Friday, August 31, 2007

A Kinder Gentler Vlad

At Boston Review, a wonderful fresh essay by Roger Boylan on Nabokov and the question of whether a happy writer can be a good writer:

'Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, to give him his full patronymic due, died 30 years ago at age 78. Distilled to his essential selves he would be, in no particular order, a patrician, a husband and father, a lepidopterist, and one of the most surprising and subversive authors of the 20th century—also, one of the funniest. “Nabokov,” observes his biographer, Brian Boyd, “uses humor to undermine our attachment to the ready-made, to enlarge our sense of the possible, to whet our appetite for the surprise of life.”

'His humor reflected his soul, for he occupies a rare position in the annals of literature—especially modern literature—as that oxymoronic creature, the happy writer. The torments and angst of a Kafka or a Dostoevsky were as alien to him as the politics of the day. He was happy mainly because he loved being Vladimir Nabokov and he knew that his genius demonstrated the near-infinite possibilities of language and life and art. He cared not a whit for the carping of critics and the sour grapes of lesser writers, and, 30 years after his death, his overall influence as a one-man mission civilisatrice is still growing. He remains the master of the art of beauty in exactitude. Unexpected yet precise words are connected in his writing like the fine, unbreakable links of a silver necklace. Lesser writers settle for second best; he never does. He finds the right word, however unexpected. Any sampling of his work shows this; take a random sentence from the beginning of the story “Cloud, Castle, Lake”:

'The locomotive, working rapidly with its elbows, hurried through a pine forest, then—with relief— among fields.'

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I love Lucy

Lucy3I've always been a big fan of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and that will only increase over the next eight months. The museum regularly hosts traveling exhibits (The Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy: The Exhibit being particularly notable), but opening Aug. 31 is one that will surely be one for the history books--Lucy's Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. Lucy, for those of you late to the party, is a 3.2 million year old fossilized Australopithecus afarensis, one of the very earliest proto-human species. At the time of her discovery in 1974, she was the oldest hominid fossil ever found. There have been older ones found since, but she remains inarguably the most famous human ancestor in the world.
"I am a bit surprised about the ever-expanding popularity of Lucy, especially in light of so many other notable hominid fossil discoveries in Africa," said [Don] Johanson, director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University.

"Yet Lucy continues to prevail, and she has become an icon for human evolution and is the touchstone by which all other finds are judged. I suppose one of the distinctive things about Lucy is that she has a name, one that is easy to remember, certainly easier than Australopithecus afarensis."

She is pretty much the rock star of the paleoanthropology set. So you can see why its such a big deal that for the first time ever she's going on tour, leaving her home country of Ethiopia for Houston, the first leg of a planned six-year trek.

And therein lies the rub. The tour has provoked a firestorm of criticism from the scientific community, and some fairly big names have entered the fray.
Famed fossil hunter Richard Leakey offered, perhaps, the sharpest criticism of the Houston museum two weeks ago in an interview with the Associated Press from his office in Nairobi, Kenya.

"It's a form of prostitution. It's gross exploitation of the ancestors of humanity, and it should not be permitted," Leakey said of Lucy's travel to the United States.

Lucy2Others insist that the fossil will be irrevocably damaged, that it is too fragile to move or display. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, curator of anthropology in Houston, argues that the museum successfully hosted a traveling exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls without incurring any damage, and Lucy--being, well, you know, fossilized--is quite a bit more sturdy than 2,000-year-old papyrus. But that hasn't mollified the critics, who have offered their own "solution" to the controversy.
Several paleontologists have suggested that a replica should be used in her place. At her home museum in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, in fact, cast replicas of Lucy's bones are on display, while the real fossils usually remain locked in a vault.

And this, my friends, is why we end up with creationists running state boards of education and half of all Americans believing that on the eighth day God created Baywatch or somesuch nonsense. Is it possible for these learned scientists to be just a little more condescending? Could they pool their efforts and be just a smidgen more willfully ignorant? Could they cut their throats any more effectively if we handed them a straight-edged razor?

There is a wanton arrogance alive and kicking within the general scientific community. An arrogance that clings stubbornly to fact while at the same time stridently denying reality. And it pisses me the hell off. The facts in this case are clear: Lucy is one of the oldest hominid fossils ever discovered, and is very valuable for researchers. The reality of the situation is equally clear-cut, if a bit harder for the critics to swallow: Nobody gives a shit about replicas. Does it look the same? Sure. Can 99.9 percent of the population not tell the difference? You betcha. Does that matter? Not one iota. You see, for all the cranial capacity human beings have developed since little Lucy made do with a glob of gray matter the size of a key lime, we are not rational thinkers. Homo sapiens are, first and foremost, irrational and emotional. Just listen to any argument between a science-minded person and a proponent of Intelligent Design. The IDer is not swayed by fact or reason for one simple reason: They don't want to be evolved from anything. The key word there is "want." That's an argument based from desire, and it has nothing to do with cold, rational facts.


It just so happens that a fine movie comes out on Sept. 10 that addresses this strange phenomenon head-on: Flock of Dodos. In a perfect world, yes, humans would all be variations of Mr. Spock, believing only that which is logical and rational. Sure, I can buy that. But this isn't a perfect world. Far from it--there are still people out there forwarding stupid chain letters because they think Bill Gates is going to pay them $5 for each one, and that TONIGHT MARS WILL APPEAR AS BIG AS THE MOON!!!!. Let's just face it, people are fucking stupid, and the only people stupider are the brainiacs who continue to live in ivory towers expecting unadorned reason to win out without any additional effort. Ain't gonna happen.

Lucy on tour is exactly what we need in this country, UNESCO agreements be damned. Lucy needs to head for deepest, darkest Mississippi after leaving Houston, the maybe Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, with a detour through Waco and Crawford along the way. Science needs to engage a hell of a lot more aggressively (and competently, for that matter) than its doing now. If the Discovery Institute can teach their Bible-thumping pharisees how to be eloquent and glib, then there's no excuse for anyone in this country with a science degree not to be capable of the same. If I had my way, every science undergrad would be required to take a minimum of 12 hours in public speaking and public relations courses. Get some late-night infomercials on cosmology and evolutionary biology on the boob tube. We could pair up P.Z. Myers and Phil Plait with Christie Brinkley and Chuck Norris. Damn, that would really kick ass.

Maybe we could even apply this approach to NASA. I'm tired of space flight made dull.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Gonzales to Spend More Time Eavesdropping on His Family

Courtesy of Andy Borowitz's frequently brilliant and always funny Borowitz Report, August 27, 2007:

"Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned today, effective immediately, telling reporters that he wanted to spend more time eavesdropping on his family.

"Mr. Gonzales, a champion of domestic surveillance and warrantless wiretaps while in office, said he was 'totally stoked' about turning his prying eyes on his own family.

"'Domestic surveillance begins at home,' Mr. Gonzales said at a White House press conference. 'That means nobody in my family is above suspicion, not even the little ones,' an apparent reference to Mr. Gonzales’ children.

"Standing by Mr. Gonzales’ side, President George W. Bush praised his former Attorney General, singling out his 'courage' for ramping up his domestic spying program on his own family.

“'If every head of every household was as willing to eavesdrop on his own family as my man Alberto is, we wouldn’t need a Homeland Security Department,' Mr. Bush chuckled.

"Mr. Gonzales was noncommittal when a reporter asked him a question about the role that waterboarding and other forms of torture might play in his interrogation of family members.

“'Nothing is off the table,' he said."

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sunday Matinee with Swords, Sandals and Scenery Chewing

One of the pleasures of the last 100+ degree Texas August Sunday of the year is, after an afternoon at Barton Springs, sneaking a posse of 12-year-old boys off to catch the matinee of their choice: in this case, the unjustly critically maligned old school swashbuckler "The Last Legion," a popcorn-worthy feast that gives the grown-up escort an outstanding cinematic opportunity to count the homages-per-minute. Dino De Laurentis is not dead.

The plot: returning Roman legionnaires find the imperial capital besieged by Goths, and must escort the boy emperor Romulus Augustus (the last Western emperor) to far lands in search of the magical blade that will restore the last hope of Justice. Meaning, another Excalibur myth that connects the dots between Arthurian legend and the last legions of Rome, mythologizing Britain as the lasting embodiment of the highest ideas of the Empire. Kind of like that grackle eating your french fry being a descendant of the last velociraptor. Among the highlights:

- Anglo chick flick vet Colin Firth as a swashbuckling leather-armored Roman commander, a kinder gentler Maximus, if equally humorless.

- That annoying kid from the horrendous Hugh Grant=Tony Blair flick, "Love Actually," as an earnest and wimpy teen emperor. (They neglect to mention that the actual Romulus Augustus was a usurper, installed by his father Orestes, a Decline and Fall Vichy Roman who served as Attila's chief of staff.)

- Ben Kingsley as a scenery-chewing proto-Merlin, equal parts Obi-Wan, Gandalf, and gangster Gandhi.

- What I was sure was an aging Dolph Lundgren (!) as a red-headed cranky Goth with an unlimited supply of mud-thudding battle-axes, made even crankier when his jefe goes all Yakuza on his ass. (Alas, IMDB reveals the part of Wulfila was played by an up-and-coming Scotsman, while the Dolphster continues his full-auto barrage of direct-to-DVD international action flicks. Come to think of it, a Grace Jones cameo would have fit right in with this flick.)

- Dr. Bashir from Deep Space Nine (fresh from his turn as the uber-terrorist on last season's 24) as the mysterious emissary of Constantinople.

- A Fellowship-worthy escort of multicultural legionnaires.

- Metal-masked evil lords of Celtic Britain, straight out of Excalibur.

- An abandoned Hadrian's Wall doing a marvelous Ozymandias Great Wall turn.

- An Alpine crossing like Moria without the monsters.

- Merlin as staff-fighting Kung Fu Gandalf!

- More stone age megaliths than a Spinal Tap reunion tour.

- Best of all, Bollywood bombshell Aishwarya Rai as a masked Istanbul Easterling guard from beyond Banglaore, exploding with non-stop Crouching Curry martial hearts moves, femininity only revealed 30 minutes in with a wet-T-shirt scene, which does not appear to impress Colin Firth any more than it does the 12-year-old boys in the multiplex. If only they would break out in a bombastic Bally Sagoo dance number, it would be the perfect movie.

Probably not long for the big screen, so catch it with popcorn in the dark while you can.

Friday, August 24, 2007


For this last languorous weekend in August, consider this outstanding essay by composer Andrew Waggoner regarding the end of silence and the need to rediscover the absence of music and other noise as something more than "acoustical 'negative space.'" Then, go find some true quiet, the kind that does not require $400 noise reduction headphones, and see if you don't agree.

"In many world societies...there are still spaces—if only interior, or metaphorical, or temporal—set aside for contemplation, for noiseless recalibration of the soul, and in contemporary American culture there are almost none. Our social rituals are constrained by the incessant soundtrack imposed in our public spaces, and our places of worship, by and large, have given themselves over to a muzak-based sense of liturgy that tells us at every step of the way what to feel and with what intensity. Many of us, turning away from both mainline- and mega-church, have sought peace in new-age bookstores, but these, even with their palmists and meditation rooms, surround their patrons with a noxious haze of synthesizers, pennywhistles, and Inuit drums. But beyond shopping, what primary experience are we having here? Are we listeners seeking an archetype of beauty or seekers listening for the godhead? It turns out we are neither—though we may have been duped into one or the other conviction. We are simply consumers. The hope is that, like dairy cattle, we will become more productive if encouraged in our purchases by this kind of marginal musical discourse.

"This, of course, is the common denominator in all the examples above, and it extends beyond the ritual into the political. If we frequent any number of the hipper clothing chains we will find ourselves buoyed by emo or hip-hop beats that serve to wash away the sense of complicity we feel in supporting a sweatshop economy; the music is telling us that we belong here, that we're different, we're aware, we're not the problem. We're down with all the world's peoples, with the losers and dreamers, with the left and the right. We're down with EVERYONE; we don't want any trouble, we just want to buy a pair of cargo pants. Once again, the absence of silence makes it impossible for us to decode the onslaught before we've succumbed to it. And this is not just a function of capitalism. It's worse.

"We find ourselves as a culture unable to assuage our loneliness except through the ceaseless accompaniment of our everyday actions. In such a world buying a book or a shirt is not merely to acquire a thing, to fill a need; it is, rather, to participate in the forced scripting of our lives according to commercial archetypes that tell us, through the imaginary film score by which we buy, eat, make love, crap, worship, and, eventually, die, not who we are but who we wish we were, who the music tells us we want to be. Even our sense of time becomes hopelessly distorted, as we float through our lives according to the dreamlike spans of musical phrases rather than the waking rhythms of clock-time. Thus our capacity to be present for our lives, for our work especially, is compromised by a time-sense that is artificially constructed along unconscious models in order to give perspective on the conscious experience of time's passing, not to replace that experience entirely. In losing silence, and the corresponding potential for musical discernment that silence engenders, we lose ourselves, our native sense of our motion through life."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A scenario for the 2010s

Speaking of Pootie-Poot, as W likes to call him, consider this.

Last month, the Duma passed legislation authorizing Gazprom and Transneft to maintain their own private armies, complete with combat-ready gunmetal.

KGB vet Putin, who is a 6th dan black belt in judo best known for his sweeping hip throw when he's not sending in the Spetsnaz, is scheduled to retire from office in March 2008.

Wouldn't that be the ultimate Gibsonian anti-Halliburton scenario? Putin takes a putatively private sector gig running one of these oil & gas outfits, with their free cash and private armies at his disposal. They go offshore, buying up exploration, production and transport rights all over the southern hemisphere, establishing strategic installations of "security forces," competing head-to-head with the Chinese and the Americans in the century's apocalyptic last gasp scramble to control the denouement of the world's addiction to the black crack and its ethereal cousin. Maybe Cheney could go back to his old gig, buy himself a next gen mechanical heart: cyborg master of Blackwater, counterpoint to Pootie's Dolph Lundgren Siberian Godfather thing. An inevitable lineup, perhaps, for a world without states and a demand for natural resources that exceeds the finite and diminishing supply.

I'd pre-order the action figures for that game today.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Vlad's Siberian Vacation

Courtesy of Guardian Online (wish I could say I had taken them myself), these photos of the Russian president on holiday in Siberia (with Prince Albert of Monaco!) are, as Danger Room says, "worth their weight in polonium." The last time I can remember magazine photos of a shirtless head of state, it was a second-term Ronnie Reagan chopping wood on his ranch in the Sunday NY Times Magazine. Somehow, the Gipper didn't have the same aura of a character from a direct-to-DVD Ultimate Fighting Champion actioner... How can you not love the 21st century Zeitgeist?

*Thursday update: Herald Trib reports on Russian media frenzy over these same photos.

A visit to Metropolis

"You don't get to St. Louis from Memphis by going through Metropolis."

Well, duh. I knew that. After suffering the past four hours on Tennessee highways with posted speed limits of 45 miles per hour, I was painfully aware of that fact. The trouble is, when you have a Texas map out, distances are measured in hours. When you have a map out of any other state (with the exceptions of California and Alaska) it's like the universe compresses, and what would be a four-hour trip in the Lone Star State (say, from San Antonio to Dallas) is a mere 30 miles or so on these maps with the weirdly distorted sense of scale. So crossing the narrow width of Tennessee and a little bit of Kentucky should've only taken a couple of hours. But that was before we learned of that unnaturally low speed limit fetish they have in those parts. Not to mention all the stoplights and strip mall communities that aren't listed on the map. So thankyouverymuch Mr. Postal Carrier, but we've already spent three hours on the road this unpleasant morning, and we're going to jolly well visit Metropolis, Ill.


Why Metropolis? Well, they've got a really big Superman statue there. One that overweight SF writers can strike corny poses beside for photographs. It used to be fiberglass, but someone stole it years ago. The current one is steel, which is fitting I believe. And I've always been more of a DC guy than a Marvel zombie (although Captain America has long been one of my faves). Some may point out my long-harbored obsession with Green Arrow, but Superman's pretty darn nifty in his own right. I always liked Superman a bit more than Batman, which is odd seeing as how Green Arrow started off as a bad Batman knockoff, but that's how it is. So the fact that I was going to be in the same state as Metropolis pretty much ensured that I had to visit the town. When would I ever be up in Illinois again?


Fortunately, they've got more than a statue there. They have a Superman Museum as well. It's in one of those old stores that you find downtown in pretty much every community in America, stores that would otherwise be boarded up because the Wal Mart out on the loop ran them out of business a decade prior. The Superman Museum is half devoted to capitalism, with a heck of a lot of Superman and DC merchandise you can buy at marked-up prices, and half devoted to the history of Superman, with a heck of a lot of artifacts from the various comics, television and movie incarnations of the character over the decades. The lone worker there was on the phone most of the time, filling orders coming in over the internet, so one can only assume they're financially solvent for years to come. I was pleasantly pleased to see that the first exhibit in the museum was a lifelike mockup of George Reeves as Clark Kent, from the old Adventures of Superman TV series. In addition to the disturbingly lifelike Reeves mannequin, they had a decrepit pair of glasses he wore on the show, several typewriters, a desk, and various other props from back in the day. It was very cool, and wonderfully cluttered. This set the tone for the rest of the museum.


You have to respect a museum that goes through the trouble of tracking down not only the backpack that young Clark Kent wore in the original movie, but also the bright blue and red baby blankets as well as a Mexican movie poster for the film.


SF geek that I am, the astronaut suit from Superman II stopped me in my tracks. Seriously, who wouldn't want one of these? It's science fiction, and it's Superman. I was disappointed they didn't have the moon lander from the film, however, nor did they have the other two space suits. That shortfall is made up for by the black leather (actually vinyl) boots of General Zod, Non and Ursa hanging in the background. Terence Stamp put his feet in those things. What fanboy worth his salt wouldn't get all sweaty at the thought? The boots worn by Nuclear Man (from Superman IV: The Quest for a Coherent Script) were hanging right across the aisle, and I can assure you they paled in comparison to those of the Phantom Zone criminals.


All was not fun and games at the museum, however. They had on display there the single most evil Superman mannequin ever assembled. The Bizarro they had on display in the Adventures of Superboy exhibit was pretty disturbing, but he had nothing on this guy. It's evil, I tells ya. Eeeevil!


And no Superman Museum would be complete without a collection of wigs. Not Lex Luthor's, mind you, but rather the wigs worn by Christopher Reeve. Apparently the hair of a mere mortal wasn't capable of recreating that Kryptonian cowlick up front. Shocking. Equally surprising is the fact that Superman agreed to pose for the cover of Penthouse Forum. I'd always assumed that Lois Lane's story "I Spent the Night With Superman" ran in the Daily Planet, but one suspects that a longer, uncensored version of it eventually found the light of day in this other publication. Either that, or Larry Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" was reprinted again.


So, yeah. It was worth the detour. If we hadn't made that detour, I'd have never see all of Terri Hatcher's gowns from Lois and Clark, or the Supergirl panties, sneakers and headbands in the Supergirl room, or whatever it was they had on display representing the Smallville TV series that I've completely forgotten. And in all honesty, I'd never dreamed that 7-11 had produced so many varieties of Superman-related Slurpee cups. That knowledge alone was worth the price of admission.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Dionne Warwick and Philip K. Dick, Together Again for the First Time

NYT reports on the alluring conceptual mail art work recently launched by artist Sean Dack at the Daniel Reich Gallery: mailings of sheet music from vintage soft pop tunes, with the Nostradamus-like predictive 1981 utterances of Phil Dick substituted for the original lyrics. "Future Songs" does not title the individual pieces, meaning you have to read the sheet music (or, better yet, sing the songs out loud) to figure out that, say, the following is set to Burt Bachrach's "That's What Friends Are For" (performed by Dionne Warwick in 1986 with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder):

"...such satellites will uncover vast unsuspected high energy phenomena in the universe indicating that there is sufficient mass to collapse the universe back when it has reached its expansion limit..."

Or the following to the Police's "Every Breath You Take":

"The Soviet Union will develop an operational particle beam accelerator, making missile attack, against that, the USSR will, develop this weapon, as a satellite killer, the United States will turn, then, to nerve gas."

Res ipsa loquitur.

Bland Lemon Denton, you now have the playlist for your next Saturday night con performance.

Friday, August 17, 2007

On The Road, Yeah!

While you're waiting for my next Lost Books post, why not sit back and enjoy this slideshow of covers of translations of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, courtesy of Kerouac scholar Dave Moore and The New York Times.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Care and Feeding of Your Dead Writer

Extended waits in doctors' offices and hospitals are quite conducive to thoughts of mortality, don't you find?

Some of you will be aware of my current work, The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes, which I'm writing for MonkeyBrain Books and which is currently due out in spring 2009. The book will have plenty of pulp heroes described in it, but also a lot more than that: characters from the slicks, from series novels of all genres, from comic strips, radio shows, movie serials, and from popular literature and film from around the world--anything appearing between 1902 and 1945 is fair game.

As you might imagine, this encompasses a lot of characters. Around 5,000, in fact, across 750,000+ words, and the work of over 3,500 creators.

I've spent years working on this book, and (as you might imagine) have done a lot of research. In front of my computer, in the stacks of my library, in the stacks of many other libraries, and, of course, reading. I've read a lot of books for this--in cars, trains, planes, subways. And, more recently, in hospitals and doctors' offices.

What I keep returning to is the essential frangibility and transience of it all. One of the things which drives most writers is the notion of legacy, of leaving a mark on the world of letters. We all want to entertain or educate, but more than that we want to be remembered. It's not enough to make a fan with your work--you want that person to remain a fan ten years from now.

And yet the sad truth is that this quest for--if not immortality, than some kind of enduring legacy--is, for all but a few of us, doomed. Some authors will enter the canon and be read two hundred years from now, if there are readers left to read. In 2207 people will still be reading Gene Wolfe and Patrick O'Brian. But the rest of us have much more uncertain fates. And we know this. And I think many of us, on a level we don't particularly want to acknowledge, worry about this. How long will our work last? How long will we be remembered?

We can assume that a lifetime's work will leave some kind of mark, and that, in the electronic world of the Intertubes, there will be a record of our work.

Probably not, though. Consider T. Arthur Plummer.

Frampton Sees Red

The indispensable Al Hubin gives Plummer's birth and death dates as 1883 and 1961, which is more than WorldCat, the British Library, and various newspapers and government death indices were able to provide.

Mr. Plummer wrote over seventy novels. Fifty of them were about his series character, Detective-Inspector Andrew Frampton of Scotland Yard's Criminal Investigation Department. The first was Shadowed by the C.I.D. (1932), the last was Murder at Brownhill (1962). Fifty novels about the same character, over thirty years.

A total of 57 copies of Mr. Plummer's books exist in libraries in the U.S. and U.K. A Google search for the phrase "T. Arthur Plummer" comes up with 118 hits. (In comparison, "Godzilla bukkake" yields 415, and "Harry Stephen Keeler" gives 39,800). A Google search for "'andrew frampton' plummer" gives 111 hits. A Google Image search for Mr. Plummer's work gives only one image, the one above, found at Classic Crime Fiction. If you're looking for reliable information online about Mr. Plummer, Classic Crime Fiction has a barebones bibliography of his work, and the e-text of Lofts' & Adley's Crime Fighters has a fifty-nine word descripton of Frampton.

The man wrote seventy novels in his lifetime. Fifty of them about one character. There was a time when Plummer and Frampton would have been as widely known to mystery fans as, say, Robert Parker's Spenser is now, or P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh. Plummer, and Frampton, would have had thousands--tens of thousands?--of fans. The stores would have been full of their books. (Abebooks only lists 116 copies of Plummer's novels for sale. Harry Stephen Keeler has 519).

And yet today Plummer, and Frampton, don't even pass the Mendoza Line of internet site hits.

I think about these things while writing Pulp Heroes. It's an idle conceit, but I like to think that by writing about Plummer and Frampton and the many other forgotten authors and characters, by drawing attention to them in a scholarly, modern work, I'm setting out blood (or beans, if you're a Roman) for the hungry ghosts of those writers.

All but a lucky few writers are doomed to oblivion. It's up to us to prevent that from happening.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Drive-by warfare

American Heritage has an interesting article about the role of Detroit wheels in 20th century American warfare. After celebrating the utilitarian superiority of the Willys Jeep, the article goes on to query whether the more tank-like armored Humvee (frequently up-armored by troops, welding on scrap metal in the field) has actually had a negative impact on the success of our warfighting in Iraq, by isolating the troops from the population -- like driving a limo through the ghetto, or experiencing a national park through the windows of an SUV.

Consider that, then witness the next generation IED-proof Suburban: MRAP. Captain Scarlet, call your office.

The Iron City

IronCityPart of the appeal of attending NASFiC last week was the chance to see parts of the country I'd never visited before, and Saint Louis certainly qualified. And while I expected to get my fair share of full-on skiffy immersion at the convention itself, I didn't have the slightest inkling that the most affecting speculative fiction I'd experience during my week-long road trip would not be at Archon, but rather at the stunning Saint Louis Art Museum. Science fiction has struggled, rightly or wrongly, for literary acceptance for more than a century, so imagine my cognitive dissonance when coming face-to-face with science fiction as fine art. The mind boggles.

Matthew Ritchie is a British-born artist with a fixation on information and communication. One suspects he's just the sort of fellow Bruce Sterling would get along with famously. At first glance, Ritchie's not the kind of person who I'd normally think of nominating for some sort genre award, but one glance was all that it took to get me hooked on an installation piece of his titled "The Iron City."

The presentation is deceptively simple: A single ceiling-mounted projector casting a circular scene onto the wall of an unassuming alcove on the second floor of the Saint Louis Art Museum. The circular image is evocative of a ship's porthole, or perhaps the view from a submarine's periscope. Through this plays a continuous, 1.5 hour loop of a flooded, post-apocalyptic world. A richly-detailed vision which looks all the world like animated woodcut, or perhaps metal etchings. Profoundly striking, mesmerizing even, as the woodcut waves ebb and flow, breaking against ruined bridges as debris of lost civilization litter the seascape. Through surround-sound speakers mounted at various points in the room, recordings of the Earth's magnetic field play for the viewer, haunting and disconcerting. Motion sensors trigger automatic playback of pre-recorded radio transmissions, fragments of communication that are as fleeting as they are intriguing.

As I sat watching, entranced, a growing feeling came over me that I'd experience this before, and it only took me a little while to put my finger on it--reading Nevil Shute's On the Beach. Even all these years later, that stoic work of impending nuclear extinction still has quite a hold over me, it seems. "The Iron City" never quite delves into the history of this particular holocaust, but some of the snatches of radio transmissions are evocative of Heston's famous rant at the finale of Planet of the Apes.

As it is, the film unfolds at a languid pace, a desolate travelogue of animation. In one of the most striking sequences lasting more than 10 minutes, an indistinct object comes into view, and grows significantly larger as the viewer's ship/submarine creeps closer to it over the waves. A flurry of possibilities tumble through the viewer's head: Is it a derelict supertanker? A dead whale? The woodcut style, amazingly detailed yet also maddeningly imprecise, blurs the identity of the object perfectly until our view comes around the side of the object and it suddenly becomes crystal clear that those things are Saturn 5 engine nozzles the waves are sloshing in and out of. Having visited the famous rocket garden at the Johnson Space Center many times over the years, the effect was immediate and tangible for me, a proactive case of déjà vu. "The Iron City" is captivating in equal measures for its simplicity and simultaneous complexity. This could be one of the greatest computer screen savers of all time, and I don't say that in any way to diminish the level of this work, but rather to bring it to the greatest possible number of admirers.

Ritchie is no stranger to computers, or the internet either. Long before "The Iron City" became a reality, Ritchie launched an ambitiously interactive SFnal-themed project with elements both online and off. The touring art gallery aspect seems to have passed beyond this mortal coil, but the web-based component, The Hard Way, is still live, awaiting new users to find their avatar and navigate Ritchie's imaginative creation. Again, the SFnal tones are undeniable, low culture elevated to high art. This man's work is just a small glimpse of what is possible for us humble folk who work with the literature of ideas, and that's an exciting prospect. Bravo, Mr. Ritchie, for a job well done.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

More pithy one-liners than the law allows

So day one of Armadillocon is over and turned out to be a pretty fun one at that. The writers workshop had good quality manuscripts (from my perspective, at least) and the structural changes Patrice and I implemented appear to have alleviated some of the "Bataan Death March" syndrome experienced in the past and left the participants fresher for the evening's programming. And Sharyn November arrived not nearly so late as she could have, missing a critique of just one of our group and promptly scheduling a make-up session with that writer for Sunday. Everyone was happy. Yay.

Saw too many people and had too many interesting conversations to relate here at this late hour, but my evening panel "Group Blogging" proved to be a blast. Some genius decided to toss the contributors of No Fear of the Future together with those nut jobs from Eat Our Brians and see what happens. Well, lots of smart-assery happens, that's what. And the truth finally came out that Steve Gould, the diseased mind behind EOB approached many of the writers on my short list for NFOTF at World Fantasy last year shortly before I approached said writers to participate in this here blog, resulting in a surreal, skiffy Comedy of Errors. Actually, it was nothing so Shakespearean, but it did a good job of making me look like a goob and everyone else on the panel sage as magi in comparison.


Above we have EOB contributors Steve Gould and Caroline Spector, with NFOTF's in-house Encyclopedia Brown stand-in, Jess Nevins. All of them are smarter and more quotable than yours truly, by the way.


And here is the rest of the panel, starting with Maureen McHugh and Brad Denton of EOB, and the incomparable Chris Nakashima-Brown from NFOTF. All of whom are more attractive and more talented than yours truly (but I suspect that goes without saying). Tomorrow should prove to be interesting, as I have my daughter's swim meet to attend in the morning before trekking back up Austin way for several panels and assorted shenanigans, some of which involves home brew beer.

Friday, August 10, 2007


Here's where you'll find me pontificating this weekend, at the swank Doubletree Austin (which is decorated in a suitably surreal marriage of 1980s corporate chain hotel with Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia Mexican Rancho).

ArmadilloCon 29 Schedule for Chris Nakashima-Brown

Fr2200Dz Group blogging by SF authors
Fri 10:00 PM-11:00 PM de Zavala
Nevins*, Blaschke, Nakashima-Brown, Gould, Spector,
Denton, McHugh
Jess Nevins and Chris Nakashima-Brown, et al. proffer
dueling bloggers, complete with PowerPoint live

Fr2300Dz Why are most comic books that are made into
movies so friggin' bad?
Fri 11:00 PM-Midnight de Zavala
Roberson*, Nakashima-Brown, Porter, Wilson, Miles,
Every once in awhile, a comic book movie will be
great, but for the most part, they are terrible. Is
it the screenplay? The director? The acting? The
comic book? Or something else?

Sa1800De Reading
Sat 6:00 PM-6:30 PM DeWitt
Chris Nakashima-Brown

Sa2100PN Politics in the 21st century and beyond
Sat 9:00 PM-10:00 PM Phoenix North
Conrad*, Nakashima-Brown, Rountree, Taylor, Stoddard,
Trimm, Spencer
How will today's politics affect future genre-related

A preview of my reading (an excerpt from a new story, "Scrapbook from an Interrogation"):

IV. Regarding middle-class white boys

What a fucking awesome party. Talk about “obscene enjoyment.” Who knew the mujahideen assassins would have even better reefer than those Scythian priests camped out on top of the parking garage doing their blood bowls? The whole thing was like a post-apocalyptic Cheech and Chong flick.

Osama opened up his Blofeldian mountain hideout for a house party. The place was shaking with woofed up synthesized Fezcore running through the rebar. You were kind of spaced out, writing rhymeless poems in your bad calligraphy on the fuselages of the anti-aircraft missiles arrayed for launch. I got lost in the rave Abu Ghraib downstairs, with all the Dionysian Abercrombie P.O.W.s acting out their skankiest warporn fantasies. “Frat boys are so much better when they are on leashes,” you said. I came looking for the tough loving Lynndie England of my private midnights, and instead I found you. Who knew a latex Barbara Bush mask could be so fucking hot?

Liberian teenagers toting AK-47s haul ass down the David Addington Allée in an overloaded Lincoln Navigator with the top sawed off, dragging the bodies of a well-regarded architect and your vice president of marketing behind the car. You tell me to throw something at them, but come on, you know what a chicken shit I really am. I could lose my job.

In the bar called Heaven, they have all these Lolita-looking chicks cage dancing over the crowd like a Christmas tree decorated with clips from an old Robert Palmer video. After I drove your exploding X5 through the main reception lobby of your glass and steel office complex in a pathetic but undisputably stylin’ effort to free you (or at least get your attention), I hung out in the club until sun-up, drinking blue martinis in the hope that they would rewire my brain.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Armadillocon off the port bow

Tomorrow is Armadillocon in Austin, and I still haven't quite caught my breath from Archon 31/NASFiC in St. Louis this past weekend. That'll teach me to look at the calendar more closely. In any event, fellow No Fear of the Future contributors Chris Nakashima-Brown, Jess Nevins and Alexis Glynn Latner will be in attendance as well. Here's my schedule (not included is Friday's day-long writers workshop):
ArmadilloCon 29 Schedule for Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Fr2200Dz Group blogging by SF authors
Fri 10:00 PM-11:00 PM de Zavala
Nevins*, Blaschke, Nakashima-Brown, Gould, Spector,
Denton, McHugh
Jess Nevins and Chris Nakashima-Brown, et al. proffer
dueling bloggers, complete with PowerPoint live

Sa1200De Revolution SF
Sat Noon-1:00 PM DeWitt
Klaw*, Finn, Bey, Wilson, Blaschke, Porter
Being an editor for a small SF site can be

Sa2000De Hypotheticals
Sat 8:00 PM-9:00 PM DeWitt
Porter*, Roberson, Sturges, Wilson, Blaschke, Benjamin
A role playing panel wherein comics professionals take
a set of interlinked and developing hypothetical
scenarios regarding the comic book industry and play
them out. There’s no audience participation, other
than the audience getting a lot of enjoyment out of

Su1300De Mythology/Schmythology
Sun 1:00 PM-2:00 PM DeWitt
Wilson*, Gilman, Blaschke, Denton, Gould, Kimbriel,
In presupposing that only a "chosen one" and/or
demi-god can save the world, are Star Wars, Harry
Potter, Lord of the Rings and other such works
anti-humanist at the core?

I'm quite looking forward to Alan Porter's "Hypotheticals" panel, which I understand was originated in the U.K. by Alan Moore and some other folks whose names escape me. It should be an interesting romp. Also, we're finally doing an actual Revolution SF panel after several years of threatening to do so--any time you get Mark Finn and Rick Klaw on the same panel, watch out. $20 and a jelly donut says apes manage to creep into the conversation at some point.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Lost Books, Part II: Aggressor Six, by Wil McCarthy

Yet another damn good book that shouldn't be out of print, Wil McCarthy's Aggressor Six is not only one of the best first contact stories I've ever read, it's also one of the very best first sf novels. It combines the well-worn military sf idea of a war against a spacefaring insectoid foe, a la Starship Troopers and Ender's Game, with the badly-neglected idea of humans trying to understand and communicate with an alien race which thinks as intelligently as we do but differently.

McCarthy's insectoids, the Waisters, are far more advanced technologically than the spacefaring humans and are systematically wiping out our colonies, even though we apparently pose little threat. The heroes aren't trying to retaliate: they're trying to tell the Waisters that we don't want to fight. We're trying to surrender before we're made extinct.

The 'Aggressor Six' of the title is a group of five people and a Martian retriever trying to simulate, and thereby understand, the behaviour of standard Waister fighting team: a Queen, two workers, two drones, and a 'dog'. The most recent recruit is Marine Corporal Kenneth Jonson, a hero (e.g. one of the few survivors) of the 'Flyswatter' operation, a raid on a shattered Waister scoutship. Jonson, who has seen the Waisters raze his native Albuquerque, uses implants and equipment to help himself see and vocalize like a Waister. Wracked with post-traumatic stress and living in a recreation of a Waister ship as well as a Waister social unit, he throws himself into the nightmarish task of trying to think like the enemy and work out the reasons for their genocidal and apparently illogical strategy.

Increasing the tension, the Waisters have just killed another seven million humans on one planet and are headed for the system where the psyops team is stationed, the commander in charge of the project thinks it's a bad idea and is trying to isolate them, and most of Jonson's team-mates suspect he's going crazy.

Intelligent, taut and fast-paced, with an advanced technology that I found utterly convincing (McCarthy is Chief Technology Officer for Galileo Shipyards, an aerospace firm), the novel had me completely hooked as soon as I met Shenna, the voder-equipped dog, on the second page. And I'm a cat person.

Apart from Jonson, xenobiologist Marshe Talbott (the six's 'queen') and the rigid Colonel Jhee, the rest of the characterisation is pared back to a minimum, but this fits the economical style and the claustrophobic tone of pressure and urgency. And the depiction of the scientific process is so interesting that even if the survival of the human race didn't depend on the six finding a solution, it would still be a riveting novel for those of us interested in well-crafted puzzles.

It amazes and saddens me that this excellent book is out of print, unfilmed, and so little known. If you see a copy, grab it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The long way to St. Louis

Normally, driving from Memphis to St. Louis is a straightforward affair. Simply take I-55 north and you're there 3-plus hours later. Except when I'm in this part of the country--which is to say, almost never--certain opportunities are not to be missed. Therefore, I did not drive to St. Louis in a straightforward manner, but rather took a more circuitous route, but one that was significantly more rewarding.

It's not every day I get a chance to drive through Metropolis and see the giant Superman statue, not to mention visit the Superman Museum. And the statue is giant, as they say. I stood beside it and my head only came up to the Big Blue Boy Sout's knee. Photos may follow, once I get home from NASFiC. The museum itself was a fun--if cluttered-affair. Tons of collectables from over the years, not to mention movie props and displays from everything from the old George Reeves television series to Superman Returns. There was a surprising amount of material from the late, unlamented Superboy series, and an entire room (well, room is something of a strong word. Let's say "squarish, closed-off section") devoted to Kara Zor-El, aka Supergirl. One of the highlights for me was one of the actual space suits worn by the ill-fated astronauts from Superman II. That was pretty cool, as were all the 1970s-vintage Slurpee cups from 7-11, Pepsi glasses, chunks of translucent green Kryptonite, and, bizarrely, quite a few Underdog toys. Why Underdog? I saw only one Mighty Mouse toy on display, which makes more sense, since the original incarnation of Mighty Mouse was litigated out of existence due to blatant similarity to Superman. But Underdog? I don't get it.

I feel a little sorry for the workers at the Superman Museum/Gift Shop, however. The entire time we were there, a non-stop loop of John Williams' Superman soundtrack interspliced with various "Superfriends" theme music incarnations played over the speaker system. Even for someone like me, who really gets jazzed hearing those great, bombastic melodies, it was wearing pretty thin by the time we left. But hey, where else are you going to see one of the evening gowns Terri Hatcher wore on Lois & Clark, or Christopher Reeve's toupee collection from the first movie, or Nuclear Man's black leather boots (far less intimidating than the Phantom Zone criminals' black boots, which were also on display). For that alone, it's more than worth it.