Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Witch of Anûn

My story "Witch of Anûn" has been published in the May issue of Swords & Sorcery Magazine. You may read it here. Though written before all the other stories I've gotten published, this one is my personal favorite, and I'm very glad to have finally found a home for it. As usual, it takes place in my paleozoic counter-earth at the cosmic antipodes.

Please go check it out!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Santa Maria sopra Minerva

In my other life as a math professor and artist, I'm getting ready for my first public exhibition. For your viewing pleasure, therefore, O loyal reader or Google-search user, here is my most recent piece: Santa Maria sopra Minerva, 8" x 12", watercolor on Arches hot-pressed paper.

I began it in 2008, but the combined pressures of completing my doctoral dissertation and having a newborn baby with serious nourishment problems caused me to forego it. Then inertia set in. But, as I said, I'm preparing for an exhibition, so I have a fire under me.

It depicts the façade of the Roman church Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Saint Mary over Minerva), so named because it stands on the site of a pagan temple. I visited it while on pilgrimage in 2007. Saint Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380) and the artist Fra Angelico (1395 – 1455) are entombed inside. Catherine, who was the twenty-second child born to her parents, became a lay Dominican as a young woman, nursed plague victims, wrote books on prayer (after being taught by the Holy Spirit how to read and write), and undertook a letter-writing campaign to end the Great Schism and bring the Pope back to Rome from Avignon.

Saint Catherine of Siena
watercolor on clay ground
2.5" x 3.5"
She died at the age of thirty-three. Fra Angelico is, of course, the great fresco painter, most famous for his Annunciation.

Anyway, Santa Maria sopra Minerva is pretty much the only Gothic church in the city, though the façade doesn't tell you that. It stands within sight of the Pantheon. The elephant statue, which is Bernini's, is known as Pulcino della Minerva; it supports an Egyptian obelisk brought to the city by the emperor Diocletian.

Click for a larger view.
(You knew that, right?)
(If you're a reincarnated Egyptian priestess, don't look too closely at my transcription of the hieroglyphs.)

It's unusual for me to return to a painting after having left it aside for so long. Actually, I've never done it before. If you want to know the truth of the matter, the Blessed Virgin asked me to finish it, and promised me the skill to do so. To wit:
Most people make a practice of embellishing a wall with golden tin, because it is less costly. But I give you this urgent advice, to make an effort always to embellish with fine gold, and with good colors, especially in the figure of Our Lady... As the old saying goes, good work, good pay. And even if you were not adequately paid, God and Our Lady will reward you for it, body and soul. [Il Libro dell'Arte, Cennino Cennini]
Anyway, it's been six years since I painted with watercolors on paper, so I was rather nervous. When I started last Thursday, I only had the façade itself done, but somehow I was able to work more quickly than I usually do, and with greater confidence and boldness in my use of colors, probably because I've gotten used to oils, which are much more forgiving.

With that I'll bid my adieu, leaving you with a couple excerpts from Maritain's Art and Scholasticism, which heavily influenced me at the time:
In the powerfully social structure of mediæval civilization the artist ranked simply as an artisan, and every kind of anarchical development was prohibited to his individualism, because a natural social discipline imposed upon him from without certain limiting condition. He did not work for society people and the dealers, but for the faithful commons; it was his mission to house their prayers, to instruct their minds, to rejoice their souls and their eyes. Matchless epoch, in which an ingenuous folk was educated in beauty without even noticing it, as perfect religious ought to pray without being aware of their prayers; when doctors and painters lovingly taught the poor, and the poor enjoyed their teaching, because they were all of the same royal race, born of water and the Spirit!
      More beautiful things were then created and there was less self-worship. The blessed humility in which the artist was situated exalted his strength and his freedom. The Renaissance was destined to drive the artist mad and make him the most miserable of men—at the very moment when the world was to become less habitable for him—by revealing to him his own grandeur and letting loose upon him the wild beast Beauty which Faith kept enchanted and led after it obedient, with a gossamer thread for leash. 
Consider Saint Catherine of Siena, that apis argumentosa who was the counselor of a Pope and Princes of the Church, surrounded by artists and poets and leading them into Paradise. Perfectly prudent, but set far above Prudence, judging all things by Wisdom, which "in regard to all the intellectual virtues is architectonic," and in whose service Prudence is "like a door-keeper in the service of the king," the Saints are as free as the Spirit. The wise man, like God, is interested in the effort of every life.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

King of the Monsters

So, I went to see Godzilla. My assessment: it wasn't half bad, and could have been a heck of a lot worse.

That's a compliment, coming from a curmudgeon like me. I enjoyed it. Nothing about it annoyed me exceedingly. There were a number of stupid plot points, like the decision to ship a nuclear warhead by train and then by ship directly through the path of a marauding, radiation-devouring MUTO when it would have been quite easy to have flown it around the creatures to its destination on the other side of San Francisco Bay, but, well, whatever. It's a movie about giant monsters.

I haven't seen a huge number of kaiju movies, but I have seen some of the old classics, and this entry strikes me as being very much in the same vein. The force/character Godzilla has been called a personification of the ghost of guilt and dread that hung over post-war Japan in the wake of the bombs. This movie therefore very appropriately begins with archival "footage" of the Bikini Atoll test in 1954, which, as a nice touch, is the year the original Godzilla came out.

My grandfather, who was in the navy, was present at the Bikini tests, though he never mentioned anything about massive unidentified terrestrial organisms. Later on my grandparents lived in Japan, and my dad has talked about experiencing earthquakes out in the countryside, watching the road undulate as ripples ran across the land. He's also talked about the atmosphere of the country less than two decades after the war. It's no surprise that kaiju movies originated at that time and place.

The current Godzilla opens with a nuclear disaster that makes one think of the catastrophic, tsunami-triggered Fukushima meltdown a few years ago. Godzilla himself, when he finally strides ashore in Hawaii, creates a tsunami in urban Waikiki, the visual handling of which reminded me very much of the chilling footage that emerged from the Tōhoku earthquake, further strengthening this connection. On the American side, we have a MUTO hatching out of the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada.

The tone of the movie is dead serious, which is fine with me. I immensely enjoyed last year's Pacific Rim – it's symptomatic of my lowbrow tastes, I suppose, that I've seen Pacific Rim several times now, but haven't the least interest in watching the Hugo-winning Gravity – but, in view of Godzilla's subject matter and inspiration, I think this more joyous approach would have been inappropriate. The 1954 Godzilla was actually rather grim.

And it doesn't bother me that the MUTOs are defeated through no action of the human principals, for this also is quite canonical. Just the other day I watched Ghidora, the Three-Headed Monster with my daughter, and it reminded me of the 2014 Godzilla at several points, most of all through the role of Godzilla as a force of restoration. The massive coincidence involved in having the main protagonist, a military bomb expert, be the son of the guy who first caught on to the cover-up, and actually present at the hatching of the MUTO, is also no stumbling block. Ghidora, after all, features a detective looking for a missing-princess-turned-Venusian-prophetess, brother of a journalist covering a group watching for extraterrestrials, whose love interest is a professor studying the "meteorite" from which King Ghidora hatches.

There are some beautiful visuals in this film. I especially enjoyed the overgrown, ruined Japanese city behind the quarantine zone, and the unearthly night scenes of the monster battle in San Francisco. There are also some really great shots of Godzilla swimming under aircraft carriers, etc. The cinematography is generous: it gives us a lot more than it need have.

Part of the score is provided by György Ligeti, whose work is known to me chiefly through the haunting monolith scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This might have been an inspired choice for Godzilla, but unfortunately the viewer has been assaulted with so many action set-pieces by that point that the element of dread mystery has been squandered.

In that connection, it's apposite to note that many reviewers have compared Godzilla to Spielberg movies like Jaws and Jurassic Park. We have the slow build-up – which is typical of the old kaiju movies, and works perfectly here – but also the slightly bland, well-rounded plot. I'm no huge fan of Spielberg, as I like little eccentricities and inspired wing-shots as opposed to mainstream spectacles for mass consumption. But, as I said, the formula certainly works well here.

The main human protagonist is a thing of cardboard, as are most of the characters. That's a disappointment, but of course the real protagonist of a Godzilla movie is Godzilla himself. The people are just witnesses. And that's my only serious criticism of this movie: Godzilla's "character" (such as it is) is not fleshed out. We need more information about his motivations. Why, exactly, does he rise from the deep to destroy the MOTUs? How is this related to his "awakening" in the 1950s and the Bikini "test"? In Ghidora we have thought-processes related to us by tiny telepathic pop singers from Infant Island; we don't need that here, exactly, but Dr. Serizawa (the token Japanese character) could at least have said something coherent on the subject. It doesn't have to be all spelled out, but the movie is supposed to be about Godzilla, after all, and not these insectile MUTOs.

Anyway, I enjoyed the movie quite a lot. It's definitely something to see on the big screen. There's talk of a sequel featuring a monster island. A writer at HuffPo has offered the unsolicited opinion that this would be a mistake, as Jaws II and Jurassic Park II were disappointments. But this is Godzilla, the King of the Monsters, not a shark or a mere dinosaur, and I for one would welcome such a film. If there's anything the world needs now, it's movies about giant monsters rampaging across the earth.

UPDATE: Mr. Ryan Harvey, who knows much more about you-know-who than I do, reviews Godzilla in glowing (and much more eloquent) terms over at Black Gate. As struck by the visuals as I was, he makes a comparison I wish I had made, namely, between the nighted city scenes toward the end of the movie and the engravings of Gustave Doré. To the right we have God's defeat of Leviathan as described in the Book of Job; but in Godzilla, of course, the leviathan is the god.

Says Mr. Harvey: "Although Godzilla '14 tells a complete story, it feels like the start of a fourth series—the Legendary Era—that could stretch on for ten more films and fly off in astonishing directions that include alien invasions, three-headed space dragons, and fighting robo-replicas."

May his words prove prophetic!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Arrangements and Patterns

My last post concerned the rise of abstract art, and defended the abstract artist from the charge of artistic nihilism. Here I wish to pontificate about how this applies to my own halting attempts to produce art. Let me begin with visual art.

My aspiration in high school was to be a fantasy artist like Frank Frazetta. When I wasn't doing figure studies and still-lifes, I was painting and drawing scenes from Greek mythology, Arthurian legend, and The Lord of the Rings; my senior thesis was "Pagan Gods and Goddesses," or something to that effect. Left to myself, I generally drew woodland scenes with fairy rings, sorcerous vixens, rustic fountains, and swords-in-the-stone. My teacher always pressed me to use a large format, but my autism spectrum disorder made filling this amount of space quite a daunting task. I coped by dividing the paper into a grid and drawing each square in obsessive detail before proceeding to the next, row after row after row. Each blade of grass and dead leaf was meticulously drawn in.

I went to college as a painting and drawing major, where the rigorous drawing and design courses did me great good. But my brief career as an art student was tumultuous as well. I was continually purging my oeuvre and torturing myself for my inadequacies. The weak central coherence associated with my disorder gives me a very bad sense of proportion. This was a definite obstacle because, unless I'm extremely careful, the body parts of my figures all come out to wildly different scales.

One of the painters I most admire is Henri Rousseau. There's a story that when Rousseau painted his friend, the poet Apollinaire, he would go back and forth between model and canvas, measuring (say) the length of a hand or an arm, and slavishly reproducing the proportions on canvas. He is also known to have used a pantograph to enlarge pictures of animals from postcards. Do you see? He didn't trust himself with the proportions. But he was a meticulous detailer. When he painted vegetation, he either painted each and every leaf, or else reduced to the foliage to a vague blob. Because of this and numerous idiosyncrasies in his social behavior, I'm convinced that we share the same disorder.

Anyway, a geometry video in a design class turned me on to mathematics, but I continued to produce illustrations now and then while I finished my degree and went to grad school. Then, at some point – I suppose because my brain was so tightly wound – I had an abstractionist breakthrough. In a singular burst of energy, I produced paintings of insects inspired by Japanese prints; religious and nature scenes inspired Samuel Palmer and William Blake; oil paintings of flowers, insects, and adobe structures inspired by the post-Impressionists and Georgia O'Keefe. They all had this in common: an exclusive attention to the plane surface of the picture. No longer was I concerned with illustrating. Even when I painted (say) the entombment of Christ, my eye was on color and pattern.

My interest in art history had a lot to do with this. When people talk about the "good old days" of art, they generally mean the Renaissance. But the art of the Gothic period, which lies beyond the Renaissance watershed, was in many ways closer to us in its ideals.
In medieval painting methods…the separate pigments tend to be exhibited with emphasis, almost like jewels in a complicated setting. Fine colors were so hard to come by in the Middle Ages that the painter would not willingly degrade them by indiscriminate mixing. The palette was treated almost like a collection of precious stones, to be grouped in the painting with as much regard for their intrinsic beauty as possible… The medieval painter was as aware of the special qualities of his particular colors as a musician of the special qualities of instruments and voices.*
The nineteenth-century interest in Gothic art (the Nazarenes, Blake, Palmer, the Pre-Raphaelites), the abstract ornament of non-Western cultures (Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament), and Japanese wood block prints (Van Gogh, Gauguin) signaled the rise of nonobjective art, and my own art mirrors this development. My new attention to pattern and geometrical arrangement allowed me to turn a weakness into a strength. My paintings continue to grow more and more abstract. I'm also approaching the omega point from the other direction with my mathematical art. But, as Klee says, nothing can be rushed.

All of which makes me sound quite important; in reality, I am little more than a dabbler, though I do take my dabbling very seriously.

My previous post should suffice to explain what my thinking has evolved to as regards painting. This blog is chiefly about my halting attempts to be a writer, though, so let me explain how this applies to my stories.

The situation with fiction is a bit different, of course. In my last post I complained about how critics try to reduce painting to a form of communication. Well, writing is a form of communication, is it not? To this I reply, yes and no. A short story is not the same as an essay, and the critic who attempts to figure out what each story "says" is just as bad as our philistine art critic. C. S. Lewis spoke of a mythopoeic art, and I think there's something to be said for that, though I have some reservations (see here, here, and here) regarding how style plays into this. Appropriate word choice is assuredly crucial to a good fantasy.

In his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler, after describing in acerbic detail the murderously corrupt world he depicts in his stories, makes this observation:
It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it.
We write in different veins, he and I, but this describes my own process precisely: I am trying to make an interesting pattern. An arrangement that will make someone say Ah!, but in their heart, not their mind; an ornate tableau, a structure with a certain dynamic symmetry, a strange hidden logic that makes the ending both surprising and inevitable. That's my goal.

To my mind, Clark Ashton Smith exemplifies this kind of construction. He was a poet, and many of his stories are really prose poems. Their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. "The Demon of the Flower" is, for some strange reason I don't care to look into, one of my favorite pieces. "The Coming of the White Worm" is another. His stories' strange denouements give me a thrill of aesthetic pleasure, much as the arrangement of forms and colors on a Paul Klee canvas do. This, or something like it, is something I'm always striving for in my own work. A few reviewers have found my stories "cruel" or "disturbing," but that's just a result of my materials and technique: I prefer chiaroscuro to pastel arrangements.

I'm still very much trying to find my way. At any rate, never let it be said of me that I'm trying to say something. This isn't nihilism. It's just art.

UPDATE: Addendum.

* Daniel Thompson, The Practice of Tempera Painting.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Abstraction and Art

It is common, among cassandras, curmudgeons, cranks, and other types given to decrying the sad decline of civilization, to use as evidence the rise of abstract art. Now I myself am as wont to opine that things were better in the old days as anyone else; but I must confess that my favorite artist since the opening of the Renaissance and the close of the Gothic period is Paul Klee.

Klee's work is not commonly encountered in this country, but his output was phenomenal, and you can pick up two monographs with hardly any overlap. His most famous piece is probably Ad Parnassum, which has a musical theme.

Ad Parnassum
He was, for a time, part of the Bauhaus, a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to introduce a medieval work-ethic into modern design. Perhaps this is neither here nor there, but I find it interesting to reflect that the immediate predecessor to the Bauhaus, in philosophy if not in style, was the Arts and Crafts Movement spearheaded by William Morris. I think it's safe to say that fantasy as a genre would be nonexistent were it not for Morris' romances. Perhaps we'll return to this point.

Anyway, I'm using Klee as my example here because I find his paintings breathtakingly beautiful. There are many abstract artists who leave me cold. Picasso generally does. So do Pollack and Diebenkorn. Everyone's taste is different, and my dislike for an artist's work doesn't preclude the possibility that there's something there to see. But Klee I can talk about. More than any artist of the twentieth century, he burrowed into the glowing heart of the beautiful.

And what is a painted picture, considered as an art of the beautiful? It is this:
A picture is a solid surface which the artist covers with colored forms whose arrangement is pleasing to the eye through the unity of the form, the harmony of the parts and the perfection of the execution.*
That's all! And, in my opinion, Klee's paintings exemplify this unity. But such unity is not enough for most people. In my experience, detractors of his kind of art generally say (or at least think) one of several things.
  • Art should be hard, not easy. His paintings look too easy. A child could do much the same.
  • Art should depict something. It should reproduce something beautiful, like a flower, or something interesting, like a historical scene. His paintings do neither.
  • Art should say something. His paintings are too obscure to read. Many of them consist of lines and blocks of color, and say nothing at all.
The first objection is probably the most common, thought not commonly voiced. Personally, I've never really understood the objection that "my kid could of done it," because some very beautiful things have come from the hands of children, and not merely by chance, either. As a matter of fact, Klee kept some of his childhood drawings and listed them in catalogs of his works.

Mozart, I suppose, made piano-playing look easy; a certain type of person, who has no ear for music but can appreciate feats of skill in a difficult playing field, would have been bored by it. A painting that took years to create, or required extreme precision or highly developed powers of observation, commands interest for that reason alone, apart from its beauty. But such paintings can be ugly; and some beautiful paintings were done in a single day. A mere squiggle drawn by someone who has perfected his art is more beautiful than an elaborate drawing by someone who has not.

The second objection is more interesting. It calls for art to look like something familiar. This involves a confusion of categories, the categories of Art and Nature; for the beauty of a flower is distinct from the beauty of a painting, even if the painting is of a flower. Georgia O'Keefe understood this when she insisted that she was an abstract artist; Andrew Wyeth said much the same thing. Of course, no painter can divorce himself from nature. But he does abstract from nature. Klee puts it thusly:
May I use a simile, the simile of the tree? The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we may suppose, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of the tree. 
From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye. 
Thus he stands as the trunk of the tree. 
Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he moulds his vision into his work. 
As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and in space, so with his work. 
Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different functions expanding in different elements must produce vital divergences. 
But it is just the artist who at times is denied those departures from nature which his art demands. He has even been charged with incompetence and deliberate distortion. 
And yet, standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules—he transmits. 
His position is humble. And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel.** 
You can see this in the development of most abstract artists, this slow, cautious groping upward from the roots of physical reality, from imitative art to pure, almost geometric abstraction. Mondrian is the clearest example. Place side by side a tree-painting from his early career, his middle career, and his late career, and trace the development, the reliance on nature that becomes less and less imitative, more and more certain of its ends. Each artist must follow his own path, as Klee said, and nothing can be rushed. But the drive is in every true artist.

Der Goldfisch
The third objection is perhaps the most interesting, because this is the objection of the art critic. Our three objectors are, of course, merely different species of the genus Philistine,**** but this latter is the most difficult to detect. Nevertheless, all philistines share this inability (in critics' case, a learned inability) to appreciate a painting for its purely visual qualities.

The reason art critics tend to be philistines is quite simple: their trade consists of blather, and if a painting doesn't say something or express something then there's not much blather to be gotten out of it. A mute does not need an interpreter. So paintings are made to say things. Which, by the way, they often do; only, their beauty does not flow from the artist's opinions or expressions.

This tragic confusion of art with communication has led to the scourge of conceptual art, which is really a pretentious form of drama masquerading as art, with the artist as star. Now here we have the decline of civilization! There's nothing duller than seeing a bubbling glass bowl with glowing thingees, or stacks of clay tiles on the floor, or chains of communion wafers dangling from suspended bones, or a stuffed goat with a rubber tire around it, and thinking, okay, what's this supposed to be? And then reading the placard, and saying, oh, I see. Boring and annoying. But it keeps the anointed interpreters from starving!

I remember a piece that consisted of Pieter Brueghel's 1563 Tower of Babel printed on a curved sheet of metal with a big piece of stovepipe or dryer hose coming out. This is just as derivative and impoverished as the statues of the late Roman emperors that recycled the old bodies of gods and heroes created in times of higher cultural attainment, replacing their heads with crude new caesars' heads. But at least Constantine wasn't pretentious about it.

Abstract art, though, is not a case of the Emperor's new clothes. It is, rather, an attempt by artists to recover the essence of painting, which consists, not in trompe-l'oeil effects and topical allusions, but in being pleasing to the eye.
The extraordinary modern adventure of abstract art precisely expresses the decision, made by certain artists, to turn out works whose beauty will obviously owe nothing to that of the subject.*** 
To speak of non-representational, non-imitative or abstract painting is not to speak of an amorphous painting. No painting is more abstract than Mondrian's, but this geometric painting is also the most formal of all. Like formal logic itself, it is form without content.*
My whole point in beginning this post was to think aloud about my own art and how I view it, but I'll have to continue in another post.

* Etienne Gilson, Forms and Substances in the Arts, trans. S. Attanasio, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1966.

** Paul Klee, Paul Klee on Modern Art, trans. Paul Findlay, Faber and Faber, London, 1948.

*** Etienne Gilson, Arts of the Beautiful, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1965.

**** Gilson makes general use of this word, but stresses that he doesn't use it in a pejorative sense. For him, it means someone who cannot appreciate art as art. The same is true for me.

Updated to replace pictures with ones I liked better; some seem to have been added to Wikipedia, where these are from, or else I missed them before. Also added a footnote.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Null-A Continuum

Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but I'm usually more given to reading the books of dead authors than live ones. Recently I broke with habit, and read a novel by an author who is very much alive and active; in my defense, however, the novel was the sequel and conclusion to two works by an author who is dead.

I speak of Null-A Continuum by John C. Wright, and I found it "slightly terrific" (as a certain other author would put it). Immediately after I finished it I wrote him a piece of fan mail – such is the novelty of reading living authors! – and he was kind enough to respond. This review is largely a rewrite of that letter.

To begin with, Null-A Continuum is meant as a sequel to A. E. van Vogt's World of Null-A and Pawns of Null-A, two of my favorite science fiction novels. (It ignores Null-A Three, an inferior installment written by van Vogt in the eighties, when his powers were failing.) Now, the great works of van Vogt are to me a kind of poetry. Here's a post I wrote about it a while back. I don't know what it is about them. They have this slightly weird naïveté and incoherence, indissolubly tied to an astounding scope. Though short, they end up being more than the sum of their parts.

They're often about human potential, a potential released, not through gadgetry or alien minds, but through humanistic philosophies, e.g., non-Aristotelian logic (The World of Null-A), Nexialism (The Voyage of the Space Beagle), the principles of the weapon shops (The Weapon Shops of Isher). These are the "technologies" he was really interested in, and his enthusiasm and earnestness make up for his faddishness. There's also beauty, and arresting strangeness; he shows a sensitivity to affect often lacking in other sci-fi authors.

The null-A books (the first two, anyway) are my favorites, and Mr. Wright's addition brings the arc to a satisfying, fitting, "sane" conclusion. I recall reading on his blog at some point that the plot outline had to be submitted to Mr. van Vogt's widow for approval, and that he was more or less bound to this proposal as he wrote. This strikes me as a difficult way to write a novel, but nothing about the action felt contrived or ill-considered. Null-A Continuum is, on the contrary, an absorbing, almost mind-blowing read.


Looking back over it all, I find that it answers the questions raised by the originals, and confirms one's sense that the inexplicable appearance of Gilbert Gosseyn is truly just the tip of the cosmic iceberg. Like the originals, it's a narrative with an impossibly huge scope and countless twists and turns that nevertheless somehow works itself out in a logical way. Plus, while saving the universe is great and all, I'm most pleased that Gilbert ends up with Patricia at last, and that their life in Cress Village together wasn't just an illusion. I also appreciate it that X makes another appearance – he was too big, somehow, to dispatch with a mere bullet in the head. The peculiar disparity between the fossil record and the existence of an ancient galactic civilization is also (to me) satisfyingly explained, as are numerous other seeming inconsistencies and loose ends.

It's obvious that writing this novel was a labor of love. The tone is convincingly in the "van Vogt" style; I was so much under its spell that I found the references to Hawking and Weinberg rather jarring, like anachronisms. The science itself is nicely done and convincingly grounded, though of course rather absurd – as it should be. I happen to be a math professor who as a grad student specialized in the applications of null-E geometry to null-N physics, though now I'm just a glorified teacher in a rather obscure part of the country, and I appreciate good science-fictional science.

I was first drawn to Mr. Wright when I read his Ten Commandments of Writing, a quote from which appears on my sidebar. His appreciation for the things I like, such as Ballantine fantasy paperbacks, A. E. van Vogt, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Great Books, and Mortimer Adler, made me look further. I thank him for having given me some pleasurable reading, and salute him for completing the saga of Gilbert Gosseyn.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock

Star Trek has been much on my mind lately. I think what got me started was Star Trek Continues, which I discovered a while back through the Black Gate blog. The two episodes they have up so far are actually pretty good – "Lolani" especially – and the sets are spot-on. The acting isn't all to my taste, but they play it straight, and they're obviously very much in earnest. So, all in all, I give them an A for effort, and I look forward to seeing what else they come out with.

I'm an old Star Trek fan. You know, the real Star Trek, with Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy. I'm much too young to have seen it when it originally aired, but it came on the local UHF station every evening at 6 p.m. when I was a kid, and I watched it religiously, cycling through the seasons over and over again. I was ten at the time, and every day at school I would talk to my two best friends about the previous night's episode. There was a little depression in the back corner of the field where we played during recess, and we pretended that this was the location of our landed ship (under cloaking device, of course). I was Mr. Spock; my friends were, respectively, Kirk and McCoy. I was always reading Star Trek novelizations as well, provided by the spinning rack at the town supermarket.*

Now, The Next Generation came on TV around then or soon after, and I openly derided it to all and sundry. Granted, it had some decent episodes, but overall it just annoyed me, especially when people talked about how much better it was than TOS. I was something like twelve at the time, I suppose. This is just to show that (a) I've always liked TOS, and (b) I've always been a curmudgeon who hated new things.

After I'd watched the Star Trek Continues episodes, I had a hankering for all things Trekkie, and we decided to watch the best of the movies from the eighties, namely, The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home. My personal favorite is The Search for Spock. The Voyage Home is, ironically, the first Star Trek thing I ever saw – I watched it with my parents soon after it came out on video – and watching it now after so many years it amazes me how good-humoredly the cast spoof themselves while still somehow driving forward with a plot that you care about.

So then my wife and I finally broke down and watched Star Trek. I mean the 2009 movie directed by J. J. Abrams. Perhaps this comes as no surprise to you, my reader, but I thought it stunk. I mean, if you like mindless action movies with nonstop fistfights and photon torpedoing, then it might be your thing, but to anyone who loves TOS despite its flaws, my God, what a travesty.

And please don't think it's because of what they did to the mythos. I'm fine with tweaking things. It's the weak plot and characterization that get me. I mean, the Jim Kirk I know is this larger-than-life leader who takes command of a starship at a young age and goes exploring strange new worlds with his loyal crew at his back. He's a cowboy and a womanizer, but he inspires confidence. People die for him. This new Kirk? A smartmouth fratboy. No one – no one – would follow someone like that across the galaxy, let alone die for him. And don't tell me that this is an origin story, so we have to see him grow, etc. Because you know what? There's no growth here. He persists in his stupidity and immaturity to the end. Not once do we see him rise above the situation and form a plan to save the day. He's always doing what he's told, or getting punched in the face for not doing what he's told.

Just look at how the Kobayashi Maru is handled. This was, in its origin, a powerful symbol of Kirk's unremitting audacity and his ability to cheat death; ultimately it came to represent a certain weakness, an inability to confront personal tragedy, which he overcame through the death and resurrection of Spock. This new movie attempts to portray the incident, but Kirk behaves more or less like any fratboy who steals the answer key to a Scantron test. He's flippant and conceited, and his fellow cadets just think he's an ass. The acting, I have to say, is quite good, and the parts are mostly cast well; the problem is one of direction, of a director who doesn't really understand what he's about.

Anyway, the movie is a rollercoaster of nonstop thrills, if you like that kind of thing. It hits more or less the same spot as the Mission: Impossible movies. Riveting, yet forgettable.

So, to get that out of our system, my wife – that's Mrs. O. – bought me the digitally remastered versions of all three seasons of the original series for my birthday. We started with the second season, which is, of course, the best. It's been a long time since I sat down and watched the episodes through, and I'm just in awe at how good they are. I mean, the bad ones are very, very bad; but the good ones are simply wonderful. One of my favorites has always been "The Doomsday Machine," written by no less a luminary than Norman Spinrad.

The special effects have all been redone for these. For the most part it's quite unobtrusive, which is a relief, as I'd been somewhat apprehensive. I think it looks very fine, though of course I have some nostalgia for the models. I did think the doomsday machine looked better originally; it was more ancient and alien, somehow, and therefore more dreadful.

Welp, Mrs. O. is out doing the Relay for Life tonight, and I'm at home with the kids asleep. Guess I'll watch the next episode.

* This is neither here nor there, but something I'm foolishly proud of. My first cousin twice removed (my grandfather's first cousin) Perry Lopez played a small role in the "Shore Leave" episode. He went on to play a supporting role opposite Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston in the Polanski film Chinatown. He was also in The Two Jakes, its lesser sequel. Legend has it that my great grandfather, his uncle, helped pay his way from New York to California with lottery winnings. Like most of my family on the Puerto Rican side, though, I never met either of them.