Wednesday, November 7, 2018

"Raft of Conquistadors" at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly

My latest Carvajal story, "Raft of Conquistadors," is live at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. It takes place on Padre Island at an unspecified time before "Heart of Tashyas" and is a tasteful and historically accurate* account of the ill-fated Narváez expedition featuring ancient aliens and semiaquatic slug men.

In case you're confused, here's the chronology thus far:
  • Raft of Conquistadors
  • Pink Gneiss **
  • Heart of Tashyas
  • White Rainbow, Brown Devil
  • I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds
Now go read "Raft of Conquistadors"!

* Not actually tasteful or historically accurate.
** Coming soon!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Poison and Cigarette Butts

When I paint, I begin with a vision of a thing to be represented, but I find, as I really get down to business, that I take the picture as a plane surface covered with pigment. My task, as a painter, is to make as beautiful a carpet of color and form as my skill permits. Forms from the natural world are admitted and retained, just as colors are, but both, and the ideas that inspired the painting in the first place, are subordinate to the unity of the final product.

I have something of the same approach to writing stories. Whatever material elements may go into it, in the end I'm just trying to make an interesting pattern with the things I have at my disposal. Sometimes the things I have at my disposal are ugly, like Jackson Pollock's cigarette butts; sometimes they're poisonous, like the arsenic-containing emerald green used by Van Gogh. Well, you're not supposed to eat a painting, are you? Something similar might be said of a story.

I never set out to make a point in a story. That's not to say the things I think about and argue about don't find their way in there. It's just that they're like Jackson's cigarette butts. I do think the pursuit of truth important. I just don't care to do it in stories. Sometimes I even find it fun to seem to make a case for the opposite of what I believe to be the truth. That bugs people these days, because they want to know where you stand on all the important issues before they decide to like your work. I guess that's only natural, what with the Internet being overrun by pitchfork-waving mobs of one stripe or another. But it's also terribly boring.

Being an autistic Puerto Rican Greek mathematician in small-town borderland Texas, I have a skewed view of things. At least, I'm led to conclude so when I have conversations with other people. I'm like one of those strange side characters in Dostoevsky, like Ippolit in The Idiot, or Kirillov in The Possessed. My view comes out in weird and (to me) unpredictable ways.


For a few years I've thinking about how "magical multiracial" fantasy (with elves and dwarves or whatever) reflects, distorts, or falsifies race issues in the real world. I mean, that type of fiction is read mainly by white people in the anglosphere, right? At its most commercial-generic, it represents a society consisting of discrete categories of beings that coexist without mixing, which reminds me of those modern celebrations of "diversity" that often amount to a kind of segregation.

The magical multirace paradigm was set by Tolkien, although Tolkien, to be fair, got it at least partially from the Poetic Edda and such things. There are various human races in Tolkien, such as the Easterlings and the Haradrim. Aside from Sam's musings, though, they're painted in broad strokes as scarcely-human hordes. There's much talk, too, of greater men intermarrying with lesser men, to the detriment of the former. Does Tolkien, within his own universe, think it a bad thing for higher races to mix with lower races? Given what he says elsewhere about the "sin" of the elves and the role of the hobbits, I'd be inclined to say that his view was nuanced, at the very least. Still, there's a lot to be looked into there, such as the fact that Tolkien came originally from South Africa, and that The Lord of the Rings was conceived and written during the first half of the twentieth century, when a lot of ugly ideas about race were coming to a head all over the world, not just in Germany.

I've mused a bit about half-breeds in fantasy literature, and half-breeds certainly figure in Tolkien, to an extent not often approached by writers of the commercial-generic fantasy that capitalizes on his work. He has mixtures of human races, such as the men and hobbits of Bree, but also, more memorably, mixtures of human and non-human races, such as the progeny of Beren and Luthien. Philosophically, those are a little different, as Tolkien makes it clear in his letters that the elves are not a distinct biological species, differing from men only in their spiritual constitution. It's interesting that such half-breeds are allowed to choose which race they'll belong to, a choice sadly denied to human half-breeds, who must inhabit both worlds, and therefore neither. The ill-favored squint-eyed Southerner at Bree, who appears to be part human, part orc, is not treated so sympathetically, and we are not told that he got a choice like Elrond Halfelven's. Actually, the way he's described reminds me of the descriptions of mulattoes and "Asiatic" half-breeds in some of G. K. Chesterton's more offensively racist stories, and I think a case could be made that Tolkien and the writers who came after him were merely transplanting those old fears of half-breeds into less overtly racist soil.

That said, it's only by being great writers that Tolkien and Chesterton have the capacity to offend. The most your standard commercial-generic writer can aspire to is to be slightly irritating. And I do find discrete categorizations of races, magical or otherwise, to be slightly irritating. You don't just see it in fantasy. You see it whenever members of "other" races are given character traits stemming from race alone, offset, in cleverer works, by superficial differences.

Scene from John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, which I think is a sly
reference to what I'm talking about. (Is that Cuervo Jones at the wheel???)

In reaction to one of my Carvajal stories, a psychologist friend of mine, who resorts occasionally to evolutionary psychology, informed me that, actually, it's quite natural (in the evolutionary sense) to have an extreme mistrust of half-breeds, because it's unknown to whose tribe their loyalties belong. To that my reply was: perhaps it's natural or justifiable, perhaps it's not, but, as far as my story is concerned, I don't really care, because I'm not trying to make a point. My friend wanted to understand what I was getting at, but the truth is that I wasn't getting at anything at all. I was just making a pattern with things I've picked up here and there.

Religion makes an appearance in those Carvajal stories, too, though I'm not certain that the faith of Hispania corresponds to real-world Catholicism. Carvajal is, at any rate, an archetypal Bad Catholic, praying on the fishbone rosary mentioned somewhere by St. John of the Cross while doing his best to be a conquistador. Because I am myself Catholic, a faith it's increasingly hard to be proud of these days, I like to render the religion of the various tribes he encounters sympathetically, while I render his religion as worthy of contempt, incomprehension, or terror. The red demon-god at the end of "White Rainbow and Brown Devil" is based on the seraph that gave St. Francis of Assisi the stigmata, and the institutional church appears as a literary cigarette butt in one of my forthcoming stories. But, again, I'm not really making a point. I'm just letting things come in where they want to.


My professional and artistic and personal lives are beginning to converge in ways that I wouldn't have expected several years ago, and I feel the need to emphasize that my fiction really is art, that is, a set of patterns I've formed so as to make pleasing units, and not, say, a coded manifesto. That's not to say that my deeply-held beliefs and opinions wouldn't be offensive or incomprehensible to some of the people who might be interested in them. They're just not to be found in my stories or my rambling, contrarian blog posts.

That said, get ready for "Raft of Conquistadors," coming out in the November issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly!

Friday, July 20, 2018

Carload of Conquistadors

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

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

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

And that was my vacation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 30, 2018

Ash Indomitable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hail to the King, Baby.

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

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Neverending Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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