Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Modestly Scandalous Confession

I just can't pretend anymore. I haven't been honest with you. I've been living a lie this whole time, and though I've tried to deny the true me, to present to the world a façade, I can't continue. It just isn't who I am. It's time I come clean. It's time I tell the world.

I actually like romantic comedies. There, I said it.

Whew. Now I feel better. This scandalous confession comes on the heels of a shocking revelation: some romantic comedies are actually intended for men. I realized this recently when thinking back over my review of the movie Stardust (a romantic comedy I admitted to enjoying for the most part) and comparing it to some statements in Susan J. Napier's scholarly Anime from Akira To Princess Mononoke, a book Snuffles is currently devouring (sometimes literally), but which he insists on from time to time reading out loud to the rest of us. In chapter 8 of her book, Napier examines a genre of anime films she calls "magical girlfriend" romantic comedies, which she defines as follows:

...the "girl" is usually a literally otherworldly female, ranging all the way from Scandinavian goddess to video-generated fantasy. Interwoven with bizarre imagery and events, the material seems to offer perfect escapist fantasy.... the works also play a compensatory role as well, allowing the male characters to enact wish-fulfilling fantasies, but in all cases, the exaggerations help to highlight issues of concern that might be contained or swept away in a more realistic drama. [p. 140]

Almost certainly such a storyline must have primarily a male audience in mind, and Napier concurs:

...these narratives are essentially from the male point of view. In a world where women (and life in general) seem increasingly out of control, the notion that certain truths about love and relationships in which the male identity remains stable and the male ego is restored rather than destroyed may have more appeal than ever. [p. 156, emphasis in original]

Comparing Stardust, we see something similar. Because of its genre, we might in passing think of Stardust as primarily a feminine movie, but it has much in common with these so-called "magical girlfriends." It is essentially the story of an ordinary guy who gets to have a big adventure and romance a beautiful, magical woman who fell from heaven. Besides that, it's the woman and not the man who has to go first through the difficult and humbling task of proclaiming her love. Don't try to tell me that wasn't written with the male psyche (and ego) primarily in mind. Furthermore, Dark Horse Comics, which distributes several manga titles in the U.S., reports that the manga version of Oh My Goddess!, one of the anime series Napier discusses, is its most-requested Japanese title, suggesting the manga has a large audience, probably including a lot of men.

We might also compare these things to those romances clearly intended primarily for women. The stereotypical Harlequin romance involves a hunky, filthy-rich man romancing a lowly, dirt-poor woman (albeit a full-bosomed, pouty-lipped one). It is fair to postulate from the comparison that romantic fantasies for both men and women often involve someone "ordinary" of the intended audience's own sex having a romance with someone "extraordinary" of the opposite sex.

Quoting another scholar, Napier writes:

Annalee Newitz has speculated about the popularity of romantic fantasy anime in America and states that "Americans who consume anime values are also responding to--and perhaps attempting to escape--the hypersexuality of their own media culture by reimagining romance as a relationship that goes beyond the purely sexual." My own research bears this out to a degree.... [p. 156]

A few years back, I encountered a National Geographic article that offered a similar explanation for the increased popularity of romantic Bollywood films, which often depict romantic relationships without sex and sometimes with minimal physical contact between the characters. Examining my own tastes, I discover that the romances I find most appealing are exactly the ones matching what I've put forth here: "the male ego is restored" as Napier would put it, and sex is not emphasized.

Relevant to the discussion (as I'll explain in a moment) is this quotes from the Catechism on the subject of pornography:

It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offence. [par. 2354, emphasis mine]

The reason I have quoted this paragraph is to call attention to the emphasized sentence. It's an important sentence to ponder, especially since this is a Catholic blog devoted in large part to fantasy. Probably the concern here, in addition to the other concerns with pornography, is that pornography distorts the purpose and realities of sexuality. It gives people unrealistic expectations of sex, of members of the opposite sex, and of marriage. It also constitutes a negative form of escapism: by enabling the viewer to indulge, albeit voyeuristically, in an unrealistic sexual relationship, it may inhibit his or her ability to form healthy relationships.

I bring this up because even non-pornographic romance may pose a similar danger if over-indulged, much as any hobby--including video games, role-playing, and science fiction--can become an unhealthy obsession. "Magical girlfriends" (or ultra-rich boyfriends) can give people unrealistic expectations regarding romance. Besides this, the "hypersexuality" of our media (and of some manga and anime) is a real concern; much of what we call "romance" is disordered, and some of it actually slides across the line into pornography; I've even been informed by people who read such material that this includes romance fiction marketed specifically to Christian women.

But back to my original point: men, admit it. You like romance, too. Women, rest assured, when you go to the video store with your man and pick out My Best Friend's Wedding, he may grumble, but really he's secretly pleased, just as you're secretly pleased when he picks out Invincible Obsessed Fighter. (You are pleased, aren't you?) If we men finally admit these things, it will make our lives easier.

It's inevitable, I know, that someone will ridicule me for this post. Well, go ahead; I don't care. Just try to keep the attacks mild.

After all, I'm sensitive.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Movie Review: Appleseed



Wake me up when the exposition is over.

Appleseed, written by Haruka Handa and Tsutomu Kamishiro. Directed by Shinji Aramaki. Produced by Sori. Voices by Ai Kobayashi, Jurota Kosugi, and Yuki Matsuoka. Geneon. Runtime 105 minutes. Rated R.

See other reviews here.

Shirow Masamune is probably best known for writing and illustrating the cyberpunk manga Ghost In The Shell, which is heavily dependent on William Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (and this cultural cross-fertilization works both ways, for The Matrix is heavily dependent on the film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell). Shirow Masamune is also responsible for the manga Appleseed, which is also cyberpunk and also that particular brand of manga/anime cyberpunk known as mecha, which mostly features people riding around in big fighting machines and engaging in heavy firefights. This of course has western antecedents, especially Starship Troopers and BattleTech.

This film version of Appleseed is, to say the least, loosely based on Shirow Masamune's work. It is not animated in the traditional sense, but is created with an innovative CGI technique that combines hyper-realistic 3D backgrounds with elaborately shaded but nonetheless 2D-looking characters. There is an entire theory of cartoon art postulating that backgrounds should be elaborately detailed while characters should be cartoony; I do not know the reasoning behind the theory, but I can say it usually works well in practice. Appleseed, however, takes the theory to an extreme that, while visually arresting at times, suggests it's possible to have too much of a good thing. Because the characters are not live actors or CGI characters or cartoon characters but something hovering in between the three, they often look zombie-like and detached, as if their appearances and movements are simultaneously too realistic and not realistic enough. The bored-sounding actors in the English dub don't help, but as I'll explain momentarily, they have good cause for being bored.

The movie has stripped Shirow Masamune's philosophical musings, world development, and technical mumbo-jumbo down to its utmost basics. The world is a wasteland thanks to a third or maybe a fourth world war, and the story opens with some hip, loud music-accompanied slow-motion CGI-fu/gunfighting as the young female soldier Deunan Knute (Ai Kobayashi) and her S.W.A.T. team take on a gang of cyborg thugs. Though her team is wiped out, a new group of ES.W.A.T. team members show up and save Deunan, airlifting her out of the area and taking her to a new Utopian state called Olympos, where humans have finally achieved something resembling peace, partly through technology and partly through a genetic engineering program that has produced a race of "Bioroids," humanoid entities with no capacity for strong emotion or violence. Bioroids make up half the population, living in uneasy peace with humans. Among the ES.W.A.T. team members who airlift Deunan is her old lover Briareos (Jurota Kosugi), who is now a decidedly robotic-looking cyborg because his body was nearly destroyed in a battle. As the story progresses, Deunan learns there is trouble in a paradise, and she has to don some heavy-metal armor (called a "landmate") to hunt down a mysterious secret called "Appleseed" and save the Bioroid population from destruction. After that, she has to turn around and save the human population from destruction, too. Can't a girl get a break?

The first obvious difference from the manga is in the appearance of the central character, Deunan, who in the manga is more-or-less a regular self-capable woman with an unusual skill for violence and mayhem, but who in the anime has become a short-haired tomboy whose fighting skills ascend to the level of gravity-defying superpowers, as she is capable of backflipping over enemy gunfire in slow-motion. Her relationship with Briareos is also different. In the manga, they are together when people from Olympos find them, and they are already involved in an ambiguously romantic relationship, both of them apparently more-or-less comfortable with the fact that Briareos is a cyborg. The film has replaced this curious dynamic with a hackneyed old-flame romance in which Briareos bemoans his cyborg body (echoes of RoboCop) and Deunan utters miserable lines like "I won't lose you again" and "There's no future without you." I kept waiting for her to break into a pop song.

On top of that, we have to endure one of my all-time least favorite sci-fi conceits, the emotionless robot who envies the ability to love. I direct all readers to Daniel H. Wilson's How to Survive a Robot Uprising, which nicely skewers the ridiculous concept of an emotionless robot showing an emotion, saying, "Never show fear. Robots have no emotions. Sensing your fear could make a robot jealous and send it into an angry rage" (p. 110). Okay, okay, it isn't an emotionless robot who bemoans the inability to love, but one of those "suppressed" Bioroids. Still, how can anyone be jealous of love if he can't experience it? The Bioroids' loveless lives might seem like a serious issue, all things considered, but one of them steps up late in the film and says, "Just because our emotions are suppressed doesn't mean we can't feel love." Oh. Well, I guess that solves that problem.

And though this stripped-down version of the Appleseed world is not particularly complicated, the screenwriters apparently feel justified in giving no less than three massive infodumps. Combined with the action sequences, the infodumps make for a basic mecha movie punctuated by lengthy lectures.

The film's big question is, "Can humans overcome their penchant for violence and live in peace, or are they destined to destroy themselves?" Good question. The movie offers at least three answers. The first is that we can curb our desire to kill by building human-like beings who don't kill but are likely to replace us. The second is that, bad as we may be, we're not as menacing as those Bioroids who might replace us. And the third, which the movie finally lands on, is a sort of vague sentimental thing about letting our children figure these problems out. It's an interesting question on which to muse and one that is always worth revisiting, but this movie does a decidedly poor job of musing.

Though it's animated, that doesn't mean it's for your kids. I think the R-rating is arguably a bit high, as the film contains no nudity, no foul language, and violence I would have placed at about PG-13 level. Presumably, an image of a man getting his head crushed by a cyborg and another image of a guy getting shot in the forehead earned the R-rating. Children could be disturbed by such pictures and would likely be bored by the infodumps anyway. Be warned that the manga contains gratuitous cartoon nudity and some foul language; I've only tracked down the first volume of the manga so far, but I assume the others contain more of the same. And while I'm here, I'll just ask, what's with you humans, anyway? Why would anyone want to see a naked cartoon character?

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Appleseed:

Myth Level: Medium (some universal themes and a lot of passing references to Greek mythology)

Quality: Medium (technically impressive with a clunky script)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (very little objectionable; some graphic violence and brief shots of skimpy clothing)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Book Review: The Art of Bone



Comic fans will need something to keep the drool off the pages.

The Art of Bone. Artwork by Jeff Smith et al, introduction by Lucy Shelton Caswell, and design by Cary Grazzini. Edited by Diana Schutz and Devae Marshall. Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR): 2007. $39.95. 200 pages. ISBN-10: 1-59307-441-7, ISBN-13: 978-1-59307-441-8.

This is book is worth every cent of the cover price. It is gigantic (a foot tall) with gorgeous, enormous, full-color illustration throughout, and it costs no more than some hardback novels. And it contains not only much artwork that diehard Bone fans already know, but much that they almost certainly don't.

The history of the publication of Bone is complicated, to say the least. Self-published for a while, then published under Image, then self-published again with special short stories released in Disney Adventures Magazine and Wizard Presents, the three Complete Bone Adventures collections followed by the nine-volume series followed by two editions of the One Volume Edition followed by the Scholastic full-color versions and another One Volume Edition, not to mention greeting cards, guest art, T-shirts, Thorn strips from Smith's college days, rough drafts, comics from Smith's childhood, and a set of phone cards(!)--with all of that, I promise you you have not seen every picture in this book before.

And did I mention that the illustrations are gigantic? It makes me deeply regret the minuscule size of the Scholastic editions. Ah well, perhaps some giant-sized editions like they have in Norway will appear in a few years.

The volume opens with Mark Crilley's map of the Valley on the inside of the hard cover. It then continues with bold, black pages adding successive bits of text like the opening credits of a movie, each text presented opposite a giant image of one of the Bone cousins, until you arrive at last at a two-page spread of the enormous, glorious Bone logo. Following that, Lucy Shelton Caswell gives a brief but informative introduction (which includes an inset of one of my favorite images from the comic), followed by Diana Schutz's preface. After that, we're hip-deep in wonderful artwork, beginning with a lush presentation of the cover of Bone #37 framed by the line that first introduced us to Bone's mythological universe and hinted that this was to be more than a comic about cute talking animals: "Dreams are windows to the Spirit World...a world from which everyone comes and to which everyone must one day return." Awesome!

The book contains lots of big pictures of cover art, both from the original Cartoon Books publications and from some of the Image reprints, including one of my all-time favorite pictures, the Image cover to Bone #2, which shows Thorn and Bone's first meeting. The short story "May the Force Be with You," originally published in Disney Adventures Magazine and not to be found in the final compilation of the comic, appears here, as does the Thorn strip on which it's based. It involves, among other oddities, a scene in which Fone Bone, without losing his signature deadpan, gets swallowed by a giant eagle. The book also has some photographs of Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio, which Smith used for Bone's lush forest setting, and Kathmandu, which he uses for its exotic urban conclusion.

I think my new favorite image of Bone's two protagonists is the picture from a pair of phone cards released with the second anniversary issue of Combo Magazine. The picture features a grinning Thorn giving Fone Bone a hug. A phone card featuring a character named Fone seems quite appropriate.

Along with the numerous images are a number of captions and short paragraphs (presumably written by Diana Schutz) describing various aspects of the Bone saga. Regular readers here will already know of some of them: she identifies the "Dreaming," Bone's spirit world, with the Australian Dreamtime and notes that the characters Rose and Briar are a reference to "Sleeping Beauty." She reveals, as I had long suspected, that Smith's wife was the major inspiration for Thorn and discusses Smith's use of light and shadow and "camera" placement, the sort of things that many readers might not pick up. And even though Bone is a complex work featuring humor, adventure, a large cast of characters, an epic story arc, and a mythic backdrop, she writes, "The relationship between Thorn and Fone Bone is the axis on which the entire Bone epic turns, beginning as an innocent, though incendiary, crush and blossoming into a wholly trusting partnership" (p. 40). The Sci Fi Catholic certainly agrees.

The last half of the book discusses important plot points including the climax and conclusion. For that reason, though it may potentially entice new readers, The Art of Bone is best for those already familiar with Bone. For those afflicted with the same disease as myself, known as terminal Bone addiction, it is a must-have.

Galaxiki

I recently received the following press release:

A fictional web 2.0 galaxy created by its own community

EHLERANGE, Luxembourg, August 14th, 2007 - Only seven weeks after its official launch the Galaxiki website (www.galaxiki.org) is on its way to become a highly successful web 2.0 site. Galaxiki is a new kind of wiki based community portal that allows its members to edit stars, planets and moons in a virtual galaxy, creating an entire fictional world online. It already got a lot of positive coverage in the blogosphere and in the media, Linux Journal (www.linuxjournal.org) even named it "dot org website of the week" on July 11th.

"It's very exciting to see how many people like Galaxiki! We got a lot of positive feedback and many suggestions within the past few weeks", said Jos Kirps, the creator of Galaxiki. "The site is being updated on a regular basis, new features emerge nearly every day: improved galaxy exploration tools, search tools, planetary editors or translated contents for example. We now just launched the movies and books section, a completely new site area where community members can manage their private collections of DVDs or books and share information about them. And we still have a lot of new stuff in the pipeline." Galaxiki combines well known web 2.0 features in a revolutionary new way. Millions of stars, planets, moons, pulsars and black holes can be explored using an intuitive 2D map. The idea behind Galaxiki is that community members can create fictional life forms and write about their histories on their planets. The ease of use attracts all kinds of users, so that the target audience is not limited to science fiction and astronomy addicts.

"We're now looking for people willing to help us with translations - german and french versions of the site are already partly available, other languages are being prepared", explains Jos Kirps. "Just like any other community site we heavily rely on active users, and we're looking forward to see people from all over the world become part of our world!"

Galaxiki membership and editing community stars is free, but it's also possible to purchase your own solar system that only you will be able to edit. Galaxiki also features an online shop offering astrononmy, science and science fiction related articles; such as DVDs, books or T-Shirts for example.

About the Galaxiki Project

Launched in July 2007, the Galaxiki Project offers a unique surfing experience on it's Galaxiki community portal. The Galaxiki Project is headquartered in Ehlerange, Luxembourg, Europe and is currently run as a private project by its creator Jos Kirps, although it shall be transformed into a company in the near future. For more information, visit www.galaxiki.com.

Caution Concerning Forward-Looking Statements

This document includes certain forward-looking statements, including statements regarding The Galaxiki Project's ability to run and improve it's services, or to create new business models. These statements are based on the current expectations or beliefs of The Galaxiki Project, and are subject to uncertainty and changes in circumstances. Actual results may vary materially from those expressed or implied by the statements herein. The Galaxiki Project is under no obligation to, and expressly disclaims any such obligation to, update or alter their respective forward-looking statements, whether as a result of new information, future events, or otherwise.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

August Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour Day 2



The swashing and buckling just won’t stop!

This month's Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour is featuring The Legend of the Firefish by George Bryan Polivka. You can read Polivika's blog here.

Today, in honor of Polika’s high seas pirate adventure novel, we have a pirate short story!



The Ballad of Ichabod the Scourge
by Ichabod the Scourge


This is the sorriest bunch o’ land-lubbers I e’er laid eyes on in me life! But we’ll make real piratey pirates out o’ ye yet! I’m here to tell ya a story that’ll put real hair on yer chests! It’s called “The Ballad o’ Ichabod the Sailor and how he became the nastiest meanest, low-downest, dirtiest sailor ever to ply the seven and a half seas.”

Arrgh, once upon a time, the nastiest, meanest, low-downest, dirtiest sailor e’er to ply the seven an’ a half seas was Rupert the Scum. And Rupert had a snivelly, wet-nosed young lubber of a cabin boy by the name o’ Billy.

Now, one o’ the pirates’ favoritest past-times is a-roastin’ marshmallows. And fer the captain of a ship, it’s usually the cabin boy what does the marshmallow roastin’ fer ‘im. Now, every pirate lahks ‘is marshmallows different, ya see. Rupert liked his evenly browned on every side, which is difficul’, cuz it means holdin’ the mallow o’er the coals where there ain’t no flame, and turnin’ it around ‘til it’s nice an’ even. An’ so Billy the cabin boy was a-roastin’ a marshmallow fer Rupert the Scum. But he didn’ pay close attention, see, and so--wham! The marshmallow caught fahr! And Billy excitedly lifted it out o’ the fahr and started waving it around to put it out, and then the marshmallow flew off the stick and landed right on Rupert the Scum’s fancy-shmancy piratey captain’s hat! And Rupert the Scum was burnin’ mad, cuz ‘is hat was sticky and scorched, an’ so ‘e had Billy the cabin boy keel-hauled. Ya know what that is? They tie a man on a big ‘ol rope to the back of a ship, and they they throw him off the front, let the weight o’ th’ ‘ole ship scrape o’er the top of ‘im. Some men it kills outright, others it drives mad!

An’ this ‘ol cabin boy went crazy, ne'er the same since. Then came the day he took up a pistol and plugged ol’ Rupert right in the heart. He took the ship and became the low-downest..et cetera...pirate ever. He took the piratey name o’ Pinkbeard, an’ there weren’t nobody in all the seven and a half seas that weren’t terrified of ol’ Pinkbeard. He pillaged without parley, destroyed without distinction, and rampaged without remorse.

Whal, it was about that time I was a-sailin’ with a scurvy dog by the name o’ Floyd the Scourge. Now Floyd, well, ‘e was an idiot. He was so dumb, he could only fit fourteen men on a dead man’s chest. And he was such a wimp, he sang, “Yo ho ho and a bottle o’ weak tea.”

But nonetheless, I were on ol’ Floyd’s crew, havin’ been recently shanghaied in Shanghai. An’ one day, we were all up on deck singin’ one o’ the pirate’s favorite little ditties: “Oh, ninety-nine bottles o’ rum on the wall, ninety-nine bottles o’ rum! Take one down an’ drink some o’ that grog, ‘n’ then pass it on to th’ other scurvy dogs! There’s ninety-eight bottles o’ rum on the wall!”

Well, there we were havin’ a jolly ol’ time. But up in the Crow’s Nest, our lookout, Cutthroat Carl, suddenly gave a loud hulloo! An’ Floyd called up, “What’s you yellin’ up thar fer, Carl? It’s me favorite part o’ the song! ‘Oh, thirty-two bottles o’ rum on the wall, thirty-two bottles o’ rum....’”

“Thar’s a ship, Cap’n,” Carl yelled back. “An’ she’s comin’ up fast off to fore.”

Well, Cap’n Floyd had to interrupt ‘is singin’, and he went to have a look. An’ then he got all trembly-like, and he called out, “We’re all lost. I’s Pinkbeard hisself!” An’ shore enough, it was! We all could see th’ infamous flag o’ the meanest, nastiest, dirtiest, low-downest pirate ever: a big skull and crossbones, set on a pink background. Thar waren’t no sailor in them days that wouldna go all shaky in the knees an’ weak in th’ arms at the sight o’ tha’ flag.

Well, Pinkbeard had us righ’ whar ‘e wanted us. We were head-on to ‘im, an’ he had his entire starboard pointed our way, cannons at the ready. Floyd put us to work to bring us about, but we couldn’t change direction fast enough before Pinkbeard began to fire. Cannonballs missed us to port, cannonballs missed us to starboard, cannonballs missed us to fore, and then cannonballs hit us right smack on!

Well, the shot did exactly what Pinkbeard had in mind. The cannonball crashed through the mast o’ the mainsail and brought the whole thing down with the riggin’ in a tremendous smash! Several men were caught under the falling wood or tackle or sails. The decks were littered with the debris, and we were disabled and dead in the water. Pinkbeard didn’t wanna sink us, ya see. He wanted the ship to add to his fleet. And so after th’ initial burst of ‘is cannonade, he turned his ship, The Fairly Amiable Roger, until he was coming up on us to starboard. Another well-aimed cannon took down th’ other mast, and we could see on the deck that a boarding party was prepared to attack our ship.

An’ we all quaked with fear, cuz we saw some o’ the meanest pirates ever in that lot--there was the wicked Gravy Crocket, who was known always to liquefy ‘is food before eatin’ it; next to ‘im was ‘is infamous lady-friend, Madame Puree; and there was also Sojourner Lies, one o’ the nastiest woman pirates on all the high seas, armed to the teeth with two sabers, two pistols, and a knife in each boot; there was also Abraham Lynchin, Napoleon Blowyouapart, Thomas Slobbs, and another woman pirate named Florid Nightingale, who had a beet-red face but could sing like a songbird--right before she cut yer throat!

Pinkbeard hisself, lookin’ wicked and cruel, stood up on the deck o’ The Fairly Amiable Roger and called out to Floyd the Scourge, “Floyd, you yellow-bellied, chicken-livered, water-kneed, irritable-bowled land-lubber of a rapscallion, surrender yer vessel to me or watch it taken from ya th’ ‘ard way!”

Wahl, Floyd by this point was curled up on the deck and were so scared, he weren’t sayin’ nothin’. Pinkbeard took that as a no, and so they threw planks from their ship to ours and swung across on ropes, and then the fightin’ was goin’ full-speed.

It was as well-timed as it could be. We’d not had time enough to load the cannons before we was fightin’ hand-to-hand fer our lives. We grabbed up sabers and cutlasses and loaded pistols to use against the ruthless mob o’ Pinkbeard’s men. I quickly found meself drawing blades against one o’ Pinkbeard’s most feared and ruthless buccaneers, th’ infamous Samuel Briquette--who was known only to do ‘is cookin’ on a barbecue. He had a gold ring in his nose and a blackened tooth in the front and a murderous look in ‘is one remainin’ eye. Well, we swashed and we buckled back and forth on the deck! It was a sight to behold. I even leapt onto a crate and jumped down at him at one point. And another time, I lost me sword and then a beautiful woman--I never figgered out where she came from--yelled, “Here!” and tossed it back to me just in time fer me to fend off Samuel’s savage blow!

Then the red rage took ‘old o’ me an’ I saw red! My whole vision was nothin’ but a continuous sea o’ red! Then I realized me bandana had fallen down over me eyes! So I quickly put it back where it belonged and went at Samuel again. I dealt him a mighty strike that sent him reeling to the ground, and I knocked the saber clean from his grasp, and then I raised me sword fer the final cut!

And then before me I saw Pinkbeard hisself walkin’ through the smoke and the fray, laughin’ as his long, faded overcoat swirled about his heavy boot and his one peg leg, which thumped rhythmically upon the deck. He peered at me with deep blue eyes--disarming eyes, so seemingly innocent in a face scarred from the barnacles that had tore at him when he was keel-hauled. Only those eyes survived that torture, as if they belonged in a different head, the head of an innocent, bright cabin boy who had never known the cold, breathless dark o’ the brine under the weighty hulk of a cutter, a hairsbreadth away from Davy Jones hisself. An’ those eyes were lookin’ right at me, seemin’ to peer inta me very soul.

“Good,” he laughed, clappin’ his hands, seein’ how I’d brought down Samuel, “good. Now finish him, and take his place at my side!”

I was about to do it, but somethin’ stopped me and I cast aside me blade. “No,” I said. “I am a pirate, like me father before me.”

Pinkbeard grinned hard and said, “So be it, pirate.”

Then he drew a pistol from under that swirlin’ overcoat an’ pointed it right at me heart. Well, I knew I was done fer!

But just then, someone shouted, “Look! It’s Her Majesty’s Navy!” And everyone gasped cuz fer pirates, Her Majesty’s Navy is first to be feared right after Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Well, we all looked, and there comin’ up to port was one o’ the most famous and fearsome o’ the Navy’s Man o’ Wars, a giant, heavily armed sailing ship known as the Brawny. An’ standing on ‘er deck was none other than ‘er famous captain, Captain Blah!

“Mistuh Chris-chun,” Captain Blah ordered his first mate, “bank hawd to port and give those blokers a volley!”

Well, ol’ Pinkbeard knew he couldna defend ‘is ship while he was busy attackin’ ours, an’ so he swiftly ordered a retreat an’ his men piled back aboard the Fairly Amiable Roger. But they was too late! Billows o’ smoke rose in a line from the side o’ the Brawny--the firing of ‘er cannons, evera one pointed at the Fairly Amiable Roger!

I knew now was the time to act, but Cap’n Floyd was still so scared, he weren’t movin’. So I ordered the men down below and told them to load our own cannons, and then the Roger would be struck from both sides. The men feverishly loaded in the black powder and the heavy cannon balls, and then kindled the matches and our own fifty guns unloaded into the Roger, the cannon balls blowin’ out the other side in a balloonin’ cloud o’ splinters! With the two well-aimed blasts from both our ships, the Roger was scuttled. She began tippin’ to port, and the last sight we saw o’ her was o’ Pinkbeard on the deck, saber in hand, cursin’ us as ‘is ship went belly-up. An’ as it turned over, we saw, glistenin’ and drippin’ brine, the very underside where Pinkbeard had scraped the day ‘e descended inta madness. And now the sea that hadn’t conquered him then was takin’ ‘im at last, and he was sinkin’ deep inta the dark an’ cold o’ Davy Jones’ Locker--which is in Davy Jones’ Locker Room, right next to Davy Jones’ Gymnasium.

But we weren’t outta the woods yet! Captain Blah knew he’d sunk ol’ Pinkbeard, but he weren’t too sure who we was. An’ if he found out we was pirates too, he’d sink us just the same! Fortunately, with our masts down, our piratey flags weren’t showin’. I ordered them snatched from the deck and stowed out o’ sight, and then I had Rupert dragged inta ‘is cabin wi’ the door shut. Then I had all the men pull down their bandanas an’ tie ‘em under their chins!

Well, Captain Blah brought the Brawny right up alongside and he peered at all of us as we gazed back innocently.

“What ship is this?” he asked, looking down his nose.

“Why,” I said, “this is th’ Anna Mae, an’ we’re jus’ a poor li’l ol bunch o’ ladies out on a pleasure cruise.”

Well, Captain Blah looked at us suspicious-like, as if’n mebbe ‘e thought it was funny, a bunch of ol’ grannies growin’ beards. But finally, he shouted to his mate, “Mistuh Chris-chun, Ah think we’re done here.”

An’ then the Brawny made off, an’ we was safe. We all gave off a big cheer, and then I ordered a makeshift mast rigged, and we set off fer Pirate’s Cove ta do some repairs and engage in some old-fashioned, piratey carousin’. An’ cuz Floyd was still out of it, I was named the new captain--Ichabod the Scourge, and I was swiftly known as the low-downest, not-nicest, meanest, dirtiest, ugliest, wickedest, baddest pirate in the seven an’ a half seas!

Blog tour it like a pirate!

Trish Anderson
Brandon Barr
Wayne Thomas Batson
Jim Black
Justin Boyer
Grace Bridges
Amy Browning
Jackie Castle
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
Frank Creed
Lisa Cromwell
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
D. G. D. Davidson
Merrie Destefano
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Beth Goddard
Marcus Goodyear
Russell Griffith
Jill Hart
Katie Hart
Sherrie Hibbs
Christopher Hopper
Jason Joyner
Kait
Karen
Dawn King
Tina Kulesa
Lost Genre Guild
Terri Main
Rachel Marks
Karen McSpadden
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Lyn Perry
Deena Peterson
Rachelle
Cheryl Russel
Chawna Schroeder
Mirtika Schultz
James Somers
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Jason Waguespac
Daniel I. Weaver
Janey DeMeo


Monday, August 20, 2007

August Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour



Buckle your swash and get ready for adventure!

This month's Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour is featuring The Legend of the Firefish by George Bryan Polivka. The descriptions I've encountered make me wish I'd read this one. Ah well, maybe next tour.

The novel appears to be of the nostalgic swashbuckler variety. The combination of high seas excitement and a quest for a legendary animal put me in mind of Kenneth Oppel's Airborn, though that of course features blimps, not ships.

You can read Polivika's blog here.

To enter the "Talk Like a Pirate Contest" associated with this book, see this press release.

In honor of the novel, tomorrow morning I'll post a piratey swashbuckling short story!

And don't forget the rest of the blog tour:

Trish Anderson
Brandon Barr
Wayne Thomas Batson
Jim Black
Justin Boyer
Grace Bridges
Amy Browning
Jackie Castle
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
Frank Creed
Lisa Cromwell
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
D. G. D. Davidson
Merrie Destefano
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Beth Goddard
Marcus Goodyear
Russell Griffith
Jill Hart
Katie Hart
Sherrie Hibbs
Christopher Hopper
Jason Joyner
Kait
Karen
Dawn King
Tina Kulesa
Lost Genre Guild
Terri Main
Rachel Marks
Karen McSpadden
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Lyn Perry
Deena Peterson
Rachelle
Cheryl Russel
Chawna Schroeder
Mirtika Schultz
James Somers
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Jason Waguespac
Daniel I. Weaver
Janey DeMeo

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Movie Review: The Invasion

As Shakespeare might say, it's a brave new world...sort of.

The Invasion, written by Dave Kajganich. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with additional hack work by James McTeigue and Andy and Larry Wachowski. Starrring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Jeremy Northam. Warner Brothers. Runtime 93 minutes. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults.

Read other reviews here.

It's no surprise the critics hate this movie, considering this is now the fourth film based on Jack Finney's novel, Body Snatchers. Probably only Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Phantom of the Opera have received similar Hollywood treatment. Does a story about people-replacing giant eucalyptus leaves from outer space really warrant the same attention as those horror classics?

Having somehow, by some grand oversight, missed all the previous incarnations of this film, I don't actually hate this movie; I only dislike it. The main reason I dislike it is because somebody apparently thought it was artistic to edit all the action sequences so they flip back and forth in time, so for five seconds we're watching two people having a quiet conversation and then for five seconds we're watching them in a car chase, and then we're back to the quiet conversation, and then we're back to the car chase. The only other movies I've seen that use this sort of ill-advised artsy technique are the sort that end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This particular interpretation of Body Snatchers has no campy pods creating human-like replicates. Instead, the "pod people" are merely people infected with a virus from outer space, a virus that causes them to walk funny and gives them a talent for projectile vomit. These aren't really aliens so much as straitlaced, upper-class zombies. In other words, The Invasion comes to us in a manner similar to Robin Cook's Invasion, which is also a bad movie about a virus that turns people into aliens. But at least this new Invasion doesn't feature anyone building a ray gun out of a Discman.

The movie centers around Washington, D.C., psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Kidman), whose ex-husband Tucker (Northam) suddenly wants to see their son Oliver (Jackson Bond) years after being out of the boy's life. Tucker is acting weirdly, talking in a monotone and walking as if he can't quite remember how, and some of Carol's patients are reporting similar behavior in close relatives. Does this have anything to do with the weird spores on the scattered pieces of the recently crashed space shuttle?

Soon, the pod people are taking over the country and the world, spreading the infection mostly via projectile vomit or flu vaccines. Anyone who falls asleep after being infected is encased in sticky goo and wakes up as one of the goody-two-shoes pod people. Certain sequences featuring Carol trying not to fall asleep may very well put you to sleep.

It's possible for the uninfected to fool the pod people if they act emotionless; this adds to the movie's incoherence, as Carol goes back and forth from freaking out to stony calm, apparently with no effort. Adding even more incoherence are some obvious emotions in the supposedly emotionless pod people: cold, nasty emotions to be sure, but definitely emotions.

As it turns out, certain people are for a certain reason immune to the virus, and one of them might even be Carol's son Oliver, if only she can have some car chases and rescue him so her doctor friend Ben Driscoll (Craig) can develop massive quantities of a vaccine to be sprayed from crop dusters. Whoa, I'm starting to nod off, so I better finish up the summary and get on to the criticism.

The Invasion appears to have been cobbled together out of spare parts. Spare parts include projectile vomit borrowed from The Exorcist; a plot borrowed from a novel, three previous films, and the aforementioned Robin Cook stinker; action sequences excused by the plot device of a child needing rescued, borrowed from loser movies like Mercury Rising; and Nicole Kidman, borrowed from wherever they found her to convince her to waste her time on this film.

The script is not as awful as some critics say; it does feature a few bits of witty dialogue, some technical language about extraterrestrial disease that actually sounds technical, and a fair (but failed) attempt at relevance and depth of meaning. It also features some jaw-droppingly dumb lines: postmodern feminism is an advance in human consciousness? That's almost as dumb as those science fiction fans who think they're the next stage in human evolution.

Then there's the movie's attempt at relevance. No movie that mentions the Iraq war, President Bush, or the Department of Homeland Security is going to get a positive review from me. Some may accuse me of not caring about the real world or about current events. That's not true; but it is true that I quickly reach the saturation point when multiple works of fiction want to comment on or satire those real world events ad nauseum; it makes me feel like the conscientious objector in Lester Del Rey's "Fifth Freedom" who couldn't escape World War III even in his science fiction pulp mags. During the Clinton years, I got tired of Hollywood telling me the president was an action hero (Independence Day, Air Force One) or an old-fashioned lover boy (The American President) or at least not as fat and stupid as a Republican (My Fellow Americans). I am now just as tired of Hollywood telling me the President or Department of Homeland Security is so evil and/or stupid that our only hope of salvation is a group of giant transforming robots, a stuffed bunny rabbit, or a superhero in a Guy Fawkes mask. Enough already!

The Invasion offers a mildly interesting take on the whole thing. If everyone were pod people, we are told, we would have no war in Iraq and no suicide bombers. I suppose that's true, just as it's true that if we all learned Martian we could grok peace and love. Only problem is there is no Martian and there are no pod people. Allow me to quote G. K. Chesterton's Heretics:
And the weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon. [p. 79]

In his historical fiction/conspiracy novel, Lovecraft's Book, Richard Lupoff puts a similar statement into the mouth of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, who comments that just about any philosophy could make a utopia if every man held it and followed it consistently. If we absorb these statements, we are forced to ask, what exactly is the purpose of suggesting an alien virus could solve our problems? Is it meant to be a serious comment on the human condition or is it just a cheap attempt to make the evil aliens tempting?

The catchline of this review suggests the movie is a presentation not of a utopia but of a distopia, but that's not exactly correct. It is, rather, a presentation of a distopia in the making, and that saves it from being completely silly. The movie meditates briefly on human nature, correctly concluding that human nature is fallible and therefore includes such things as war, poverty, and other difficulties the pods can solve only be eliminating our humanity. If the film were written a little better, that would be enough, but unfortunately, screenwriter Dave Kajganich has to go on to offer what he thinks is the real solution to our problems: the evolution of human consciousness, best represented by postmodernism. In other words, the situation is worse than we thought: if we can't tell the difference between cultural decadence and evolving consciousness, we are really in trouble.

The review at Plugged In Online suggests the movie makes an "accidental statement" about Original Sin, humanity's inherent defect. It doesn't look so accidental to me; a film that depicts humans achieving peace only at the price of their emotions, their desires, their individuality, and their ability to walk normally seems to understand that imperfection is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human.

I don't really want to compare this film to Brave New World. That's too easy. Instead, I'll compare it to Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, possibly my all-time favorite TV show even though I only saw it about four times when I was a kid and have only hazy memories of it. Captain Power was one of those post-apocalyptic stories, featuring a future of red skies and crumbling cities where a few bands of human survivors are trying to escape the menacing BioDreads, fake-looking CGI robots who hunt people down and digitize them into computer programs as part of a distopian scheme instituted by the Darth Vader-like Lord Dread, who believes human problems will be solved if--guess what?--we get rid of our emotions. Perhaps the great irony of the show is that Lord Dread and his robotic minions are always having emotional issues whereas Dread's nemesis, Captain Power, has trouble getting in touch with his own emotions. Now that's what I call good screenwriting. It is probably no accident that Dread's diabolical computer, which houses all the digitized humans, is named Overmind, which is also the name of a god-like species-absorbing collective entity in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. In Clarke's world, union with the Overmind is a race's ultimate achievement, but in the world of Captain Power, union with the Overmind is a hellish nightmare. This TV series and The Invasion explore the same basic idea, that the elimination of the things that cause our greatest problems is also the elimination of what makes us human. And of course, that begs the question of whether or not it is intrinsically good to be human. That brings us to a philosophical assumption that both the movie and the TV show share, that something about humanity is inherently good. Whether the writers of either of these programs realize it or not, they are probably drawing this idea from our culture's Christian roots and the concept of the imago dei, which is the Judeo-Christian belief that humans bear the image of God.

The Invasion's biggest mistake is in assuming that we will somehow overcome our problems through some vaguely defined evolving consciousness. It rejects the distopian vision of a race of soulless robots, but it makes the mistake of the Utopia that Chesterton so nicely encapsulates, assuming the biggest problem will somehow easily go away. Christians, too, have sometimes been guilty of Utopian visions. The original Utopia comes from a Christian saint. Teilhard de Chardin bought into a concept of evolving consciousness not unlike this film's. And a lot of Catholics today naïvely believe everything would be hunky dory if the Mass were in Latin again. An honest appraisal of Christian experience, however, reveals that Christianity can make people better but not perfect, at least in this life, and that existence on Earth always includes the need for continued vigilance against our own worst natures. The life of the Church and the individual Christian, then, is a continual self-battle. By contrast, Utopias are inevitably sleepy and stagnant: their members have nothing left to fight for. In real life, if such a society could exist, it would crumble in on itself because its citizens would inevitably become lazy and intellectually flabby.

On a more personal note, to whoever was talking on his cell phone behind me during the movie, leave the thing at home! That goes double for whoever was behind me at Mass this morning. I firmly believe that televisions, cell phones, and iPods are part of a vast conspiracy to turn us into zombies and destroy us. Do you really think it's a coincidence that it's called an iPod? I don't.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for The Invasion:

Myth Level: Medium (nice try)

Quality: Medium (try linear editing; it works!)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (nothing especially objectionable)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest Winners

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has released the 2007 winners. This contest is named for the author who once began a novel, "It was a dark and stormy night." The contest is for the worst opening sentence for a novel, and the entries this year are typically over-enthusiastic and hilarious. Here are some great examples:

She'd been strangled with a rosary--not a run-of-the-mill rosary like you might get at a Catholic bookstore where Hail Marys are two for a quarter and indulgences are included on the back flap of the May issue of Nuns and Roses magazine, but a fancy heirloom rosary with pearls, rubies, and a solid gold cross, a rosary with attitude, the kind of rosary that said, "Get your Jehovah's Witness butt off my front porch."

Mark Schweizer
Hopkinsville, KY


Dane worked the Spyrograph furiously, first red, then green, then red again, and finally blue; the pattern he sought was in there somewhere, and the correct combination would open the doors to a euphoria only known to dogs getting their stomachs scratched and parakeets viewing themselves in the mirror.

Matthew Warnock
Elgin, IL


My tongue moistened my parched lips and my stomach started to churn as I hungrily admired Leslie's hair, which loosely resembled my great aunt Betty's daughter Cornelia's famous tuna casserole--brown, dry and crisp around the edges, yellow and creamy in the center with just a hint of grease spilling out over the top.

Paula Price
California, MO


Hector had just met Sabina minutes before, and yet there they were, knees touching, faces just inches apart in the dimly-lit room, and her gazing deep into his eyes, which should not have been a surprise to either of them given that she was an ophthalmologist and he was a boxer whose left retina may have become detached the night before when "Mad Dog" Washington clocked him with a vicious right cross.

Ray Campbell
Redwood Shores, CA

Update: Now on BlogHop












You'll see to the left that, among the other shameless begs for attention is the opportunity to rate this blog on BlogHop.

Writers of the Future Awards Ceremony and Book Signing

The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Awards are undoubtedly the best awards for new writers in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, and are probably among the best new writer awards in all literature, including as they do instant notoriety for the winners, publication in a respected anthology, and a significant amount of cash.

This year's awards ceremony will be on August 24th in Pasadena, California. Unfortunately, I won't be there wearing my signature "space tie" this year (my love to everyone at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle!).

Also, at the Borders Book Store in Pasadena, this year's winners and a bunch of big-name authors who judge the contest will be on hand for a book signing, so if you're in the area, don't miss this opportunity. Here's the address and info:

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

Borders Books & Music
475 South Lake Ave.Pasadena, CA 91101
12:30-1:30P.M.

RSVP for reservations:(323) 466-7815 ext. 165

And here are the contest judges:

Doug Beason, Laura Brodian Freas, Stephen Hickman, Eric Kotani, Ron Lindahn,
Val Lakey Lindahn, Judith Miller, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Tim Powers,
K.D. Wentworth, Sean Williams, Dave Wolverton, and special guest Steve Savile


And here are the contest winners:

Aliette de Bodard, Bryan Beus, John Burridge, Marcus Collins, Jeff Carlson, Lars Edwards, Randall Ensley, Stephen Gaskell, Andrea Kail, Damon Kaswell, Yuliya Kostyuk, Stephen Kotowych, Geir Lanesskog, Amelia Mammoliti, Artem Mirolevich, Tony Pi, Edward Sevcik, Lorraine Schleter, Bogdan Stetsenko, Douglas Texter, Peter Town, and Kim Zimring

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Movie Review: Stardust

So Hollywood can make good fantasy movies.

Stardust, directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman. Produced by Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, Neil Gaiman, and Matthew Vaughn. Starring Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Robert De Niro. Paramount Pictures. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults.

See other reviews here.

I'd like to be able to tell you I've read the novel on which this is based, but I haven't. I have a bad habit of having negative first encounters with authors: for example, years ago I first encountered Anne McCaffrey in Freedom's Landing, and it so revolted me that most of her more important work has yet to pass through my hands. My first encounter with Neil Gaiman, author of the novel Stardust, was his series of Sandman comics, which I consider an excessively lurid, semi-pornographic, self-absorbed perversion of true tragedy in spite of its impressive creativity. For that reason, I've yet to encounter Gaiman in any of his other, probably more mature, works. I cannot compare the film to the novel, but if the movie is faithful to the book, it's worth reading in spite of some self-inflicted injuries (and I understand it has illustrations by Charles Vess, which means it's worth looking at, too).

I had low hopes when I went to see this, mainly because the trailer was, as one of the characters might say, très lame. But I was pleasantly surprised to find the actual film is easily the best fantasy movie I've seen since The Return of the King, something it achieves through competent cinematography, beautiful settings, good casting, a complicated but carefully balanced plot, and an utter refusal to take itself seriously.

The story introduces us to the town of Wall, a little village in Merrie Olde England that happens to lie on the border with the fairy kingdom of Stormhold. After Tristan (Charlie Cox) promises his beloved (Sienna Miller) to bring her back a fallen star, he crosses the border into Stormhold and soon finds the star is a beautiful young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes). After the Yvaine for the purpose of cutting her heart out and restoring her youth is a witch (Michelle Pfeiffer), and after her for complicated reasons involving ascending to the throne of Stormhold is nasty Prince Septimus (Mark Strong). Various shenanigans ensue involving sword fights, flying pirates, and a hilarious appearance by Robert De Niro, which I can't describe without giving too much away but which can be considered morally problematic, depending on how it is interpreted. The story is largely conventional fairy tale and romantic adventure stuff : expect no twists, but expect to leave the theater with a smile on.

The review at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops suggests the film is not for children, and I agree (and this demonstrates the reviewers there still don't "get" fantasy or comic book movies). It is rather unfortunate in this case, as Stardust would make a good family movie if it were not for the mild sexual humor. Furthermore, this is supposed to be a romance, yet it climaxes with a sexual encounter, after which the guy sneaks out in the morning (the USCCB review calls this "implied premarital sex," which is an understatement). I guess romance really is dead; to any sensible viewer, this pretty much kills the mood. But it was good while it lasted, and the wrap-up is quite satisfactory, involving some neat sword fights.

Bring a date, but leave the kids at home.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Stardust:

Myth Level: High (packed with fairy tale conventions)

Quality: High (a well-constructed film all around)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (some uplifting themes combined with problematic elements)

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Natalie Ewert Art

I have recently encountered the art of Natalie Ewert. Ewert is a Catholic and a fantasy artist, and I much like her work. I'm not an art expert by any stretch of the imagination, but if I had to define her style, I might say it looks like a blending of Eastern iconography, pre-Raphaelitism, and manga. Does that make sense?

I encourage you to check out Ewert's homepage, from which you can see her galleries of fantasy and sacred art, and even buy prints.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Up and Coming

I'm in the field now (things slow down here in the summer!) so I don't have a lot to tell you. I will, however, tell you some of what we have up and coming.

First of all, in the distant future, I will write that third and final essay on Bone...after the person who borrowed it gives it back (you know who you are).

Also in the distant, possibly less distant future, is an essay on those Harry Potter novels and what I think is a good way for Christians to view magic in fiction. This one requires some research and reading. You'll note over on the sidebar that I'm in the midst of Hans Christian Andersen, which will serve me when I write this one. I'll probably also give Andersen his own discussion.

To my temporal shame, I actually watched 300 recently. I want to give this a more-than-usual extensive discussion, so I have a few things to look at or up before I present the review, which you can anticipate this weekend. In the meanwhile, check out the review at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is a lot less harsh than I'm going to be. I also discovered the existence of an earlier movie on this subject, The 300 Spartans, though I haven't seen it.

I recently had opportunity to read the comic, The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye. I was borrowing it, though, and had to give it back, so if I write it up I will have to do so entirely from memory. For a great Christian discussion of zombie comics, check out this fine post at the SF Gospel on the subject of religion and zombies. Check out this one, too.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Another Look at an Ethical Issue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows



Consider this one big fat spoiler alert.

A few readers have asked The Sci Fi Catholic to reconsider its position regarding a certain ethical issue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I've never known Snuffles the Dragon to alter his opinion once he's stated it, so I decided I would send this question through the whole family and see how they address it. Here is what I found--

Finding Snuffles was not difficult. As usual, he was sitting in his room eating Oreos and watching anime when I approached him with the possibility of modifying his statement. Spitting bits of chocolate cookie, here's what he said:

Snuffles the Dragon: What part of assisted suicide don't you understand? If you're not still freaking out about me writing spoilers on your precious little blog, let's look at exactly what the book says, why don't we? Here's the offending passage:
"If you don't mind dying," said Snape roughly, "why not let Draco do it?"

"That boy's soul is not yet so damaged," said Dumbledore. "I would not have it ripped apart on my account."

"And my soul, Dumbledore? Mine?"

"You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation," said Dumbledore. "i ask this one great favor of you, Severus, because death is coming for me as surely as the Chudley Cannons will finish bottom of this year's league. I confess I should prefer a quick, painless exit to the protracted and messy affair it will be if, for instance, Greyback is involved--I hear Voldemort has recruited him? Or dear Bellatrix, who likes to play with her food before she eats it." [p. 683]
So there you go. I consider the issue simple; Dumbledore doesn't want a messy death and so he hires someone to off him.

I next approached Frederick the Unicorn to acquire his opinion. I found him in his usual spot on the living room love seat, reading.

Frederick the Unicorn: This is a Catholic blog, isn't it? Well, if we look at everything going on in this novel, we find the situation is complex. Dumbledore is, first of all, dying from a flesh-destroying curse. Second, a teenager has been hired to kill him; should the boy fail in the task, his family will be destroyed. Third, Dumbledore sees the possibility of falling into the hands of murderers who would torture before killing him. Fourth, he wishes the Elder Wand to pass to one of his own people. In the face of all this, he feels it is the best thing to employ one of his own followers in his death. Let's see what your Catechism says.

Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honour and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God. [pars. 2280-2281]
The next paragraph is particularly relevant:
If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.
This is quite clear; voluntary destruction of life or the hiring of another for that destruction is intrinsically immoral according to Catholicism. Two Catholic teachings are important here: first, the Catholic Church teaches that the human will is free, and second, she teaches that ends do not justify means. Dumbledore is trying to protect Malfoy and Malfoy's family. Very well, but his means for doing so is assisted suicide and therefore unjustifiable. Furthermore, Draco Malfoy's will is free; he could choose not to kill Dumbledore. If you recall, Dumbledore in the previous novel even offered to protect him and his family if they would accept such protection. The immorality of the situation is mitigated but not eliminated by its complications.

Lucky the Goldfish, who's generally shy, declined to comment. I couldn't reach Rocky the Space Mouse as he is currently in the secret government base on Mars, surviving by stealing freeze-dried grain from the storage silo. Naturally, his mail is sporadic and I doubt if he's even had a chance to read the book. However, Phenny the Phoenix was more than happy to make a statement.

Phenny the Phoenix: First, let me make clear to your readers that I am a pagan, and I don't mean one of those limp-wristed neo-pagans either. I'm the real deal. To the temple of Ra at Heliopolis, I in every life carried the remains of my spice-laden nest and the ashes of my previous incarnation, alighting on the altar and receiving the worship of the priests. When Shamash, Lord of the Sun, gave his holy winds to the hero Gilgamesh, I was there; it was I who in my wings held the winds as Gilgamesh took them. When Apollo handed the reigns of his chariot to his beloved son, I was there; it was I who burned the very land and would have destroyed all had not Zeus cast at last his merciful bolt. When Icarus flew too high, I was there; it was I who kissed him before he fell--and died. When Akhenaten deposed all gods but the Solar Disc, I was there; it was I who defiled his crypt and fed Amarna to the sands.

If you read that fine little volume, C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, you will learn that Lewis admitted he found no basis in Christian scripture for the Christian prohibition on suicide. He nonetheless accepted this moral teaching on the basis of tradition.

Judaism would allow for suicide in certain instances. See, for example, 4 Maccabees 12.19 and 17.1, which scholar Thomas H. Tobin links to Josephus's Jewish War:

However, neither did Eleazer once think of flying away, nor would he permit anyone else to do so; but when he saw their wall burned down by the fire, and could devise no other way of escaping, or room for their further courage, and setting before their eyes what the Romans would do to them, their children, and their wives, if they got them into their power, he consulted about having them all killed. Now as he judged this to be the best thing they could do in their present circumstances, he gathered the most courageous of his companions together, and encouraged them to take that course by a speech which he made to them.... [7.320-322, trans. by William Whiston and updated by Paul L. Maier]
"What the Romans would do to them" sounds a bit like Dumbledore's fears of Greyback and Le Strange, doesn't it? But as you are a Christian, the question is, is this a Christian way of viewing things? Your Christ, too, knew what the Romans would do to him, but he doesn't seem to have asked his disciples to run a sword through him ahead of time. Suicide to escape "messy" death is not a Christian way.

Nor, in my humble view, is it the way of the best pagans. I will turn to a philosopher I respect, namely Plato, who drew on the Pythagoreans when he attributed his Phaedo to Socrates:

...But I do think, Cebes, that it is true that the gods are our guardians, and that we men are a part of their property. Do you not think so?

I do, said Cebes.

Well then, said he, if one of your possessions were to kill itself, though you had not signified that you wished it to die, should you not be angry with it? Should you not punish it, if punishment were possible?

Certainly, he replied.

Then in this way perhaps it is not unreasonable to hold that no man has a right to take his own life, but that he must wait until God sends some necessity upon him, as has now been sent upon me. [62.b-c, trans. by Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann in Ancient Philosophy]
Just so. If a person has no right to suicide, he has no right to lay out the circumstances of his own death, and has no right to instruct another person to murder him. By this reckoning, Dumbledore's actions are impermissible even with the complications surrounding them.

So there you have it from this household.

In Case You Haven't Had Enough Harry Potter....

The author of the blog Crusader Knight has alerted me to an article on weird interpretations of the Harry Potter novels, written by Stephen McGinty, further proving that you really can read these books just about any way you want if you're creative. That leads us to ponder the question, "If so many interpretations are possible, why do many Christians intentionally give the books the most diabolical interpretation possible?"

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Book Review: Gilgamesh the King



Muscle-men with swords--is this not the essence of good fantasy?

Gilgamesh the King by Robert Silverberg. Bantam (Toronto): 1985. 306 pages. $3.95. ISBN-10: 0-553-25250-X, ISBN-13: 978-0553252507.

I recommend this novel, but I don't recommend reading it before reading the ancient epic on which it is based. In particular, I direct the reader to Stephanie Dalley's Myths from Mesopotamia, which provides two versions of Gilgamesh as well as other important ancient works. The breaks in the tablets make pleasure reading difficult, so a non-scholarly rendering is also good to have. For that, I recommend David Ferry's Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse. For further sources on the epic (now somewhat dated), see the short essay by Silverberg in the back of the novel. Also, Christian readers may find it valuable to acquire a copy of Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament if they can afford it.

Silverberg's novel is a retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh incorporating some material from tablets about Gilgamesh that are not part of the epic. Gilgamesh, which is the world's oldest surviving example of epic poetry, tells the story of the king of Uruk, a city of ancient Sumer. It strings together a number of originally independent tales, linking them with recurring themes and transforming them into a tale of Gilgamesh's personal quest to defeat death. I recommend reading the epic before the novel so the reader can appreciate how Silverberg is using--and altering--his material.

Gilgamesh is so energetic he "would not leave young girls alone" and "would not leave any son alone for his father," according to Dalley's translation. The people cry to the gods, and the goddess Aruru creates Enkidu, the Wild Man, who can match Gilgamesh's energies. Enkidu is civilized by a harlot from the temple of the goddess Inanna. When he learns of Gilgamesh's injustices, he goes to fight him. The tablets are broken here, but when the smoke clears and the fight is over, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are fast friends, inseperable, for Enkidu is Gilgamesh's second self. Together, they can accomplish anything: they journey even to the distant pine forest and slay the demon Huwawa. But when Gilgamesh rebuffs the goddess Inanna, who is so enticed by his triumphs that she asks him to be her lover, she unleashes the Bull of Heaven on the city of Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu together slay the bull, but this upsets the gods, who decide either Enkidu or Gilgamesh must die; Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh goes wild, wandering out into the desert, mournful of his friend and fearful of his own death. He seeks out Utnapishtim (a Mesopotamian Noah) beyond the Waters of Death surrounding the world to discover how to become immortal. He acquires a flower that can grant renewal of life to the one who eats it, but a snake steals it from him and Gilgamesh goes back to Uruk with greater wisdom, knowing that only the gods are immortal.

In his novel, Silverberg has stripped the epic of its fantastic elements and has tried to give it instead a purely historical setting. In this, the novel is remotely similar to Michael Crighton's Eaters of the Dead, which presents a conjectural historical basis for Beowulf. Silverberg's novel is a good deal more serious than Crighton's, however. Silverberg attempts to find real-life alternatives to Gilgamesh's fantastic elements, whereas Crighton replaces Beowulf's Grendel with a remnant race of cannibal neanderthals.

It is possible (though not certain) that Gilgamesh was an actual king, who in his essay at the end of the novel Silverberg places around 2500 B.C., which agrees with Dalley. Silverberg replaces the mythology with politics: most importantly, it is not the goddess Inanna herself who asks Gilgamesh to be her lover, but the high priestess of Inanna, with whom Gilgamesh throughout the novel is having a lifelong love-hate relationship and power struggle. In the course of this, Silverberg makes good use of an actual custom of ancient Uruk, in which at an annual festival the king and high priestess would embody the gods Dumuzid and Inanna and have sex to produce an annual renewal.

Some of Silverberg's alterations, though clever, cause parts of the story to be anticlimactic. In particular, Silverberg builds up anticipation for the appearance of the demon Huwawa, yet when Huwawa appears, he is not a demon at all but a volcanic vent. The Bull of Heaven, being a combination of a volcanic eruption, a drought, and an actual bull, is more satisfying. Rather oddly, even though Silverberg has removed the supernatural from the story, the weather patterns always appear to respond to the religious rituals: after the king and priestess undergo their annual rite, the rains always come, and a drought appears as soon as the priestess threatens to inflict the Bull of Heaven on the city. But all this is necessary to the narrative and is probably not meant to be taken too seriously.

Though the novel is on the whole an enjoyable read, I do question its basic intent. Even if Gilgamesh was a real king, the real king almost certainly has little or nothing to do with the figure of the epic. Trying to invent a historical basis for a work that is clearly unhistorical strikes me as odd; I do not see the purpose of it. Though I admit to being entertained, I think I would have been more entertained by actual gods and demons than I am by mistaken identifications and volcanoes.

Gilgamesh the King is a musky, masculine book of the sort readers will likely find either offensive or refreshing. I'm honestly unsure how to take it myself. The battle of wills between Gilgamesh and Inanna that pervades the novel ends (spoiler alert for the rest of the review) when the priestess makes an attempt on Gilgamesh's life. He forgives her--and then shivs her: the archetypal masculine hero slays the archetypal feminine villain. Gilgamesh does not reconcile with the feminine in any direct way, but rather through most of the novel right up to the end tends to use women for his own purposes. He does, however, reconcile with death.

The key to interpreting the novel probably lies in Inanna's affliction: when Gilgamesh confronts the priestess for the last time, she is wearing a mask. After killing her, Gilgamesh removes the mask and finds she has developed some sort of skin disease, which has covered her face with sores. Gilgamesh calls her "a nightmare hag, a demon-faced thing" (p. 300). The divine goddess, the most beautiful woman Gilgamesh had ever seen, has become a hideous monster.

Now for a change in topic, which at the end I will attempt to relate to the novel. A famous artifact from the Isin-Larsa period (ca. 2004-1763 B.C.) known as the Burney Relief is misinterpreted by celebrated antiquarian Henri Frankfort in his The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient as an image of Lilith (about whom you can read a pretty good article here).

Lilith appears once in the Bible in Isaiah 34.14, named as a demon inhabiting the ruins of Edom. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, which is out of date but possibly correct on this point, identifies Lilith as "a female night demon haunting desolate Edom." The Anchor Bible Dictionary suggests lilith is a Hebrew version of the Akkadian word lilītu, a feminine demon. Lilith has enjoyed quite a development in Hebrew folklore and has also appeared in modern fantasy from George MacDonald's Lilith to Neon Genesis Evangelion. I can prove all this is not a random tangent, because Henri Frankfort's misinterpration of the Burney Relief is related to Samuel Noah Kramer's translation of a tablet containing a story of Gilgamesh, which describes Gilgamesh defeating a demon called ki-sikil-lil-la-ke, who has taken up residence in a tree sacred to Inanna. Kramer translates the demoness as "Lilith." Frankfort (1958:56) describes it this way: "We know of a goddess Lilith...who is mentioned in an early fragment of the Gilgamesh Epic as having built her house in the middle of a hollow tree as owls do. In later times she was known as a succubus who destroyed her lovers." This is largely incorrect; Lilith was never a goddess (at least until the Jungians and Wiccans got to her), and shouldn't be confused with demons from Mesopotamian literature with similar names, even if they are etymologically related. The Burney Relief, still interpreted as an image of Lilith in many modern books, is identified by Thorkild Jacobsen in his article "Pictures and Pictorial Language (The Burney Relief)," which appears in Figurative Language in the Ancient Near East, as an image of the goddess Inanna. Jacobsen's arguments are convincing.

That brings us all the way back around to Silverberg and Gilgamesh the King. Silverberg uses this story of Gilgamesh driving the demoness out of the tree: in the novel, the high priestess summons Gilgamesh to exorcise three demons from a sacred tree. One of the demons Silverberg calls "Lilitu" and describes, as in Kramer's translation of the Gilgamesh story, as a "dark maid" (p. 104). In gathering his sources of inspiration for the novel, then, Silverberg has made use of both the goddess Inanna and the lilītu demoness, which likely gave rise, one way or another, to the Lilith mentioned in Isaiah and the subsequent folkloric traditions. Silverberg's depiction of Inanna has two elements: a life-giving goddess and also a dark and dangerous entity, all embodied in the high priestess, a very human woman who, like the goddess herself, has two sides to her personality. As the Epic of Gilgamesh itself makes clear, Inanna is beautiful and lovely and also dangerous. All of this is similar to Siegmund Hurwitz's Jungian interpretation of the Lilith mythos in Lilith-The First Eve. Hurwitz, with no basis of which I'm aware, identifies Ishtar (Inanna) as one of two goddesses out of which the folkloric figure of Lilith arose. Says Hurwitz,
There are definite historico-religious and psychological reasons why the aspect of the divine whore and seductive anima only appeared much later, historically speaking. The feminine always appears first within the development of consciousness in the form of the Great Mother, who is a bipolar, archetypical figure, in that she contains the aspect both of the nurturing, caring mother and of the terrible, devouring mother. The figure of the anima was only detached from the mother figure in a later phase of consciousness.

Whatever. Anyway, to boil it all down, Silverberg despicts Inanna with two aspects, both of which are representative of Gilgamesh's relationship to the feminine, to women, and specifically to the high priestess, who appears both as divine and demonic.

The transformation of the high priestess at the end into a hag (and incidentally, the RSV translates Lilith in Isaiah 34.14 as "night hag") suggests that Inanna has at the end become a feminine representation of chaos and death threatening to devour the hero. As do many heroes, Gilgamesh slays the monster, much as Marduk slays the goddess Tiamat in the Enuma Elish. Taken that way, Gilgamesh's murder of Inanna is symbolic of his final reconciliation with death; he accepts that he will die, that only his works and his fame will live after him. In this, he has defeated his fear of death: death is no longer a hag to him, and so the hag is slain; Gilgamesh drives her out much as he drives Lilitu out of the sacred tree.

Christian readers may be concerned with the book's heavy sexual content, most of which is in the first third (the parts related to the epic don't begin until page 131). Silverberg's Gilgamesh, true to the epic hero, is tireless and lusty, sometimes sleeping with ten or more women in a single night. Excessive (and laughable) as this is, it makes for a reasonable depiction of the lack of self-control that leads the people of Uruk to complain about Gilgamesh. It is true that the novel never really shows Gilgamesh accomplishing complete self-mastery, except mastery over his fear of death, but in that it is no more deficient than the original on which it is based.

Some interpreters have suggested that Gilgamesh's relationship with Enkidu is a homosexual one. There's no good evidence of this in the epic and Silverberg writes a passage apparently aimed directly at this reading:

But it has been whispered that we were lovers as men and women are. I would not have you believe that. That was not the case at all. I know that there are certain men in whom the gods have mixed manhood and womanhood so that they have no need or liking of women, but I am not one of them, nor was Enkidu. For me the union of man and woman is the great holy thing, which it is not possible for a man to experience with another man: they say that they do experience it, those men, but I think they deceive themselves. It is not the true union. I have had that union, in the Sacred Marriage with the priestess Inanna, in whom the goddess resides. Inanna too is my other half, though a dark and troubled half. But a man may have several halves, or so it seems to me, and he may love a man in a way that is altogether different from the way in which he finds union with a woman. [p. 144]

Silverberg is doing a good job here of representing a worldview altogether alien to our society's. The novel's unabashed representation of a burly masculinity and of male bonding without sexuality are contrary to modern sensibilities. It all makes for a novel that could leave a reader thinking about it for a long time, and makes up for the book's occasional defects.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Gilgamesh the King:

Myth Level: Medium-High (Gilgamesh with the mythic elements intentionally reduced)

Quality: High (well-written, though the relationship central to the Epic is too cursory)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (elements potentially problematic to some readers)