Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Twitter Spelling Test

The Twitter Spelling Test
Created by Oatmeal

Oh, good. I'm fit to tweet.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Help Identifying a Book

Since I just learned this blog is listed in the top 100 book blogs on Technorati (I don't know if that should make me happy or concerned), we'll celebrate by helping a reader identify an obscure book he's looking for. I confess I don't recognize it myself, but perhaps some of our readers who are better read and educated than I, will be able to identify the title or author. Here's the message from the reader:

I believe it was back in the 1960's I read a short hardback science fiction book about an electronic brain (acted like a child), a spaceman called Michael Archangel, and a rocket. I have forgotten the plot, but recalled that the brain/computer took a special liking to the spaceman because it had read Aquinas' Summa, accepted the Catholic analysis as truthful, but confused the spaceman with the angelic prince. The electronic brain was brilliant but also very simple and childlike. I think it was called something like THE BRAIN, but I am not sure. I had thought it was a monthly release of The Catholic Digest Book or Reading Club. No one else seems to remember it and I can find no mention of it on the web.

There you have it. Sound familiar to anyone?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Biblical Armageddon Must Be Taught Alongside Global Warming in the Classroom

(I have to put up a crudity warning for this, but it's pretty funny.)


Hat tip: Evangelical Outpost

Friday, June 25, 2010

Movie Review: The Karate Kid

Not Karate!

The Karate Kid, directed by Harald Zwart. Screenplay by Christopher Murphey and Robert Mark Kamen. Starring Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, and Taraji P. Henson. Columbia Pictures, 2010. Rated PG. USCCB Rating is A-II--Adults and Adolescents.

Notice to our readers:  We're still preparing for the release of The Last Airbender, so don't forget to vote in the Ultimate Avatar/Avatar Smack-Down!

It's been so many years since I saw the original movie, it's hard to make any comparisons, but fortunately I feel no obligation to make comparisons because the remake is competent and enjoyable on its own merits.  The only thing seriously wrong with it is the title.

The story is set in China, making the fish-out-of-water theme from the original a little more intense.  Twelve-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) has moved to Beijing after his mother has been transferred there.  After the necessary introductory awkward cultural misunderstandings, Dre catches the eye of Meiying (Wenwen Han), an up-and-coming violin prodigy who attends the same school as he, and immediately does the obvious thing and begins acting like an obnoxious twelve-year-old with a crush.  That immediately lands him in hot-water with up-and-coming Kung fu prodigy Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who along with an assortment of school bullies sets about making Dre's life in China as miserable as possible.

The eccentric maintenance man and martial artists Han (Jackie Chan) at Dre's apartment rescues him from an after-school beating and helps him confront Cheng's Kung fu master, Li (Rongguang Yu), who turns out to be a jerk, and goads Han into entering Dre in a Kung fu tournament, leaving Han only a short time to make Dre into a competent fighter.

As expected, Han begins by making Dre mundane tasks that later turn out to be martial arts skills.  This segment of the film was a bit dull to me, mostly because I already knew how it would end.  Also, I doubt "Take your jacket off" will ever replace "Wax on!  Wax off!" in the American consciousness.  Subsequent sequences  take advantage of the setting, however; in particular, Han takes Dre to a gorgeous mountaintop temple, and the requisite training montage includes shots of Dre doing things you probably can't actually do in China, such as practicing Kung fu on top of the Great Wall.

The film climaxes with the tournament, which goes more-or-less as it went in the original, so much so that at times it felt as if the actors were just going through the motions, too aware that everyone watching is aware of how it's going to turn out.  Nonetheless, the fight sequences, as we can expect from any movie with Jackie Chan in it, are excellent, though I suspect they draw more from chop-sockey than from real life.  I confess I haven't been to any Kung fu tournaments, but some of those maneuvers looked like the sort of thing that in real life would get a contestant maimed or killed.  And some of those beat-downs should have been saved for the cinematographer, who apparently thinks it's a good idea to film fight sequences with lots of hand-held shots.  Although the action is always great, I couldn't always follow it as easily as I'd like.

Jaden Smith proves himself to be one of the best child actors out there, carrying off his part almost flawlessly.  Jackie Chan, though he has only one fight sequence to call his own (and it's awesome as always), gives what is probably the best acting performance of his career.  Before I entered the theater, I was skeptical about the idea of Chan in a dramatic role, but The Karate Kid made me a believer.  He is good.

The formula is of course familiar, but it's a good formula, and The Karate Kid handles it well with humor, drama, beautiful set pieces, a bit of tear-jerking, and a little action, with heavy doses of father-son-like male-bonding and a dab of romance.  There are certainly worse ways to spend $7.50.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ignore This Post

I'm presently working on fixing the blog's dead links and making sure we're on good terms with our various catalogs and listings. I'll be rearranging the sidebars and improving the blogrolls over the next few months. This little post is part of the maintenance. So go read yesterday's smack-down instead.

25T6CHCB4UDU

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Avatar vs. Avatar: The Ultimate Smack-Down

The July 4th weekend is nearly here, and that means all of us at The Sci Fi Catholic are trembling in anticipation of the release of the live-action film The Last Airbender, based on Avatar: The Last Airbender, now with one less word in its title to avoid confusion.

And confusion there is.  Many times recently I have tried to explain how much I love Avatar, only to end up saying, "No!  Not that Avatar!" The world is not big enough for both titles, so it's time for them to duke it out, once again using the style ripped off from Grudge-Match!


 vs.



(Contains spoilers!)


The set-up:  Bent on conquering new worlds, the Fire Nation has formed an alliance with a mining company from Texas determined to rape the pristine natural beauty of the planet Pandora.  Said mining company establishes a base guarded not only by its own rent-a-soldiers equipped with hovercraft and mecha, but by the Fire Nation's airships, steam-powered tanks, catapults, and firebenders.

Little do they know that Avatar Aang, beholden to the duty of communicating with the spirit world and protecting nature, has been contacted by Pandora's hippie mother goddess.  Aang stows away aboard a spaceship with his humorous sidekick Sokka, too-old-for-him girlfriend Katara, cute bruiser Toph, useless extra character Suki, and the wangst-ridden Zuko, along with his giant flying byson and lemur, which he manages to stow on the ship unnoticed somehow.

Once on Pandora, Aang contacts the furry natives, led by hot naked princess Neytiri, and announces himself as their protector--the Avatar!

"We already have an Avatar to protect us," Neytiri replies nakedly, and introduces Aang to her boyfriend Jake Sully, who's actually a dude lying in a tanning bed somewhere, but has a naked furry doppleganger he controls by remote.

Talks quickly break down and violence ensues:  Aang's friends rally to him, and Neytiri and several naked furries rally to Jake, along with some flying dragons and six-legged seahorse thingies.  But even as the two Avatars battle for the right to defend Pandora, the Fire Nation-Texan Alliance launches a joint military venture against our heroes!  Oh no!  Will there be an Avatar to defend the planet?  Will Pandora be strip-mined??  Does anyone care???

Let the battle begin.  As a fan of the cartoon, I will speak for Aang.  Lucky the Goldfish, nature-lover, will argue for Jake Sully.  Snuffles the Dragon, who's evil, will argue for the evil imperial-corporate conglomerate.

Snuffles:  Thanks for saying the word "naked" a whole bunch, Deej.  Now we'll start getting all those creepy hits again on the site meter.  I'll start this off by making it clear that Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai are on Pandora as well, teamed up with Colonel Quaritch.  That's a total of four bad-awesomes on my side, not to mention all the high-tech weaponry and all the soldiers.  Remember that Azula and her girlfriends could always give the gAang a run for its collective money, and Quaritch made a pretty good showing against Jake Sully and his pals.  Altogether, with an army doubled in size, combining the advantages of firebending with high-tech, I'd say we're having Avatar for dinner.  Both kinds.

D.G.D.:  You forget something.  Both Avatars have already shown themselves capable of defeating an airship assault carried out by evildoers who hold advantages of numbers and technology.  Your conglomerate isn't even a real player in this battle:  it's merely a question of who gets to do you in, and in that matter, the gAang has a clear advantage.  Aang comes from a happy children's cartoon universe where even in a global war almost nobody dies unless it's absolutely necessary for drama.  Jake Sully, on the other hand, comes from a James Cameron movie where people die all the time.  As soon as Aang, Katara, Zuko, and Toph start bending, they'll be amazed at how fragile the N'avi bodies are, but by that point it will be too late and Jake's Avatar body will be dead.  Then the remaining N'avi will join Aang to whoop your awesome, after Aang has had the appropriate period of I-can't-believe-I-just-killed-somebody-for-dramatic-effect remorse, of course.

Lucky:  Um, excuse me, no.  The N'avi have carbon-fiber skeletons and are not fragile.  Aang not only comes from a universe where almost nobody dies, but from a universe where almost nobody kills.  If Aang does something that's about to kill Jake, fifteen or so deus ex machinas will happen to prevent it.  He'll get whisked off by a lion turtle or something.  And since this is happening on Pandora, in the James Cameron universe, his inability to kill will render Aang useless against either N'avi or corporate conglomerates.  Jake is proclaimed Avatar and the gAang members serve as ineffective comedic sidekicks until the battle is over and they go home in shame.

Snuffles:  I don't believe this nonsense about nobody dying.  This is Pandora, and we're told the place is deadly, so the cartoon characters don't get to bring their get-out-of-death-free cards with them.  They're going to have to figure out they're as vulnerable as everyone else.  And when my heavily armed army gets there, they'll find out the hard way.  Oh, and just to make clear, as soon as my mechs arrive, I'm going to order them all to shoot Suki first.  Cripes, I hate that character.  She starts out as a tough amazon warrior, but then when she gets relegated to Sokka's Girlfriend Status, she becomes a perpetual demonstration that love makes you dumb.

D.G.D.:  I may allow you to kill Suki, but nobody else.  I shall sick Toph on you and much enjoy the sight of a twelve-year-old blind waif ripping one of your mecha apart with her bare hands.

Snuffles:  Aha, you have fallen into my trap.  Yes, Toph with her metalbending probably will rip one of my mecha apart.  One of them.  But I have more, and without Suki to serve as deus ex machina, nobody will save Toph and Sokka when they hang from one of my dirigibles by their fingertips and have a touching moment recalling Toph's mild crush previously used only for the purpose of humor! They will fall to their doom!  Bwahaha!

D.G.D.:  *Pfft.*  Saved by flying byson.  Or dragon.  Doesn't matter.  Toph is too awesome to die, and we need Sokka for comic relief.  But as for you, Lucky, if that is your real name, you forget that if Aang kills Jake's Avatar body, Jake himself will still be alive.  He'll just wake up in his tanning booth, so the laws of Aang's universe will not prevent him from slaying Jake's Avatar, though Aang of course won't realize Jake isn't really dead, because we need that angsty drama.  Then Aang will feel powerless against the corporate conglomerate because he can't bear the thought of doing battle and accidentally killing again, but then somebody, Katara maybe, will give a stirring speech about feelings and he'll be right as rain, ready to lay the smack-down on some hovercraft with his airbending, a smack-down from which all the soldiers will walk away unharmed but thoroughly defeated.

Snuffles:  Um, hello, have I mentioned bullets and missiles?  These cartoony people have a serious problem:  their technology is underdeveloped because they come from a universe where elemental magic is common.  Even the comparatively high-tech Fire Nation hasn't invented bullets.  When they build tanks, they don't arm them; they just put big windows in so someone on the inside can shoot fire blasts with his fists.  But now the Fire Nation is teamed up with the military of a spacefaring civilization that most certainly does have guns and bombs and missiles.  The gAang won't know what hit them.  You think Toph can dodge bullets?  Is Sokka going to take out a mech with a boomerang?  Is Suki, assuming she survives the onslaught of my hate, going to take down an airship with her fan?

D.G.D.:  I think Toph can dodge bullets.

Lucky:  Might I point out that your high-tech army lost to naked furries with arrows?  We did it before, and we can do it again, right after we get rid of this false cartoony Avatar.

Snuffles:  Yes, yes, you did it before.  But your jungle critters are afraid of fire.  The problem with that last time is that the Texans didn't use enough incendiary rounds.  This time, we have firebenders, who will drive your dragons and glowy seahorses and giant panthers nuts.  A little fire-enhanced Shaolin boxing and we'll have your warriors' mounts on a stampede, crushing their own riders!

Lucky:  No way.  The N'avi have their hair-plugs in their mounts, so the animals won't stampede.  The firebenders are nothing compared to the army we've already defeated.

D.G.D.:  II'll add, Snuffles, that your high-tech airships are vulnerable to airbending, so I've got both Aang and Appa here to knock the gunships out of the sky.  Besides that, if you want to talk about deus ex machinas, don't forget Aang's brought all the deus ex machinas with him.  As soon as things get bad, or as soon as somebody threatens Katara, it's Avatar State Time, baby!

Lucky:  Locked chakra!  Locked chakra!

D.G.D.:  Dammit.  Um...he hits his back on a rock at exactly the right--?

Snuffles:  I don't think so.  No Avatar State for you, pal.

D.G.D.:  Uh, well, it's the jungle, so Katara has plenty of water around to make those flying razor blades.  And Toph can throw boulders on the mechs.  Sokka and Suki are competent at taking out airships, and I have no intention of wiping out the furries.  So Aang wins the title of Avatar and leads the N'avi to victory.  Zuko personally takes down Azula, Ty Lee joins the good guys, Neytiri hits on Zuko and makes Mai jealous, and Aang and Katara have an inappropriate makeout scene.  The end.

Snuffles:  Not a chance.  While your Avatars are squabbling over who's the real deal, Azula and Quaritch are coming down on you like a freight train comin' your way, and they'll waste everybody.  I mean they'll totally waste friggin' everybody.  You've seen them individually, now witness their unstoppable power when they're teamed up!  That's two mostly crazy super-violent hard-to-kill villains in one place!  Working together!  Picture Azula piloting a mech!  Picture Quaritch just being himself!  Think of the one-liners they'll spew!  And Quaritch is so awesome, he'll probably still be sipping coffee through half the battle!  Pandora and its resources are ours!  I'm going to go turn on my new Fire Nation-made Unobtanium conductor right now!

Lucky:  You guys are both like so totally wrong!  With his toughened N'avi body, Jake can take anything a little kid can dish out.  He'll give Aang noogies until Aang gives up, and then he'll lead the N'avi to victory just like last time, and then Jake and Neytiri will have the inappropriate makeout scene!  So there!

D.G.D.:  You're wrong!

Lucky:  No, you're wrong!


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Saint Thomas More, Patron Saint of Lawyers, Politicians, Science Fiction Writers, and...Dinosaurs?

Today we celebrate St. Thomas More, England's famous lawyer, who was executed for treason by Henry VIII when he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn or Henry's claim to be head of the Church.  His good sense of humor, which remained intact right up to his execution, is legendary.  And he is a man, not just for one season or two, but for all of them.

St. Thomas More is also, of course, the author of the novel Utopia, which criticizes English law by comparing it to a fictional society where everyone holds property in common, nobody works more than six hours a day, euthanasia is encouraged, and crimes rarely happen.  How Utopia got to work so well and why the people there don't act like real people, I can't explain.  Nonetheless, St. Thomas More's Utopian vision makes him an early sf writer and an important influence on all later writers of Utopias and dystopias.  As there is no official saint of science fiction writers at present, I humbly propose St. Thomas More.

And of course, if St. Thomas More is patron of sf writings, especially Utopias, that would make him the patron saint of my favorite Utopia, the Dinotopia picture books of James Gurney.  The original Dinotopia is a wonder to behold, as its sequel, The World Beneath.  However, the third one, First Flight, sucks, to put it mildly, but I just learned--I tend to lose track of these things--that a fourth volume, Journey to Chandara, came out in 2007, and I am going to have to fix my lack of familiarity with it as soon as possible.  Gurney, who started painting dinosaurs when he produced the Postal Service's dinosaur stamps, fills his books with lavish artwork depicting an idyllic world where peacenik dinosaurs frolic with exceptionally cute children while the protagonist, who looks strikingly like Kurt Russell as he appeared in Tombstone, builds steampunkish inventions and goes on adventures or something.  Besides being beautiful, Dinotopia is apparently an art historian's in-joke, as many of the carefully detailed sculptures, buildings, reliefs, and other artworks filling out the Dinotopia universe are based on famous pieces, reworked to incorporate dinosaur motifs.  So the books please me as an archaeologist as well as an sf fan and lover of dinosaurs.  Sadly, Dinotopia is strangely resistent to interpretation into other media.  I once attempted Alan Dean Foster's adult novel Dinotopia Lost, which depicts Dinotopia being invaded by cutthroat pirates.  By about fifty pages in, I was rooting for the pirates, and by about a hundred pages in, I gave up.  In novel form, Dinotopia suffers one of the great drawbacks of Utopian fiction--the unbelievable, condescending, perfect characters are really irritating.  I also failed to make it through the television miniseries, which is now used to torture prisoners in third-world countries.  One scene in the miniseries was genuinely moving, however, and managed for just a few seconds to evoke that sense of childlike wonder so effortlessly delivered by the picture books:  a group of the human characters were engaged in some sort of generic Gaea-worship meditation thingy, their meditation enhanced by the rhythmic stomping and tail-thumping of a group of dinosaurs.  The image of the dinosaurs slowly pounding the Earth as the sun sets and the humans sit in lotus position really manages to be awe-inspiring.

Anyway, where was I?  Yes, since St. Thomas More's work inspired subsequent Utopian fiction, and since it undoubtedly inspired Dinotopia, or at least its title, and since Dinotopia is full of wise, ancient dinosaurs who've learned how to live as one with nature or something, St. Thomas More could be the patron saint of dinosaurs.  As the patron saint of dinosaurs, he would of course be the patron saint of paleontologists.  And since lots of people, including ones who should know better, think archaeology has something to do with dinosaurs, the Vatican could goof and assign him as the patron saint of archaeologists, which would make him my patron saint.  Get it?

Now, for a real reflection on the great St. Thomas More, stop by Pro Ecclesia, from which I ruthlessly stole that icon.

Saint Thomas More, pray for us!

Monday, June 21, 2010

June Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour

Imaginary Jesus
Reach out and have a chase scene with someone.

This month's blog tour goes out to Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos, who takes the concept of the Mary Sue...and takes it too far.

Yet again, I regret not reading the book for the blog tour.  This novel, if it can be called a novel exactly, is by all accounts an irreverent and dizzying romp starring Mikalatos's MegaTokyo-like self-insert character as he goes on a Quest for the Historical Jesus somewhat different from that taken by John Dominic Crossan.  The book opens with Mikalatos sipping coffee with Jesus in a cafe before St. Peter comes in and punches Jesus in the nose, revealing him to be a fake.  And, from what I gather, the book kind of goes on from there with a lot of chase scenes as Mikalatos wades his way through various fake Jesuses in search of the real one.  The consensus verdict is that it's irreverent and weird, but successfully mocks a lot of goofy ideas about Christ.  Apparently, Mikalatos is out to tell us that Johnny Cash is wrong.  You can't have Your Own Personal Jesus.

This particular blog tour comes at an opportune time.  The gospel reading for Mass yesterday was Luke 9.18-24, in which Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do the crowds say that I am?"  After they list a few of the people's speculations, he gets personal and asks, "But who do you say that I am?"  St. Peter of course answers, "The Christ of God."  The various imaginary Jesuses that Mikalatos skewers are not entirely new, not entirely the product of today's pop culture.  People have been having difficulty pinning Jesus down for some time now.

I don't know what Mikalatos eventually lands on as the real Jesus.  Reviewers are good enough not to give that away, in spite of my desperate hunt for excessively detailed reviews I can rip off to make it look like I read the book myself (you have failed me for the last time, Commander Miller!).  If we ignore the silliness of historical "scholars" who play arbitrary games with their limited source material in order to discover that Jesus was really a hippie from the sixties just like them (I'm talkin' t' you, Marcus Borg), and if we accept creedal statements of the religion Jesus founded and the canonical texts depicting him, then a few important facts about Jesus are reasonably easy to find out:  he was a Jew of first-century Palestine, his birth was miraculous, his foster father was a skilled laborer and he likely was too, he was a controversial itinerant preacher who worked miracles, he was executed for sedition, he rose from the dead, he's God incarnate, etc.  Also, he molded birds out of clay when a young boy and then used his miraculous powers to turn them real and make them fly away when a religious teacher upbraided him for creating idolatrous images...oh, wait, that one's not from a canonical text. Anyway, my point is that the basic data about Jesus are not too difficult to grasp, though the teachings of Jesus take more than a lifetime to understand.

If Mikalatos wants to strip things back to the basic facts, then fine.  Based on what I've read, his main goal is dismantle some of the more obviously phoney depictions of Christ; his imaginary Jesuses have names like "Perpetually Angry Jesus" and "Testosterone Jesus," which, though I haven't read the book, I can easily imagine.  Indeed, although I don't meet Perpetually Angry Jesus much these days, I've known people who worship Testosterone Jesus, believing Christianity has been "effeminized," though I've yet to hear an articulate explanation of what that means, and imagining real manhood as involving a lot of flexing and posturing.  It's easy to see that Mikalatos has a lot to make fun of.

However, if Mikalatos is, Marcus Borg-like, trying to reveal the true human personality of Jesus, I doubt whether he can do a better job than those who have gone before.  The Evangelists did not think it meet to give a detailed biography of Jesus, either factual or fantastical.  They were concerned mostly with his teaching, his miracles, and, as mentioned above, his identity.  A full life story or a psychological analysis (or the ancient version thereof) were apparently not too important to them.

Of course, this does produce an interesting quandary.  How do you have a close, personal, Johnny-Cash-like relationship with a guy you don't really know all that well?  Charles Sheldon's famous novel In His Steps, which started that whole WWJD thing, invites people to live closely to Jesus and imitate him as well as they can, but though Sheldon seems pretty sure about what Jesus would do as a novelist (which I've discussed before, and I bring that up only because it's still probably the best essay on this website), he ends up telling everybody else that Jesus's identity and actions are the sort of things they have to figure out for themselves.  Their own personal Jesuses.  Imaginary Jesuses they carry in their heads.

I don't have a good answer to this question of how to make the relationship with Jesus intensely personal.  Were I a better mystic myself, I could tell you how to be a good mystic, but I'm not.  Telling Jesus you want it to be intensely personal is a good start.  Speaking to him frequently.  Assisting Mass and consuming the Eucharist.  I rather suspect that the answers to this question aren't supposed to be clear and obvious:  I'm inclined to believe the gospels contain--and lack--what they do by design.  We are not supposed to have an analysis of Jesus' personality.

I can think of (that is, "imagine," or "make up") at least one possible reason for this, and that brings me from the gospel reading for yesterday to the gospel reading for today (Matthew 7.1-5), in which Jesus says, "Stop judging, that you may not be judged.  For as you judge, so will you be judged" (NAB).  A more startling passage on the same theme comes from Psalm 18.26:  "With the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse" (NRSV)  Perhaps the historical Jesus scholars who try to look at Jesus but only end up seeing reflections of themselves have observed, as through a glass darkly, an important truth.  In at least one way, at one time, Jesus will in a sense match us and our expectations--at our own Judgment, when he promises to measure it out to us as we have measured it out to others.  Then, those of us who are perpetually angry can expect to meet a perpetually angry Jesus, except the anger won't be aimed where we'd like.  Some hints of this do seem, at least to me (perhaps I imagine it), to come through in the gospels, and it may be that which produces the paradox making it so difficult to grasp Jesus' personality:  to the terrible sinners who shows repentance or humility, Christ is tender and compassionate, but to the people convinced of their own righteousness and everyone else's lack thereof, he is impatient, angry, and condemnatory.  Much like themselves.  Good thing to remember, that.

You too can imagine Jesus at the author's blog and website.

Your own personal blog tour:

(Dude, notice how many pop culture references I made in this post.  Duuuuuuude.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Upcoming Movie: The Karate Kid


Okay...so I was going to see this tonight, but I'm in the field right now and I have to get up at 5:30 and the local theater moved this movie to a later time slot so it could add Toy Story 3 to the lineup, and that meant too late a night for me, so I'll see later and review it then.  But it's definitely on my list, since it promises to have Kung fu in it.

Which makes no sense, since the title is The Karate Kid, so I'm guessing the filmmakers are banking on the average American's inability to distinguish Kung fu from Karate, or China from Japan.

On the plus side, not going to the movies tonight meant I was able to catch The Powerpuff Girls on TV.

Where was I?  Oh, yeah.  The reviews are surprisingly good, considering it's a remake of a film that didn't need remade and which already burned out with excessive sequel-making. One way or the other, I guess I don't much care. I just want to see some Kung fu.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Book Review: Tomorrow's Eve

Tomorrow's Eve

Give me my girl robot!

Tomorrow's Eve by Villiers de L'Isle Adam. Translated by Robert Martin Adams. University of Illinois Press (Urbana), 2001. 222 pages. $16.20.

Note: blog layout has been adjusted and is still under tweakment. Helpful comments, such as, "Your new layout sucks," are welcome.

I have just finished the novel L'Eve future by the man whose full name, believe it or not, is Count Jean Marie Mathias Philippe Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, an impoverished nobleman and romanticist who lived at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. I had read essays on this novel before reading the novel itself, and had assumed, after reading them, that the novel itself would be tiresome and laborious. Nothing prepared me for its powerful imaginative vision. I am overwhelmed.

The plot of the book is quite simple; indeed, it barely has a plot: almost the entire book is taken up with two people having a conversation. The protagonist is Thomas Edison, who was Villiers's contemporary. But this Edison has little relation to the real man (as Villiers assures us in a brief foreword); he is a mythical figure, an inventor whose mastery of science has reached such heights that it is is indistinguishable from alchemy or magic, so that as he describes his marvelous inventions, only a fraction of which are known to the world at large, his words weave back and forth between science fictional speculation and occult fantasy. In Edison's magical workshop, the phonograph is perfected, able to capture a full opera with total clarity and play it back from hidden remote speakers. The telephone just as perfectly transmits messages instantaneously from city to city. Fantastic creations are spread pell-mell throughout the workshop: an electric beam that can kill in an instant, a device that measures the heat of distant stars, a spark that can be sent into space to gather information from celestial bodies and bring it back again. Everywhere, batteries release sparks, hidden speakers deliver disembodied voices, and secret compartments reveal anything Edison wishes for. And below the workshop, deep in a frozen underground cavern full of weaving mechanical flowers and maniacally laughing birds, is Edison's greatest creation--the android Hadaly, a mechanical woman operated remotely through out-of-body experience by a prophetess kept in perpetual suspended animation by Edison's masterful powers of hypnosis.  Sweet.

As the scene opens, this scientific wizard sits in his cluttered wonderland and muses that faith would be unnecessary if only he, with his phonograph, had been there in the Garden to record the conversations of Adam and Eve with God. Just as he is musing on his greatest masterpiece, the android, he receives a visitor, Lord Ewald, who years ago had lifted Edison out of poverty and made possible all his inventions and achievements. Ewald suffers a terrible dilemma: he finds himself helplessly in love with a woman, Alicia Clary, gifted with the most striking beauty of both form and voice; she is so beautiful, in fact, that she can only be compared to the "Venus de Milo." But in spite of her exceptional good looks and great talents for acting and singing, Alicia is a decidedly base and shallow person, so that Ewald finds himself in great distress, wishing he could have the body of the woman and leave the soul behind. Miserable in Alicia's company yet unable to part from her, Ewald has come to visit Edison for the last time before committing suicide.

Miss Alicia Clary, sans arms

To prevent the death of his benefactor, Edison proposes to transform Hadaly the android into the perfect likeness of Alicia Clary, and to place within her one of his perfected phonographs recording hours and hours of all the noble sentiments and affectionate gestures Ewald wishes the real Alicia possessed. Edison guarantees that the android will be so perfect as to fool anyone, including Ewald himself, and that, containing the noble soul (or at least its imitation) lacking in the real woman, the android will be, if anything, better and more real than the real thing.

Villiers was a part of the French Symbolist movement, related to Romanticism, and it shows throughout the work. The fantastic conversation between Edison and Ewald, which occupies the bulk of the book, in which Edison shows off his fantastic creations, describes in minute and imaginative detail the inner workings of the android, and describes scientific achievements laced with hints of occultism, proves both complex and maddeningly paradoxical. The great mystery of the book--how exactly Hadaly works--though it is elaborated upon at great length, is never clear. One moment, Hadaly is merely a glorified doll with a phonograph and a "central cylinder" inside dictating pre-recorded conversations and movements which Ewald will be able to choose by manipulating push-buttons hidden in her jewelry. But as she converses with both Ewald and Edison, Hadaly appears to be a fully independent and intelligent being, able to speak and act on her own. Then Edison indicates that Hadaly is operated remotely through a combination of electricity and telepathy by a woman kept in a mystical state by a combination of hypnosis and catatonia, and then there is a suggestion that Hadaly is in fact a sort of incarnation of a spirit descended into the world for the purpose either of leading Ewald to a higher plane, or else, perhaps, damning him to hell--and this spirit may or may not be the same person as the aforementioned catatonic telepath. The book seethes with the sense that a higher, fantastical world is ready any moment to burst in on the mundane world; this sense reaches its climax in a goosebump-raising speech of Hadaly to Ewald at the climax, in which she describes her true nature...or perhaps plays an elaborate ruse. It is tantalizingly unclear whether Hadaly merely contains a sophisticated recording of one woman, or of two, or whether she in fact contains the soul of a woman, or merely its imprint, or whether she is something else entirely, or whether she is one thing with the potential to be another. Yet for all this mystery and paradox the book manages to hold together.

Thomas Edison and Hadaly the android share
a touching moment of intimate conversation. 

As translator Robert Martin Adams describes in his introduction, Villiers knew next to nothing of science, and the descriptions of Edison's devices and the android's inner workings are really just gibberish. But what gibberish! All the talk of the precise movements of metal nerves and crystal balls full of quicksilver and gold cylinders and everything else is so elaborate as to sound entirely convincing. As Edison proves to Ewald through his elaborations, increasingly fantastic from one chapter to the next, on how his android works and on how he will complete it to exactly resemble Alicia, it becomes easy to believe the the thing is real, that a functioning and convincing automaton really could be constructed in this way. It can't, of course, but Villiers deserves credit for so effectively producing this suspension of disbelief.

When I first heard of this novel, I had wondered whether Villiers was familiar with "The Sand-Man" by the German Romanticist, E. T. A. Hoffmann, which is the earliest science fiction story I know of containing the motif of the lifelike female robot. I can now say happily that he was indeed, for he quotes "The Sand-Man" in Tomorrow's Eve, though, strangely, Adams does not mention it in the introduction.  Also probably a source for Villiers is the legend about Rene Descartes, who is supposed to have built a lifelike automaton to replace his dead daughter, an ill-fated machine tossed from a ship by superstitious sailors.  (This story, in turn, might be based on another legend in which St. Thomas Aquinas fearfully smashes an android constructed by St. Albertus Magnus.)  One way or the other, the idea running throughout of a strict separation between body and soul, and of Ewald's desire to replace the boorish soul of his beloved with a purer one, probably owes something to Descartes.

In a certain sense, the novel is a kind of anti-"Sand-Man."  In "The Sand-Man," and even moreso in the story "Automata," Hoffmann expresses horror at machines that imitate life.  In "Automata," he describes in detail the sensation of revulsion we now call the "Uncanny Valley," which a person feels when observing an android that is not quite wooden enough to be a mere puppet and not quite natural enough to be a convincing human being.  In "The Sand-Man," the protagonist is a melancholy poet led astray from his true love and seduced by a clockwork woman created by an evil alchemist.  In Tomorrow's Eve, this dilemma is almost reversed:  the melancholy hero, Ewald, has been led astray by the great beauty of a real woman who is too mundane in spirit to satisfy his poet's soul, so he needs a clockwork woman to embody the ideal he longs for.  The girl robot of "The Sand-Man" leads its ill-fated hero to suicide; the girl robot of Tomorrow's Eve is the only thing that can save its hero from suicide.  Of course, that is not to say that the horror of the situation is lost on Villiers, but he revels in it rather than shrinking from it.

But even more than "The Sand-Man," I think it may be useful to compare this book to Hoffmann's "Golden Flower-Pot."  Considered by some to be Hoffmann's best, it's a dense tale expressing a basic Romantic idea, that a fantastic world better, higher, and purer than this one exists just out of reach, accessible in a way through stories and poetry.  Hoffmann displays this idea by bifurcating his characters:  the protagonist is on the one hand Registrator Heerbrand, an ordinary fellow involved in ordinary things and in love with a pretty and respectable young woman, Vernonica.  But he is at the same time the poet Anselmus, whose beloved is Serpentina, the shape-shifting green snake with the kindly blue eyes, daughter of a salamander, and through the magic of poetry they live together in Atlantis even as they walk the dusty streets of Dresden.  By splitting two characters into four, "The Golden Flower-Pot" achieves a reconciliation between the mundane world and the fantastic one; its protagonists can live comfortably in both.  In Tomorrow's Eve, however, this is impossible:  the mundane world is intolerable, and the fantastic world can only be reached if the mundane, and with it, the human faculty of reason, is rejected.  Hadaly offers to become even more than a real woman for Ewald; she can become an incarnate spirit from the beyond, a fully realized Ideal, but only if he abandons reason--which will tell him Hadaly is only a machine--and likewise abandons all human companionship and takes her away to his mist-shrouded English castle to live out his days in solitude.  There can be no reconciliation because a mere breath of Mundania destroys all glimpses of the other world...assuming, of course, that this other world isn't really just a clever illusion like the android.  Villiers clearly enjoys the Faustian character of it all.

When you boil it all down and strip away the authorial genius (and exceptionally competent translation), I can't help thinking that all we really have here is the story of a man who's found his way to the last refuge of disappointed lovers--misogyny.  Indeed, Ewald says as much himself:  at one point he tells Edison that his disgust with Alicia has led him to a disgust with all women.  Although it's impossible to say how much of the novel's sophistry really represents Villiers's own thinking, Adams informs us of an incident in his life that likely shaped the book, in which Villiers fell in love and promptly drove the poor woman off with his excesses of emotion and poetry-reading.  Adams suggests Villiers's perception of his beloved informs his depiction of Alicia.

Most disturbing is the passage in which Edison explains why he decided to create an android in the first place.  He tells the story of a man--a good man, we're assured--who on a night of well-earned celebration has too much to drink, stays out too late, makes a number of foolish decisions, and dallies with a chorus girl before stumbling home to receive a dignified rebuke from his wife.  Even after being sobered by both the wearing off of the alcohol and the chastisement, he returns to the chorus girl a number of times until the affair destroys his career, family, and life.  Villiers, or at least Villiers's Edison, places all the blame for this on the chorus girl.  I found that unconvincing; it takes two to tango, after all, and though the chorus girl is certainly an underhanded little seductress, the man is anything but guiltless.  Edison explains that the girl had enhanced her decided lack of natural beauty with various artificial means--makeup and false teeth and other augmentations--and then, in a moment during which I completely lost the argument, announces that he conceived of the idea of putting a stop to such tragic love affairs by producing wholly artificial women.  As for how that is supposed to work, exactly, your guess is as good as mine.  Apparently, the artificial women are supposed to distract men when they're tempted by real women, or something.  There's an expression of disgust here at artificial beauty enhancements that gives the impression the android is meant to be wholly ironical; the woman of worldly and pedestrian values, such as Alica, is like a machine on the inside, and so many other women, with their makeups and whatever, are like machines on the outside, so why not create a woman who's machine through and through?  It's a nasty satire, certainly.

Whether or not any of these complaints against modern women have weight, there's a real sense of masculine narcissism pervading Ewald and Edison's conversation.  The relationship between Ewald and Alicia is all about Ewald.  Although, when she appears, she really is as dull and silly as Ewald describes, his dislike for her contains too much contempt and self-interest to sympathize with; he even explains that he has stayed with her for so long partly in the hopes of changing her and making her into a sort of reflection of himself.  He claims, more than once, that he cannot love Alicia only for her looks, that he's the sort of man who insists on loving a woman in her entirety, body and soul, but then he turns around and accepts the offer of an android that mimics Alicia's body without the soul, which makes no sense to me.

What we have here is a rich work of early science fiction from the 1880s.  Villiers was respected in his day--if never widely famous--for his sharp satire and clever poetry.  The translation by Robert Martin-Adams is beautiful to read, and the book's historical importance makes it worth picking up.  Recommended for fans of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century imaginative fiction, as well as fans of steampunk.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Book Review: Magic, Mensa and Mayhem

Magic, Mensa & Mayhem

Magic, Mensa & Mayhem by Karina L. Fabian. Swimming Kangaroo Books (Arlington, Texas): 2009. 219 pages. $11.89.

As I recall, I won this book from the author in a raffle. When I recently learned it had won an Indie Award for Best Fantasy, I figured it was time for a review.

Magic, Mensa & Mayhem is set in Fabian's Dragon Eye P.I. universe, where a nuclear disaster in Colorado has opened a rift in space-time leading to Faerie, an alternate Earth populated by the usual array of legendary and mythological beings, where much of the world more-or-less resembles a fantasy version of Medieval Europe. The protagonist and narrator is Vern, a dragon pressed by the magical prowess of St. George into service an agent for the Faerie Catholic Church, a job that in the present day involves, for reasons not quite clear, working on the "Mundane" side of the space-time rift as a hard-boiled private detective, assisted appropriately by a nun, Sister Grace, who is also a powerful mage. In this particular story, Vern and Grace receive the unsavory duty of chaperoning various magical creatures who've been invited as guests to a Mensa meeting in Florida. Shenanigans ensue, and the result is a hodgepodge of urban fantasy, slapstick humor, and mystery novel.

The Dragon Eye P.I. universe is a place of constant confusions and cultural slip-ups where Faeries and Mundanes are perpetually struggling to get along with each other as the Mundanes learn to adapt to magic and the Faeries learn to adapt to technology, and where some occasionally manage to combine the two into something new, or else produce unintended disasters.  It doesn't help that the Faeries are mostly pranksters and the Mundanes are mostly idiots.  Much of the book consists of Vern diffusing situations caused by misunderstandings or practical jokes while complaining that he's not being paid enough.

The various fairy creatures are cartoonish, humorous versions stripped of any awe or majesty.  The elves, in particular, are ridiculous, depicted as windbags whose language is similar to Tolkien's Entish, taking hours upon hours to say the simplest things.  All of the elves have silly names like Pampaserrbahgh or Galendoropynphordaladys, the meanings of which can be easily discerned after a moment's reflection.  I admit I didn't like the elves much, mostly because their names wrecked my suspension of disbelief, but the other fantasy creatures and Faerie humans are consistently entertaining; Coyote the Trickster and Brunhilde the Valkyrie, in particular, are good foils for Vern, and Fabian re-imagines brownies with a comical twist on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

The novel is a quick read, enjoyable throughout, and funny, though I rarely found myself laughing aloud.  Fabian successfully captures the hard-boiled detective narrator voice without overdoing it.  Nonetheless, though it is a mystery novel, anyone looking for a sense of the mysterious, or a serious exploration of cultural collision, should look elsewhere.

I have two rather minor complaints.  The first is simply that the mystery isn't quite fair to the reader.  With a mystery story, I generally expect that if I keep careful track of the details, I'll either be able to figure out the solution ahead of time or else slap my head for not figuring out the solution when it's finally presented.  In this novel, however, so many extra details, not previously mentioned, have to be delivered when it's time for the solution that I don't think any reader has a chance of figuring it all out ahead of time.  This makes for something of a disappointment rather than a good twist.

The second complaint is about the overt Catholic elements in the story, which appeared heavy-handed to me.  For some reason, Vern feels a need to pontificate for about a page on the doctrine of Original Sin while explaining how a certain magic spell works, a mini-lecture I was sore-tempted to skim over, as it was both irrelevant and dull.  Elsewhere, we learn that Vern formerly worked for the Faerie Catholic Inquisition, and he even threatens some of his fellow Faeries with it.  I wanted to see someone inform him that his Inquisition has no jurisdiction in the United States, and that he can stick it in his ear.

On the whole it's a very good read with only a few flaws.