Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sister Snake

Here's something I did on my summer vacation—not that working three science fiction conventions in four weeks, in parts of the country experiencing a triple-digit heat wave, constitutes a vacation in the normal sense of the word. Anyway, in late July I drove from Houston up to Tulsa, Oklahoma for Conestoga. Soon after crossing the Oklahoma state line, I started being struck by place names eerily familiar from growing up in Columbus, Georgia. Not familiar as in Smithvilles, Fairviews and towns named Columbus; familiar as in Muscogee (the local county and school district when I was a kid), Okmulgee (river in Georgia), Eufaula (town in Alabama) and Tuskegee (ditto.) These place names were very familiar to me growing up, and very strange to see in Oklahoma.

They turn out to be Muscogee (Creek) Indian names, echoes of people who lived in the Deep South, including along the Chattahoochee River between present-day Georgia and Alabama, before the U.S. government forced them to move to Oklahoma in the 1800's.

The forced removal was called the Trail of Tears. It was a wretched historical episode. American ethnic cleansing. To make it, if possible, even worse, Indian spirituality is generally connected to land in a way that Western spirituality isn't. Exile from ancestral land meant being cut off at the religious, cultural and even medicinal roots. This was explained to me once by a Lutheran theologian who belongs to the Osage Nation. He said that after being forced from Missouri to Oklahoma, Osage medicine people practiced less of their traditional medicine, and part of the reason was unfamiliar plant life. They didn't know the healing properties of plants in Oklahoma.

I recall precious little awareness of Indian peoples in Columbus when I was young. Most Georgians and Alabamians had no idea what Indian language so many place names came from. There was a "Yuchi Reservation" over in Alabama. But it was a golf course. I do remember a personable Yuchi Indian lady leading a program about her people at the Columbus Museum. A little present-day research on the Yuchi Indians proves very interesting. Their language is an isolate. Like Basque, it has no known closely related languages. Some of the Yuchi people lived in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley before being removed to Oklahoma with the Creeks in 1836. This came after several different bands of Yuchis had migrated or fled from place to place within the South starting in the 1700's.

There were a lot of migrations and upheavals of Indian peoples in the centuries after 1492. Topping it all off with removal and genocide, the end game was a colossal land grab by Europeans in North America. Now we live on stolen land, as the Lutheran Osage theologian emphatically pointed out to me. He added that the morality of living on stolen land can get sticky even for Indian people. He was then living in Oakland. Originally that was Ohlone Indian land.

For a lot of mostly irreparable reasons, most Americans dwell on the land of ancestors other than our own. Sometimes the original people are gone. The Conestoga Valley in Pennsylvania was named for an Iroquoian tribe that no longer exists. Wagons of a type devised in the Conestoga Valley carried waves of settlers and commerce westward as the United States expanded across Indian lands, including land that treaties had reserved for Indian tribes. It was a trail of broken treaties.

Conestoga in an SFFnal sense, namely Oklahoma's largest literary science fiction and fantasy convention, is a good con with a flair for originality. This year the con's charity was Safari's Sanctuary. The Safari's Sanctuary people rescue wild and exotic animals from the pet trade and from overpopulated zoos. They do educational outreach too, bringing some of the animals: wolves and lemurs and oh my—Carmella, the Burmese Python. A Safari's Sanctuary volunteer draped her on interested shoulders at Conestoga. A big (well fed, mellow) snake is all languid muscle from tip to tail. When you're wearing one, you feel the muscles flex as the snake shifts position. Not a suitable pet, but an amazing creature.

Carmella may be a kindred soul of mine. Oklahoma isn't Burma; she shouldn't be here, just like my own genes, or most of them, put me in Northern Europe rather than North America. But we are here and we make the best of it. She, dining on rats and educating the public about big snakes. I, living and writing without ever taking home and nature, place or past for granted.


Your Ballardian Dream Home (serious offers only)


Titan 1 Missile Base

Terms $300,000 down
Balance @ 7% interest only
3 year balloon

Bari Hotchkiss
(949) 842-9479

NO TOURS!! Must submit offer with $10,000 earnest money deposit into escrow subject to inspection.

Courtesy to Brokers.

The Missile Base consists of 57 acres of real estate. The center secured portion of the property is protected by the original barbed-wire-topped chainlink fence. There is a paved road leading into the property with dual entry gates.

Above ground is the original 40 X 100 shop building, two concrete targeting structures, two manufactured homes, two 8 X 8 X 40 storage containers, and the silo tops of the three missile silos, two antenna silos, one entry portal and a few other misc structures.

Below ground is a huge complex consisting of 16 buildings and thousands of feet of connecting tunnels. The major underground structures are:

Three - 160' Tall Missile Silos

Three - 4 story Equipment Terminal Buildings

Three - Fuel Terminal Buildings

Two - 6 story Antenna Silos

One Air Intake/Filtration Building

One 100' diameter Control Dome Building

One 125' diameter Power Dome Building

One - 6 story Entry Portal Building

and a few other misc buildings and areas.

Apparently, this is for real.

And it's not the only decommissioned missile base for sale as a dream home for secluded comfort in a freshly apocalyptic age.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Let's get lost

Pictured: Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970).

If you had trouble escaping your cubicle this summer, it's not too late to escape via your cubicle, courtesy of the mysterious Center for Land Use Interpretation -- a virtual encyclopedia and user-friendly Baedeker to most of the ephemeral sites of the United States. Nuclear waste dumps, skunk works, industrial facilties, and eccentric cultural sites. I have a particularly soft spot for the land art.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Marcel Marceau 1923-2007

Everyone else in the known universe will be posting this clip. I don't care. It's greatness personified.

Let's put on a show!

Courtesy of Gwenda Bond, an insane clip of 1500 or so prisoners in the Philippines recreating the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller." (The acronym CPDRC stenciled on the prison oranges stands for the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center.) The implicit specter of actual prison violence certainly gives the hordes of shuffling zombies a predatory credibility that no amount of Hollywood prosthetics can match.

The idea of inmates performing live musical productions raises interesting generic possibilities. Could be a real morale builder at Gitmo -- let all the boys at Camp X-Ray collaborate with their captors on some all-American show tunes. Maybe a Wahhabi Godspell? A GWOT-centric reworking of The Producers -- Springtime for Chalabi? "Prisoners of Love" set inside Abu Ghraib? Why does that just seem so right?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Blog Squad

For some time, I have been of the view that cyberpunk hacker types, Southern California cathode ray fantasists, and Madison Avenue product placement pirates would be far more effective warfighters in a "Global War on Terror" than mechanized minions of the Pentagon. That it really is ultimately about culture and consciousness. That it's bona fide netwar. And that, you know, we'll know we've really won when there's a Hooters in Riyadh.

Today's NYT reports on the State Department finally getting into the act in a way that actually sounds potentially effective, after so many larger scale bombs and misses -- the unsuccessful recruitment of a Madison Avenue executive to improve America's global PR after 9/11, the US taxpayer-funded Presbyterian edition of Al Jazeera (dig those digitally enhanced wild horses!), the mysterious recruitment of comics professionals to create Arab-language superhero popaganda, and so on. Karen Hughes' (you thought she was back in Texas, didn't you) Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs office has started hiring bloggers:

At State Dept., Blog Team Joins Muslim Debate


WASHINGTON — Walid Jawad was tired of all the chatter on Middle Eastern blogs and Internet forums in praise of gory attacks carried out by the “noble resistance” in Iraq.

So Mr. Jawad, one of two Arabic-speaking members of what the State Department called its Digital Outreach Team, posted his own question: Why was it that many in the Arab world quickly condemned civilian Palestinian deaths but were mute about the endless killing of women and children by suicide bombers in Iraq?

Among those who responded was a man named Radad, evidently a Sunni Muslim, who wrote that many of the dead in Iraq were just Shiites and describing them in derogatory terms. But others who answered Mr. Jawad said that they, too, wondered why only Palestinian dead were “martyrs.”

The discussion tacked back and forth for four days, one of many such conversations prompted by scores of postings the State Department has made on about 70 Web sites since it put its two Arab-American Web monitors to work last November.

The postings, are an effort to take a more casual, varied approach to improving America’s image in the Muslim world.

Brent E. Blaschke, the project director, said the idea was to reach “swing voters,” whom he described as the silent majority of Muslims who might sympathize with Al Qaeda yet be open to information about United States government policy and American values.

Some analysts question whether the blog team will survive beyond the tenure of Karen P. Hughes, the confidante of President Bush who runs public diplomacy. The department expects to add seven more team members within the next month — four more in Arabic, two in Farsi and one in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan.

The team concentrates on about a dozen mainstream Web sites such as chat rooms set up by the BBC and Al Jazeera or charismatic Muslim figures like Amr Khaled, as well as Arab news sites like They choose them based on high traffic and a focus on United States policy, and they always identify themselves as being from the State Department.

They avoid radical sites, although team members said that jihadis scoured everywhere.

The State Department team members themselves said they thought they would be immediately flamed, or insulted and blocked from posting. But so far only the webmaster at the Islamic Falluja Forums ( has revoked their password and told them to get lost, they said.

Not that they don’t attract plenty of skeptical, sarcastic responses. One man identifying himself as an Arab in Germany commented that they were trying to put lipstick on a pig. During Congressional testimony last week by Gen. David H. Petraeus, for example, the two-man team went into chat rooms to ask people their opinion.

“God bless America, the giving mother,” went one sarcastic response, going on to say that everything the United States does goes into “the balance of your pockets, I mean the balance of your rewards.” Another noted that Iraqis were better off before the invasion, while a third jokingly asked the Digital Outreach Team for a green card.

Mr. Jawad’s responses tend toward the earnest: “We do not deny that the situation in Iraq is difficult, but we are achieving success in decreasing the level of violence there with the contribution of the Iraqis who care about their nation and who reject the terrorists and killers who target their victims based on sect,” he wrote at one point. He directed the green card writer to the Web sites describing how to apply.

Mr. Jawad and his colleague, Muath al-Sufi, are circumspect about biographical details that would allow readers to pigeonhole them by their roots, religion or education. Mr. Jawad, would only say that he is in his 30s, was born in Texas and raised around the Arab world. Mr. Sufi also said he was in his 30s.

The team said certain topics repeated regularly, including arguments over the accusations that American soldiers tortured Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and President Bush’s comment that the fight against terrorism is a “crusade.” Much time is also spent trying to douse the Internet brush fires that erupt whenever prominent Americans from talk-show hosts to politicians make anti-Muslim remarks of the “bomb Mecca” variety.

Each response is carefully shaped in English by the team and translated into often poetic Arabic.


Wow. Government-authored war poetry. Makes me want to learn Arabic just to find out if that reads like a Cold War pamphlet rewrite of the Silmarillion.

Note they already have the perfect title for the first Robert Ludlum Blog Squad thriller: "PASSWORD REVOKED."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Really Alternative Cinema III: Tiger! Tiger!

Even in the wonder-filled universe of alternative-reality cinema, science fiction enthusiasts will be disappointed more often than not. In my (admittedly limited) travels into parallel worlds, I have not yet been able to track down a timeline where Ridley Scott achieved his ambition of becoming the John Ford of sf, nor a movie version of Wyndham's The Chrysalids, nor any good feature film based on the work of Isaac Asimov - though I have found one where Akiva Goldsman was not allowed to wreak vengeance on a genre for which he apparently has a deep-seated hatred.

I did, however, find a film version of Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! aka The Stars My Destination, which came about under rather unlikely circumstances.

A little background. In 1958, The Amazing Colossal Man was unleashed on unsuspecting parallel worlds by Bert I. Gordon, aka Mr BiG, who had an obsession with gigantism which rivalled that of Catherine the Great. This spawned a sequel, War of the Colossal Beast, and production company Woolner Brothers (not to be confused with, etc.) decided to cash in on the publicity by making Attack of the 50' Woman, from a screenplay by Gordon's co-writer Mark Hana.

On timeline CRM-114, however, a typo led to this film being announced in Variety as Attack of the 50' Roman. Director Nathan Juran, apparently believing that he'd been selected because of his success with the Ray Harryhausen effects film 20 Million Miles to Earth, set partly in Rome, went looking for a science fiction writer who'd lived in Italy, and was referred to Alfred Bester, then writing TV scripts.

Attack of the 50' Roman, starring Steve Reeves, was remarkably successful commercially, thanks to an energetic and expensive publicity campaign by Joseph E. Levine. While filming, Bester had mentioned to Juran that important scenes of Tiger! Tiger! were set on Rome's Spanish Steps, and when the company decided to make another sf film set in Rome, they optioned Bester's novel.

Bester's original screenplay for The Stars My Destination is, unsurprisingly, brilliant, and many scenes have survived intact. The film overall has a pleasingly baroque look, though the spaceships and Ray Harryhausen's 'burning man' effects have dated badly. The cast, however, is a rather strange mix. Vincent Price gives one of his more restrained performances as Presteign, while Anita Ekberg played his icily aloof albino daughter. Boris Karloff, the first choice to play Saul Dagenham, was unavailable, so the role was given to a younger actor who had played minor roles in sf films, Clint Eastwood. Steve Reeves, then at the peak of his career, turned down the role of James Bond to play Gully Foyle: the role of Jisbella McQueen went to his sword-and-sandal co-star Sylva Koscina.

Reeves is "not too abysmal" for much of the film - as a stocky and brutish-looking Foyle before his encounter with the Scientific People, in the fight scenes where he demolishes the jack-jaunters, and as the Burning Man. The tiger mask 'tattooed' on his face increased his rather limited range of facial expressions, and in his scenes as Fourmyle, his rather wooden delivery is oddly appropriate for a man who cannot afford to show strong emotion for fear of bringing blood rushing to his face and highlighting his surgery scars. This works well until the film's climax, where Foyle has to deliver his impassioned "Who are we, any of us, to make a decision for the world?" speech. As in nearly all of his films, his lines were performed by another actor, but the poor job of dubbing only makes his performance look even worse. One critic unkindly remarked that given Reeves' restricted acting ability, he might better have been cast as the robot.

The Stars My Destination failed at the box office, putting an end to what might have been a succession of Italian-made movies based on sf novels. Instead, Italian film-makers turned to the safer genres of sword-and-sandal and spaghetti westerns. Juran teamed up with Harryhausen once more, making The First Men in the Moon from a script by Nigel Kneale, before moving back to the less demanding world of directing television shows, including episodes of 'Lost in Space' and 'Land of the Giants'. Bester stayed away from the film industry until the late 70s, when he was commissioned to write a story for the forthcoming 'Superman' movie. It was never used.

It's rumoured that a remake of The Stars My Destination is in pre-production stage in timeline CRM-114. Let's hope that this time, the lead role is given to someone with more talent than Reeves.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

No fear of chupacabras in the future

A few years ago, there was a rash of bizarre, dog-like creatures turning up dead in Texas, which gave rise to a brief flurry of chupacabra mania. Well, those disturbing-looking things are back, and all of the sudden chupacabra is chic again. Not only that, but chupacabra has even found its way into my day job routine. This was written by Marc Speir, a grad student of mine:

Mythical Chupacabra

Witnesses say it looks like a cross between a dinosaur and a vampire. Others say it’s a hopping wolf with red eyes and a trail of foul smell, while some claim it resembles a small panther with a forked tongue.

Whatever the description, variations of the legend of the chupacabra can be found in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Nicaragua, Chile and Florida, among others. Originating in Puerto Rico, the name of the chupacabra, translated in Spanish as “goat sucker,” began with the macabre discovery of large numbers of dead goats.

The goats were found with puncture wounds in their necks and blood allegedly drained from their bodies. Confused farmers in rural Puerto Rican villages claimed that they saw strange animals attacking their livestock. These claims multiplied and eventually led to a widespread belief in the mythical beast.

Through the years, the mystery animal has supposedly been sighted, captured and killed in a handful of locales across the Americas. The most recent finding to make headlines is in Dewitt County, near the small town of Cuero, southeast of San Antonio.

Phylis Canion found the corpse of a strange-looking critter on her property in late July. Claiming that the animal killed numerous cats in the area and sucked the blood from her chickens for a number of years, Canion collected the blue-colored road kill off Highway 183. Upon closer inspection, she couldn’t place a name to it.

Determined to find out the identity of her discovery, she contacted KENS-5, a CBS broadcast affiliate in San Antonio. The news station was also curious, and sent a tissue sample to Texas State University-San Marcos for DNA testing.

The Department of Biology received the remains late this summer and is currently running tests to divulge the classification of the animal in the lab’s Beckman-Coulter CEQ 8800 DNA sequencer.

“This is part of a Mexican, Caribbean and Latin-American cultural phenomenon,” said Michael Forstner, professor of biology at Texas State and facilitator of the DNA tests. “While we don’t have the skull, from the images we have we can tell you that it’s a canid, it’s in the dog family Canidae.”

The reason the department doesn’t possess the skull is because the head of the animal was removed by Canion. She placed it in her freezer to preserve it for a decorative mount on her wall, leaving DNA testing as the remaining means in which to conclusively identify the beast.

“We’ll extract the DNA and amplify it using DNA markers suitable for mammals and carnivores,” Forstner said. “When we’re done, we’ll run the results against our online database and see what it matches.”

Supposed chupacabras that have undergone testing in the past often turn out to be wild dogs, foxes or coyotes. In this case, Forstner says the department should easily be able to find a match.

“If you’re asking me if this is a new life form, then I’d have to say no,” Forstner said.

The discovery has turned into national news, finding air on radio talk shows from Los Angeles to New York and being reported on television news stations across the country. The story even found its way into Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue, with the late-night talk show host joking that Canion had kept the remains to make “chalupacabras.”

Students around campus remain wary that such an animal exists.

“I was raised on the idea of the chupacabra--it’s silly folklore, like the boogeyman,” said Thomas Daniel, a criminal justice graduate from San Antonio. “My mom used to tell me that if I didn’t go to sleep, the chupacabra would take me away.”

Others say there’s a possibility that the creature may be grounded in reality, not just in the minds of misbehaved children.

“I don’t know if (the animal in the photo) is technically the chupacabra I’ve heard about in stories, but it’s something not ordinary,” said Luis Garza, international business senior from Brazoria. Garza studied the photograph of the animal closely before making his conclusion. “It could be a cross-breed… or genetic mutation.”

While scientists and students are skeptical of the legend, only the tests will tell for sure. The identity of the animal will be uncovered in a few weeks when DNA testing is complete.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Spin the Roti and Rap Raga Polsky

It being a beautiful Sunday morning in Texas, skin recovering from the solar assault of yesterday's attendance at the ongoing outdoor music festival, what better to do than stay inside and watch a little Polish television.

I have Dish Network, which allows me to subscribe to French and Japanese channels instead of HBO and Cinemax. They frequently give free previews of other international channels. This morning, I was lured in by a cooking show on Polsat. Tell me this dude would not kick Emeril's ass all the way back to Gretna.

When credits roll on the cooking show, as is often the case on these Euro channels, they run a couple of music videos as filler between longer programming. Our senses perk up when a Panjabi MC-style boombox Bollywood beat runs with these turbaned dudes chasing some henna-ed hotties.

Then the MC and his sidekick start rapping to the beat in Polish, intercutting their Lazy Sunday shtick with the cast's vintage Bollywood homages.

And then they scratch the motherfucking roti.

Masala Sound System featuring Cinq G, performing "Od Tarnobrzegu po Bangladesz."

Turns out there is a whole sub-genre of Polish language hip-hop with a raga-beat, Polski Ragga-Bhangra. Is this reality, or a Beyond the Beyond blog post?

Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, here it is for your viewing enjoyment.

There's also a killer clip of Masala rapping their "Rewolucja w Nas" at Festiwal Gwiazd 2007. This dude can flubber his throat-singing lips like a Brooklyn Tuvan. And if you look closely at the long shot, you can see a rare image of their promoter, Leggy Starlitz, smiling at his latest creation.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Notes from a Picnic

My friend and I had a picnic the other day in Challenger Seven Memorial Park. Not far from NASA-Johnson Space Center, the park borders Clear Creek, which is more like a bayou, slow and wide and turbid, with banks overgrown with honeysuckle, live oaks, palmettos and other semitropical greenery. The day was hot and humid but pleasant enough in the shade. We saw marvelous creatures:

1. A water skier practicing his moves who worked his way up to doing complete somersaults. Nice show, but the boat motor was loud, so we took a walk.

2. A snowy egret in flight, a delicately plumed white bird with ridiculously yellow feet. The yellow feet are practical: the bird can tell the difference between its own toes and the wiggly prey it hunts in shallow water.

3. Fish fingerlings, lots of them, in two very small ponds more like large puddles connected by a drain pipe under a roadway. We've had plenty of rain this summer, evidently enough rain to generate puddles durable enough for that many fingerlings to hatch and put on an inch or two of growth. The presence of all those fishies may say something about the abundance of mosquito larvae for them to eat. It may also say something about the culinary prospects for the local egrets and herons.

4. Extremely large spiders of a species always abundant in Challenger Park this time of year. They are the Golden Silk Orbweavers (Nephila clavipes) also variously called Banana Spiders and Giant Woods Spiders. They can be a couple of inches long exclusive of leg, and they construct webs wide enough to span a small road. My friend and I took a close-up look at one specimen. Its cephalothorax (i.e., the front section of a spider) resembled the Jason-horror-films hockey mask, in good time for Halloween. And it had furry knees.

5. Hot pink dragonflies: Roseate Skimmers. When the insects are older (middle-aged in dragonfly years?) the color cools to a lavender pink, but the young males are hot pink. In sunlight they looked like shards of neon signage.


So today my spiritual director comments, "Nature is the original temple. A nondenominational one." Complete with hot pink dragonflies and furry-kneed spiders and a lot of other unexpected things, including hurricanes.

I think I saw the tropical storm that became Hurricane Humberto this week – watched it pass our area by. Late that day I went for a walk, with a rain hat and plans to bolt for home in the event of threatening lightning. The sun gilded clouds in the west, while dark cloud fragments scudded across the sky overhead. To the southeast a sturdy-looking rainbow framed stacks of gray cloud. About halfway through my 3-mile walk, a rather strong wind picked up out the east, and blew steadily. At that point my crocodile brain ran its own little storm warning flag up the pole. But I kept going – no lightning yet – and the wind soon slackened. The clouds in the southeast seemed to melt away. My crocodile brain called off the storm warning. So did the weather forecasters. It was as if I'd seen the skirts of the storm swirling by in the distance as Humberto took an unpredicted turn to the east, away from Houston. It coiled ashore near High Island. The authorities in Houston were left to contemplate a glaring flaw in the city's hurricane contingency plans: planning to date assumes a lead time of three days to evacuate in front of a hurricane. Humberto ramped up from a bunch of thundershowers to a hurricane in much less time than that.

"Nature is the original temple." That works for me if it's understood that what's found in a house of worship is not predictable and safe. By most accounts, safe and predictable are not attributes of the divine mystery anyway. Having a picnic in a park is enough like communion or ritual feast to adorn the metaphor. Birds and fish and insects are less the metaphorical equivalent of interior decoration than they are fellow congregants. The water-skier? A sideshow; and most times you go into a church there's a human sideshow in progress. Attending temple/church with a human friend and fellow creatures, including spiders with furry knees... may not be a bad way to think about a picnic in the park. Challenger Park, in particular, provokes reflection on the meaning of death, because it commemorates fallen astronauts. The more I think about it, the better this nature-as-temple metaphor works for me. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Friday, September 14, 2007

It's a subjective business

Via Arts & Letters, amusing NYT Book Review essay by UT historian David Oshinsky (author of 2006 Pulitzer winner "Polio: An American Story") on what he uncovered in the Knopf vault of rejection letters maintained here at the Harry Ransom Center:

No Thanks, Mr. Nabokov

By David Oshinsky

In the summer of 1950, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. turned down the English-language rights to a Dutch manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh reader’s report. The work was “very dull,” the reader insisted, “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” Sales would be small because the main characters were neither familiar to Americans nor especially appealing. “Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely,” the reader wrote, “I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.”

Knopf wasn’t alone. “The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank, would be rejected by 15 others before Doubleday published it in 1952. More than 30 million copies are currently in print, making it one of the best-selling books in history.

The Anne Frank reader’s report is part of the massive Knopf archive housed in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. The document is one of thousands tucked away in the publisher’s rejection files, a place where whopping editorial blunders are mercifully entombed. Nothing embarrasses a publisher more than the public knowledge that a literary classic or a mega best seller has somehow slipped away. One of them turned down Pearl Buck’s novel “The Good Earth” on the grounds that Americans were “not interested in anything on China.” Another passed on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” explaining it was “impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.” (It’s not only publishers: Tony Hillerman was dumped by an agent who urged him to “get rid of all that Indian stuff.”)

For almost a century, Knopf has been the gold standard in the book trade, publishing the works of 17 Nobel Prize-winning authors as well as 47 Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes of fiction, nonfiction, biography and history. Recently, however, scholars trolling through the Knopf archive have been struck by the number of reader’s reports that badly missed the mark, especially where new talent was concerned. The rejection files, which run from the 1940s through the 1970s, include dismissive verdicts on the likes of Jorge Luis Borges (“utterly untranslatable”), Isaac Bashevis Singer (“It’s Poland and the rich Jews again”), Anaïs Nin (“There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic”), Sylvia Plath (“There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice”) and Jack Kerouac (“His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so”). In a two-year stretch beginning in 1955, Knopf turned down manuscripts by Jean-Paul Sartre, Mordecai Richler, and the historians A. J. P. Taylor and Barbara Tuchman, not to mention Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” (too racy) and James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” (“hopelessly bad”).


Thursday, September 13, 2007

More evidence of the convergence of mainstream and slipstream

Intriguing review of a new Michel Faber collection from today's NY Times:

September 13, 2007
Books of the Times
Stories With Mysterious Worlds, Specialized Rules and Inchoate Dangers

In a short story called “Mouse,” part of Michel Faber’s poignantly eerie new collection, “Vanilla Bright Like Eminem,” he writes of a myopic video-gamer named Manny and the strange little world he inhabits. Manny is one of 60,000 guys who share an obsessive online passion for a game called “Runner” and for Lena, its hot-looking virtual heroine. Manny is hooked on watching Lena as she outruns guard dogs, secret police and sociopaths while fighting her way out of the former Soviet bloc. Players guide her past these dangers, enjoying the way each attack shreds more of her clothing. If one of them foolishly lets a tank run over Lena, it’s Game Over.

Manny is grappling with a maddening software screw-up when he hears an unfamiliar sound: the ringing of his doorbell. He opens the door to find a real, live gorgeous woman who actually needs his help. Her problem involves a mouse, and it’s not the kind that has to be pried out of the hands of video-gamers. It’s a living, breathing furry thing that is running around her apartment and scaring her.

Manny would catch and kill the mouse if he could. But it’s not that simple. The beautiful woman follows the precepts of an exotic, Minneapolis-based religious group. She believes a mouse may be a recycled soul, one that Manny should not extinguish. This woman’s rules for living are every bit as intricate as the “Runner” code, and suddenly Manny is caught up in a new kind of reality: the immediate kind. The woman’s apartment has the same floor plan as Manny’s, making his newly altered state that much trippier. By the end of “Mouse,” Manny’s computer habit seems poised to undergo ineradicable change.

This is one way of saying that when Mr. Faber, who wrote the intoxicating novel “The Crimson Petal and the White,” shoehorns the name Eminem into the title of a literary short-story collection, he isn’t overreaching. Naming his book “Vanilla Bright Like Eminem” is not an affectation. These stories blend darkly phantasmagoric elements with humorously commonplace ones, and Eminem makes a perfectly good avatar for that kind of thinking. One of the best stories in this odd and haunting book, “Beyond Pain,” describes what happens when a heavy-metal drummer gets a headache, looks around at his life, realizes he is sick of pretending to be a tough guy called Morpheus, and slides into a wholly different world. In his new realm, Blaha and Fleps are proper names, and the background music is “Loch Lomond.”


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Friday, September 7, 2007

The reggae that exploded

Speaking of Ken Vandermark, dig this great video of his (((POWERHOUSE SOUND))) combo (the Chicago crew, with Nate McBride, Tortoise drummer John Herndon and guitar player Jeff Parker) performing the amazing "Coxsonne" at Alchemia in Krakow in May. Mainline it.

If you want the Oslo version, with The Thing's Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten on bass and Lasse Marhaug on electronics, you need to get it here.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Lost Books (well, almost), Part III: Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis

I meant to write this several weeks ago, and because I delayed, this is no longer a lost book. Gollancz have reprinted it as the latest in their SF Masterworks series, so you can now buy new copies from rather than hunting for it on Trust a publisher to ruin a perfectly good title just for the sake of bringing back a brilliant novel. Where are their priorities?

Anyway, since Mockingbird was last printed in the US in 1999, those of you who believe that the US is the whole world can still think of it as a lost book. But it was a Nebula nominee in 1980, and my personal favourite out of the shortlist, because it's a thoroughly human story (even though one of the three central characters is a robot) set in an all-too-believable future.

Bob Spofforth is the sole surviving Make Nine robot, a superhuman intelligence charged with serving humanity. All of his predecessors managed to commit suicide before their makers thought to re-program them to make this impossible. Periodically, he climbs to the top of the Empire State Building in the hope of slipping, but can't.

Professor Paul Bentley has rediscovered reading, after finding some long-forgotten books and an educational film amid the university's collection of old porn.

Mary Lou lives in the zoo, and has learned to survive by outwitting service robots. Paul falls in love with her, and teaches her to read. Together, they come to the realization that all of the children they see are actually robots, as are the zoo animals. Mary Lou is allergic to the drugs that most people take habitually, which include a contraceptive: the automated systems that run the world have done this to reduce overpopulation, unaware that the population has fallen well below their original target. When Spofforth realizes that Mary Lou has become pregnant, he arrests Paul for reading and sends him to a prison farm.

The nightmarish society that Tevis has created in this novel is an extrapolation of the 'me generation', where any sort of meaningful human bond is considered a crime against the new gods of Individuality and Privacy. The only places where Paul encounters rebels against this - okay, make that living rebels, as self-immolation suicides are almost part of the landscape - are in the all-male prison environment, and in a huge fallout shelter where an inbred strain of fundamentalist Christianity does an equally good job of suppressing individuality, especially for women.

This may sound gloomy, and I don't want to give away any more of the plot, but the pessimistic vision of a world dying of apathy and ignorance is softened by Tevis's compassion for his characters. If you haven't read it, do so while you still can.

I owe two debts of thanks to Gollancz (no, I didn't mean that to rhyme). The first is for their publication of hardback sf novels during my high school days: those yellow covers were visible from clear across the library. Understandably, when they started reprinting sf classics a few years ago, they did so in similar yellow covers. When these sold poorly, they began the SF Masterworks series with more conventional sf cover art (but cover art that actually reflected the content of the books - wow, what a concept). They have recently expanded this into a Fantasy Masterworks and a Crime Masterworks series, all of which are well worth supporting, and which have made my part-time job as an sf bookseller much easier and more rewarding. And for that, many thanks, and I was only kidding about you ruining my title.

In praise of commercial suicide

If you are in NYC, be sure to check out this week's premier of Daniel Kraus's new documentary, Musician, about the amazing avant-jazz saxophonist and composer Ken Vandermark. The man himself will apparently be playing at each night's screening at the Pioneer Theater on East 3rd. The rest of us probably have to wait for the DVD. The filmmaker's synopsis:

"Common sense says you can't make a living in America playing avant-garde improvisational jazz. But Ken Vandermark does it anyway.

"Among musicians, Vandermark's work ethic is almost mythic. The Chicago reed player has released over 100 albums with nearly 40 ensembles, spends over eight months per year on the road, and lives every other waking moment composing, arranging, performing — and trying to discipline his two hyperactive canines. Though Vandermark was the recipient of a 1999 MacArthur genius grant, he still spends most of his life in smoky clubs and low-budget recording studios, hoping people will plunk down hard-earned cash to hear his wholly non-commercial music."

Nice review of the pic in today's NYT, with this cogent morsel:

"In one early scene the director splits the screen to show Mr. Vandermark working the phone in his home office, effusively thanking a patron for a gig, and then sheepishly informing a creditor that he won’t be able to settle up until next month. Those seeking a nutshell definition of what it means to be a committed artist need look no further."

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Setting Creationism and Science Straight!

I bring this on myself. I know I do. I see controversial issues pitting science against creationism, and related headline-grabbers, and I have to vent. It's an issue that's near and dear to my heart. So it shouldn't surprise me that after posting on such topics, lunatic messages such as this find their way into my inbox.
A new brand of creationism, which creationists and secular science
are not familiar with is "Biblical Reality", which is better known as
the "Observations of Moses".

This "Old Earth" brand of creationism puts forth the view that
combines a seven 24-hr day week of original creation (Exodus 20:11),
with a separate "six 12-hr days of revelation" given to Moses
(Genesis 1:2 – 2:3). The pseudo discrepancy between the "sixth day"
in Genesis chapter one and in chapter two is explained as chapter two
being the beginning of modern mankind (Adam & Eve), and chapter
one as being an earlier species of prehistoric mankind in an earlier
restoration period, more than 60 million years ago.

Biblical Reality is defined as the "ordained marriage" of Biblical
Truth, and Scientific Reality. Think of Biblical Truth as historical,
present, or future data (information) that has been given to us by
the words written in the Bible, or what we shall call "The Printed
Word of God". It is events which took place in the past, that we may
not presently be able to confirm outside of the Bible.

Scientific Reality is defined as "That which has been discovered and
analyzed to be of true historical existence. That which has been
observed to be a real occurrence or phenomena, whether or not it
can be explained." For example, the discoveries of the extinctions
of life on Earth in what has been determined to be 245 Million BC
(dimetrodons) and 65 Million BC (dinosaurs) is accepted as Scientific

Biblical Reality teaches that there are no "creation accounts" in
Genesis, and that "Moses Didn't Write About Creation!". What
is actually being said is "Moses wrote about multiple restorations".
Before the advent of "Biblical Reality", no faction of creationism
could explain both the "first day" of Moses and the "Fourth Day",
all being 24-hr days, without either denying literal interpretation or
"redefining" the scriptures.

The "six days of Moses" in Genesis chapter one are actually six
consecutive (12 hour) days in 1598 BC that God revealed to Moses
(on Mt. Sinai) from the ancient past. Each day was from the first
week of each of seven different geological eras in "biblical order".
The only day of Creation Week which Moses saw was the
"Fourth Day". Creation Week was 168 hours, in 4.6 Billion BC,
according to the geologist.

My head hurts just trying to parse that gibberish. I suppose the fact that this nonsense finds its way to me isn't what I find so surprising--it's the fact that in this day and age there exist a sect of people still intent on sniffing model glue after all that well-documented evidence such acts destroy brain cells by the bazillions. And then, having undergone said chemically-induced lobotomies, these geniuses are compelled to write about their insights.

And if the sender of the above missive is reading this, yes, I am mocking you.

Monday, September 3, 2007


Digging through piles of old magazines over the long holiday weekend, I found this very nice Don DeLillo 9/11 story from the April 9 issue of The New Yorker, conveniently available free online (as is all of the magazine's fiction and poetry). Still-Life:

Someone took the glass out of his face. The man talked throughout, using an instrument he called a pickup to extract the small fragments of glass that were not deeply embedded. He said that most of the worst cases were in hospitals downtown or at the trauma center on a pier. He said that survivors were not appearing in the numbers expected. He was propelled by events and could not stop talking. Doctors and volunteers were standing idle, he said, because the people they were waiting for were mostly back there, in the ruins. He said he would use a clamp for the deeper fragments.

“Where there are suicide bombings. Maybe you don’t want to hear this.”

“I don’t know.”

“In those places where it happens, the survivors, the people nearby who are injured, sometimes, months later, they develop bumps, for lack of a better term, and it turns out this is caused by small fragments, tiny fragments of the suicide bomber’s body. The bomber is blown to bits, literally bits and pieces, and fragments of flesh and bone come flying outward with such force and velocity that they get wedged, they get fixed in the body of anyone who’s in striking range. Do you believe it? A student is sitting in a café. She survives the attack. Then, months later, they find these little, like, pellets of flesh, human flesh that got driven into her skin. They call this organic shrapnel.”

He tweezered another splinter of glass out of Keith’s face.

“This is something I don’t think you have,” he said.