Thursday, August 31, 2017

"Death, Destroyer of Worlds"...Reviewed!

My most recent story, "I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds," or IABDDOW for short, was favorably reviewed by Fletcher Vredenburgh over at Black Gate last week!
As can be expected from an Ordoñez story, what follows is a fusion of swords & sorcery, poetry, and mad visions. His version of the Southwest, a collision of the mythical, historical, and invented, is equally forbidding and enchanting. He is one of the truly original voices writing fantasy today, and I’m glad HFQ has provided a berth for these stories.
Charles Payseur of Quick Sip Reviews fame also gave it favorable mention.
[Carvajal] is an outsider, which means that he is an invader himself. I like how the story faces that, regardless of how benign he might seem, any foreign intrusion into these lands changes them... The action is intense, the tone a mix of horror, fantasy, and humor, and the ending a bit muted and gray. Things change, but that doesn’t mean that everything is destroyed. Another great read!
Both reviewers mention a very special Easter egg contained in this issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, which I think is more fun to discover for yourself. Mr. Vredenburgh is elliptical, but you should wait to read Mr. Payseur's review if you want to enjoy the full effects of your resultant nerd-out.

Please make sure also to check out the other HFQ offerings this month, including Evan Dicken's "Between Sea and Flame," a sequel to his Central American tale "Mouth of the Jaguar." Obviously I'm not the first one who decided that What the World Needs Now is Pre-Columbian / Mesoamerican / Spanish American sword-and-sorcery, and that's not a bad thing! Other delights in the issue include "Rakefire" by Jason Carney and three cool poems.

I'd also like to point out an excellent Black Gate interview with Scott Andrews, editor of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which has published many of my stories. I've been working with HFQ on my Carvajal stories because I've gotten the impression that it's everyone's favorite go-to for the old-school S&S you feel kind of guilty for reading, but BCS is, I think, unique and irreplaceable, and it's interesting to learn about what goes on behind the scenes, both practically and philosophically.

And while you're at it, don't forget this interview with Adrian Simmons and David Farney of HFQ.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Arts and Crafts in Four Dimensions

She returned the smile, then looked across the room to her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, and to their father, who were deep in concentration, bent over the model they were building of a tesseract: the square squared, and squared again: a construction of the dimension of time. It was a beautiful and complicated creation of steel wires and ball bearings and Lucite, parts of it revolving, parts of it swinging like pendulums.*
Madeleine L'Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet
I wrote a couple of months ago about four-dimensional geometry. Today I'd like to continue our progress through transdimensional gulfs and sinister alien geometries by discussing the 120-cell in some detail, and also describing the workflow I used to print the three-dimensional sections and net shown below.


As usual when trying to understand the fourth dimension, it's easiest to proceed by way of analogy with lower dimensions. Imagine a two-dimensional creature, like A. Square of Flatland, existing in a planar universe. Such a creature would have an essentially one-dimensional field of vision, much as our field of vision is essentially two-dimensional (like a painting or a television screen). How would we describe a dodecahedron, that is, a polyhedron formed from twelve regular pentagons, to such a creature?

(Click to read more; I've got a lot going on in this post.)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds" at HFQ

My most recent Tashyas story, "I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds," is live at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. You might call it a story version of my New Mexico musings. It features an illustration by yours truly (profuse apologies to Georgia O'Keeffe):


Though I've continued to work on the third installment of my Enoch books, I've felt it necessary to slow down and step back a bit so that I can see the lie of the land with fresh eyes. Hence my excursion into sixteenth-century Tashyas, a region broadly defined as the land between the Rio Grande and the southern Mississippi. This most recent story takes place among the pueblos near modern-day Santa Fe.

There's been a lot of talk lately about cultural appropriation. I guess these stories are my contribution to the debate / exacerbation of the problem. I can understand why a people would object to seeing part of their culture crassly replicated and accessorized, even in a well-meaning way. Then again, maybe not everything labeled as cultural appropriation actually does that. The world is a strange, confusing, and sometimes horrible place. We're all in it for a limited amount of time. We have to get through it as best we can, using whatever tools come to hand.

The Greek part of my family immigrated to America through Ellis Island. My great-grandfather, a baker from Mykonos, continued to ply his trade in Illinois. I'm told that the sourdough culture he brought with him still thrives in a bakery owned by some relatives. Families tell you lots of things like that. Maybe it isn't true. It would be cool if it were. Seems like a good metaphor, at any rate. I'll leave it as an exercise to draw the application.

(My mother's cousin also tells me that Mary Robeson, a.k.a. "Moldy Mary," acquired the moldy cantaloupe from which researchers cultivated the first strain of penicillin for mass production at a grocery owned by another branch of the family in Peoria. There's a bad pun here somewhere, but I'm not going to make it.)

Being one of my well-rounded readers, you know about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Basically, what you can know about a particle's motion is inversely proportional to what you can know about its position. There's no way to observe a system without altering the system. And the smaller the system is, the more true this is.

I went camping in New Mexico and Arizona a while back. As usual, I visited a few pueblos, mostly looking to buy pottery. At one point I spent an hour talking to a shop owner on Second Mesa in Hopi. His wife sold my boy an arrowhead and a leather pouch (at a discount, because he's an ingenuous kid) and filled it with blessed cornmeal. I bought a kachina doll. It's in my living room now. Maybe it's just the way our floorboards bounce, but the doll always mysteriously rotates to face the northwest, no matter how many times we put it back in its original position...

The Hopi pueblos have been inhabited for a thousand years. They were too far out of the way to be troubled by explorers and missionaries much, and their culture shows fewer marks of outside influence. The people seem friendly but reserved, and not too keen on strangers poking around. Not the kind of place you take pictures.

It's the Cultural Uncertainty Principle. You can't observe a system without perturbing it. They're well aware of that fact. So by what right do I go there? By no right, maybe. I try to be respectful. I contribute to the economy. But perhaps it would be better to just mind my own business. I'm writing this because I don't know the answer. Probably I'll just keep doing what I've been doing.

If you were to look back in my own family tree, you'd find Bohemian farmers, Greek islanders, Berbers from the Canaries, Spanish colonists in Puerto Rico, West African slaves, and Taino Indians. I'm descended from both conquerors and conquered. Should I be apologetic, or resentful? Clearly it would be silly for me to be either.

So, I guess I'll just try to lighten the burden of living, for myself and hopefully for others as well, by writing a few more Carvajal stories with blithe unconcern.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Noir Reviews: The Stranger, July 1946

Our last noir review took in a 1947 Orson Welles film; moving back in time, let's look at his lesser-known movie The Stranger.

Welles himself plays the villainous main character, Franz Kindler, a clockwork-obsessed high-ranking Nazi fugitive who has somehow already gotten himself a job as a prep school teacher (alias Charles Rankin) in one of those irritatingly picturesque New England towns you see in movies. What's more, he's engaged to be married to the daughter of a Supreme Court justice! Their wedding takes place in the first few minutes of the movie, right after he murders his former right-hand man Meinike and buries his body in the woods.

Edward G. Robinson plays the investigator who tails Meinike into town, hoping the little fish will lead him to a bigger fish. Loretta Young plays the wife who gradually discovers that she's married to a monster.

The plot is fairly suspenseful. For someone like me, though, who enjoys noirs for their skewed morality, there's not a lot going on here. The villain is indubitably wicked and portrayed without an ounce of sympathy. He's not even interesting. The investigator is a stolid, righteous man bent on bringing an evildoer to justice. The wife is good and kind, and carefully absolved of psychological collusion. Her deadly coolness at the end does a lot to redeem the movie. For the most part, though, it's unworthy of its director.

Still, The Stranger does have some nice touches. The garrulous checkers-playing drugstore owner (Billy House) steals every scene he's in, even when he shares it with Edward G. Robinson. A couple of scenes move fluidly from the street into the drugstore, and there are some other subtle long takes.

Apart from a bizarre, impassioned anti-German speech intended to throw the investigator off the scent, Kindler's ideology doesn't play a big role – he could have been any kind of criminal, really – but the film does make use of some actual death camp footage, which is a bit shocking even at this distance and must have been much more so at the time. Now that's moral grayness for you: using one of the greatest atrocities the world has ever known as fodder for a trite thriller not two years after Auschwitz closed.

Nietzsche isn't mentioned by name, but I suspect that Welles tried to make his character resemble the famous photo portrait of the philosopher.


Nietzsche has been widely blamed (somewhat unjustly, I believe) for having inspired the Nazis. He adulated Frederick the Great, as the Nazis also did, and Kindler is shown delivering a lecture on Frederick to his prep school students.

The Stranger is in the public domain; you can watch it here.

* * *

I give The Stranger a grade of C for commonplace on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
It's not a bad movie, but it's more of a Hitchcock-style thriller than a true noir. Film noir is about good, ordinary, decent people being guilty, not about evil monsters being guilty. High points in The Stranger include the strangulation scene, the drugstore checkers games, and the clock tower confrontation.

Takeaway quote from The Stranger:

"Good night, Mary. Pleasant dreams."

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street The Blue DahliaThe Lost WeekendGilda and The Lady from Shanghai ***

Monday, July 31, 2017

Noir Reviews: Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai

The first was released in February 1946; the second, in December 1947 (France) and June 1948 (United States). Both star the unbearably sexy Rita Hayworth with a singing voice dubbed by Anita Kert Ellis. Both take place at least partly in exotic locales. In each, a rich and powerful but impotent older man hires a virile younger man to watch over his seductive younger wife, leading to trouble of the femme fatale variety. I'm therefore going to take the liberty of reviewing them together. A little compare-and-contrast.

In Gilda, Glenn Ford plays small-time gambler Johnny Farrell, who uses cleverness, knavery, and machismo to become the right-hand-man of swordstick-toting Buenos Aires nightclub owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Mundson likes to talk about his "little friend" (the swordstick):
Mundson: It is a most faithful and obedient friend: it is silent when I want it to be silent, but talks when I want to talk.
Johnny: Is it that your idea of a friend?
Mundson: That is my idea of a friend.
Johnny: You must lead a gay life.
There's a certain...undertone...to their relationship. How intentional it is I don't know. But it's definitely there. Before long, though, Mundson acquires a trophy wife, a nightclub performer named Gilda (Hayworth) with whom Johnny happens already to be acquainted. Hayworth's kittenish head-toss must be one of the most memorable entrances in movie history. When I first saw Gilda, I racked my brain to remember where I'd seen it before, and then it came to me: it's the shot used in The Shawshank Redemption, a movie a lot of people like and I hate.

Johnny and Gilda very clearly still love each other, but it's a sick kind of love that expresses itself in hate. They're obsessed with punishing and destroying each other to the point of mania. There are some rather improbable happenings involving tungsten mines and plane crashes. I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say [spoiler alert!] that the movie stabs the viewer in the back by letting the principals off with a sentimental happy ending when they clearly should have killed each other or something. Hey! Didn't someone tell me this was a film noir?

Well, what about The Lady from Shanghai? First it must be admitted that, if the plot of Gilda is improbable, then the plot of The Lady from Shanghai is utterly bonkers. This seems to be at least partly an editing issue. The film was directed by Orson Welles, who ran into the production problems that plagued his entire career. What we have of The Lady from Shanghai is magnificent, if bizarre and nonsensical; I don't suppose we'll ever know what it might have been.

The sturdy young man, Michael O'Hara, is played by Welles himself. He's hired by a disabled defense attorney named Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) to serve aboard his yacht and keep his wife Elsa (Hayworth) company as they sail from New York to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal. Michael quickly finds himself entangled in their depraved, world-weary emotional intrigues, particularly after Bannister's partner Grisby comes aboard.

An atmosphere of fever, madness, and apocalyptic gloom hangs over the journey. Even apart from Grisby's ravings, there's an overall sense that things are coming apart, that the world is ceasing to cohere. Soon bombs are going to start falling; already men are feeding on men. At a grim picnic on a torrid tropical beach Michael observes:
Once, off the hump of Brazil I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We'd put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts to to eating each other.In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse...until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn't one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.
That monologue, incidentally, appears to be based on a chapter of Moby-Dick, a book that fascinated Welles throughout his career; he later explored it with a play, and himself played Father Mapple in John Huston's film.

What a beautiful, unsettling movie The Lady from Shanghai is. True, I've never been able to make head or tail of the murder plot. Who was supposed to shoot whom and why? Who was fooled and by whom and for what purpose? I'm still not certain. Maybe the film was just cut too deeply in the editing process. On the other hand, it does end in a surreal empty funhouse, which happens to be a perfect metaphor for the movie as a whole. It's crazy, so you just have to surrender yourself to it and gaze at what you see in wonder.

So, if you want a decent, reliable movie with a happy ending, watch Gilda; if you want the deeply flawed yet enigmatically beautiful work of a genius, watch The Lady from Shanghai.

Wait, what's that? You just want to look at Rita Hayworth for an hour or so? Well, my lowbrow friend, if you want to see the long red hair she's famous for, watch Gilda. If you settle for The Lady from Shanghai, be prepared to see her locks cut short and bleached blonde. Welles and Hayworth were going through a divorce at the time.

Me? I'll take The Lady from Shanghai on both counts.

* * *

I give Gilda a grade of C for commonplace and The Lady from Shanghai a grade of B for Bueno on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
High points in Gilda include Hayworth's entrance and her "Put the Blame on Mame" performance (which is dubbed over, though she sings it on her own later in the movie). High points in The Lady from Shanghai include the dreary tropical picnic, the hall of mirrors shoot-out, and every time Grisby says "tarrrrrr-get practice."

Takeaway quote from Gilda:

"Hate is a very exciting emotion. Haven't you noticed?"

From The Lady from Shanghai:

"It's a bright, guilty world."

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street The Blue DahliaThe Lost Weekend ***