing from.

The exhibit has a wall dedicated to Dragonfly art, accompanied by a pedestal with a few Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks and a Frank Frazetta-illustrated copy of Thuvia, Maid of Mars and Chessmen of Mars between bookends. It's the first shrine to pulp fantasy in the middle Rio Grande border region that I know of. The show's opening is tonight. I wonder what my fellow citizens will think of it?

I don't live in Del Rio, but it's on the circuit I ride as a professor. I have a lot of good friends here. The people are friendly, the culture diverse, the air hot, and the vegetation sparse. It's a remote place, standing at the eastern end of the longest stretch of U.S.-Mexico border with no crossings. The next crossing is the Presidio-Ojinaga International Bridge, which is hundreds of miles away. Between here and there is a whole lot of nothing, and directly west is what's been called one of the remotest places on earth. But, simply put, this is one of my favorite places in the world.

There are no bookstores in Del Rio, and in fact the nearest bookstore on this side of the river is one hundred and fifty miles away, in San Antonio. Perhaps one day that will no longer be the case. It's my hope that, in my own small way, I can help to effect a change for the better.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Charles Saunders and Imaro

I'm very happy this week to find myself enjoying an author I hadn't read before: Charles R. Saunders, seminal writer of sword-and-soul set in a mythical Africa-that-never-was. I first learned of Mr. Saunders' work over at Swords and Sorcery; Mr. Vredenburgh has also reviewed it at Black Gate. I read (er, listened to) Saunders' 1981 fix-up novel Imaro over the weekend, and finished up Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush today.

And, wow. Something about it just resonates with me. I've read latter-day sword-and-sorcery by the likes of Fritz Lieber and Michael Moorcock, and found it enjoyable enough, but to me it just doesn't carry the bite or freshness of Robert E. Howard or the other old pulp writers. Charles Saunders' brooding Imaro obviously owes a lot to Conan, but the tales of his exploits have a depth and substantiality all their own. For all that they're entertaining adventure stories, they take themselves seriously, and occasionally transcend the genre.

As in the best of fantasy, the Imaro stories are suffused with the living presence of their secondary world. And, to me at least, it's a refreshingly different secondary world. Nyumbani is a beautiful and stirring picture of the soul of Africa and its peoples as seen from within, as opposed to the exotic and alien but essentially flat backdrop of Howard's, Burroughs', or Haggard's Africa.

It's pretty obvious to someone who adulates and emulates the great triumvirate of the pulps (REH, HPL, CAS) that Mr. Saunders is inspired by their works – the first two especially – but with a certain amount of inner conflict. I've written a bit about this on my own account. In one story that I particularly like, "The City of Madness," the first part of Imaro 2, the hero encounters a lost city of white men – a common trope in Haggard, Burroughs, and Howard – where the inhabitants' conquests are celebrated in carvings of lordly white men subduing "apish" (Saunders' word) black men, a dehumanization that deeply angers Imaro. That descriptor is drawn, with heavy irony, from Robert E. Howard, who uses it to describe the black men in his stories. And as for H. P. Lovecraft, whose racial views are well-known, the story concludes with a crude jest at the expense of a cosmic entity with a name not unlike Yog-Sothoth.

But at the same time, this and the other Imaro stories are not "smart" postmodern exercises in deconstructive metafiction. No, they're ripping good yarns told with a straight face, with the zest and aplomb of the best pulp writers. So in Saunders I see someone who genuinely loves the work of HPL and REH while deeply hating the racism that mars it, and who has the audacity and courage to write stories that celebrate the good while critiquing the bad.

Here's another example. Weird horror leaks into the Imaro stories all over the place – as it should in any true sword-and-sorcery tale – and its form is often reminiscent the Chthulu mythos. In "The Place of Stones," the third story in Imaro, the eponymous hero, an isolated half-breed, encounters a sorcerer whose willing commerce with the dark forces of mchawe have transformed his body into something out of "The Dunwich Horror." The parallel seems pointed. HPL's Wilbur Whately is a monster precisely because he is a half-breed. Imaro, on the other hand, is a half-breed pitted against an adversary who has made himself a monster through his own choices. In the former, evil is in heredity; in the latter, evil is in choice.

So there are incisive comments here and there, for those with the eyes to see them. But, as I said, the stories themselves are not commentaries. They don't preach or moralize. They are supremely enjoyable S&S tales, unapologetic homages to REH and the rest. Imaro may pause to brood over bas reliefs, but he then goes into the crumbling city like Conan into Xuthal or Xuchotil to save his woman and thwart elder evils.

This is a writing blog (mostly). When I review books, I do so from the point of view of a writer. As a writer, I think Mr. Saunders will be an inspiration to me in the future.

For one thing, his Imaro books have had a difficult career, to say the least. The first three volumes were published by DAW Books in the eighties, but a cover quote calling Imaro "a black Tarzan" (!?) on the cover of the first provoked a lawsuit from the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, causing delays and poor sales. The series was eventually dropped by DAW after the third installment as a financial failure. Attempts to revive the series over the next decade or so proved unsuccessful.

The first two volumes were published in revised editions by Night Shade Books in 2006 and 2008, together with the excellent audiobooks to which I'm listening. But, alas, nothing more came of that for Imaro, when the series was again dropped due to poor sales. Mr. Saunders subsequently published a revised version of the third volume independently, through Sword & Soul Media, and the fourth volume of Imaro finally came out through the same channel in 2009.

Now, okay, I haven't read the third or fourth volumes, but I've read the first two, and found them damn good. It's a shame that Mr. Saunders has had to resort to self-publishing. My natural reaction is: What is wrong with people? Apparently there's no room for Imaro on the shelves of readers or bookstores. Who's at fault? I don't know. Nobody, maybe.

And yet Mr. Saunders has stuck with it all these years. That really says something to me as a writer. He walks a difficult line, writing what he likes rather than what people think he ought to write. I found this on his blog:
I think we need to concentrate on writing good stories with fast-moving plots, compelling characters and intriguing backgrounds. Readers – whether they are black or otherwise – will be attracted to those stories, provided that they become aware of the stories' existence. I should amend that to say some readers. There will always be certain readers who simply don't like a writer's stuff. But there will also be those who love a writer's stuff, and the Internet provides an excellent way to connect with them... 
Meanwhile, I have no time for this "If you don't write about the ghetto, you ain't black" nonsense. You write what you are inspired to write. Inspiration is what motivates you to produce the perspiration necessary to pursue any creative endeavor, whether it's writing, visual art, music, or film-making. If a writer is inspired to write "street lit," then he or she should go for it. But we should not impose limits on our inspirations – or our imaginations. [Audience – Where Are You?]
But he's also caught flack of another sort. When Imaro was issued by Night Shade Books, one of its six stories ("Slaves of the Giant Kings") was replaced by a new story ("The Afua") because the former, Mr. Saunders felt, too closely resembled the Rwandan genocide. This didn't sit well with some readers, and one went so far as to accuse him of having made the change because of "misdirected shame" over the fact that blacks can behave just as atrociously as whites. The comment is offensive for multiple reasons which I'll not try to enumerate. But so there's that kind of thing, too.

Incidentally, I enjoyed "The Afua" considerably. I wasn't aware that it was a newer story while listening to it. The titular image, worshiped by a forest tribe, is a mute, enigmatic figure covered with golden spikes, reposing in a shrine remote from the rest of its village. It possesses a strange, creepy magnetism, and serves as the center that binds the community together. When the people are robbed of it they are robbed of common purpose and life's meaning. Disorientation and despair overwhelm them. Ultimately they meet a haunting fate in the deeps of the jungle.

I recently visited an African exhibit at a museum of fine arts. I looked at the artifacts carved of wood and decorated much as this Afua, and wondered what gulfs must separate my mind from their makers'. What was the world like to them? Was it a good place? A frightening place? What does an image like Afua mean to the person who venerates it? The term idolatry that a Westerner might be tempted to apply hardly seems sufficient, or just. For a people dwelling at the dawn of man (in state if not in time), enclosed by the dark womb of nature, the universe is a sublime and terrible place, and just because their instinctive movement toward latria can't be codified doesn't mean that their practices, though strange to our eyes, are mere simple-mindedness or superstition. I don't know if it is possible to really say what Afua means to them.

So you see, these are the kinds of things that occur to me while reading the Imaro stories. Elric of Melniboné sparks no such speculation. I intend to follow up the further adventures of Imaro in volumes three and four once I get around to ordering them, and may try Saunders' other work as well.

Thank you, Mr. Saunders, for continuing to write original, honest-to-goodness sword-and-sorcery. You are an inspiration, sir.