Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
No, Not That Kind of Pulp
Here's the Kind I Mean
Tuesday, November 21, 2017 10:53 am
Old pulp has a reputation as vulgar, trashy, lurid, and low; and in their apologetics, the proponents of new pulp are usually quite aware of that reputation.

Sometimes the apology is an outright apology. Some proponents, for example, explicitly disavow the "racism" and "misogyny" of old pulp. Well, okay. I'm not here to hate races or women, either. But declaring against "racism" and "misogyny" is a concession to the very Stalinist conformity that has been destroying our fiction. Those words are no longer reasonable; the enemy has defined them. These days, putting a woman in a dress and saying she is not the same thing as a man is considered "misogyny." Virtue signaling is not the path to better fiction. 

But generally the apology is an affirmation. It is not trying to stay in the good graces of the modern zeitgeist but simply reminding people of the excellence to be found in old pulp; an excellence that is grounded in the pulp style.

Even so, there was something a bit vulgar about pulp. Consider the extent to which the Good People of the time sought to suppress pulp as injurious to morals. The Good People had a point. Scantily-dressed women and salivating killers are not precisely sublime.

But two things can be said.

First, there is a sense in which some vulgarities are better than others. George Orwell, in considering the naughty postcards of Donald McGill, noted that the cards, though obscene and (in Orwell's view) rebellious, were only funny because they presumed a stable society of indissoluble marriage, family loyalty, and the like. I myself have noted that pulp presumes the natural order. So long as the salivating killer is the villain and is so precisely because he is salivating and a killer, morals are not necessarily injured.

Second, even if one were to concede that a lot of old pulp was total trash and beyond redemption, there's still a lot that wasn't. As I read it, the Pulp Revolution has never been about total reversion to the past. It idealizes pulp. And ideals are not bad. Every revolution idealizes. A revolution is only guaranteed to be bad when its ideals despise the past. One can embrace old pulp and still set aside the vulgarity; for it is rather the wonder and excitement that guide new pulp.

That's Where You'll Find Me
Maybe Dorothy Sings About the Wrong Thing
Saturday, August 12, 2017 12:19 pm
There's a misalignment in The Wizard of Oz.

What is its moral? "There's no place like home." Dorothy has found herself in a land over the rainbow, and yet her ultimate desire — the fulfillment of which she asks of the Wizard — is to return to Kansas. Near the end, Glinda prompts Dorothy to articulate the lesson that she, Dorothy, has learned; and Dorothy replies:
If I ever go looking for my heart's desire, I won't look any futher than my own backyard. Because if it's not there I never lost it to begin with.
This lesson, of course, accords with the narrative facts that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion each already had the thing he sought. The Scarecrow was already brainy; the Tin Man, full of heart; the Lion, courageous. And Dorothy, in Kansas, already had the place most free of trouble: her home with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. 

"There's no place like home" has certainly stuck. The phrase is a commonplace. And yet, in the movie, what is the initial counter-sentiment? That there is a better place "somewhere over the rainbow." And this does not persist as merely a phrase. This sentiment was given a song, a song used in the opening and closing thematic music, a lovely song that has been counted among the most popular and greatest songs of the 20th Century.

Nobody sings, à la Dorothy, "There's no place like home." There's nothing to sing.

In other words, the delusion that grips Dorothy, that there is a place where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, where skies are blue and dreams really do come true, is given the tremendous, emotional weight that only song can impart. While, on the other hand, the truth she finally discovers is presented in a brief speech — which, while not necessarily platitudinous, is certainly nothing worth humming.

This is a great danger in creating a work: That something tangential — or worse, contrary — to your theme is given a greater prominence, a better presentation, a more memorable form, than the point you are trying to make.

When writing, I have often worried about expending artistry on this or that small scene or second-tier character. I fear my reader will like my villain more than my hero, or find the collapse of my characters more interesting than their restoration. It is a hard thing to make the proper alignment; to best present what should be presented best.

Some contemporary critics of The Brothers Karamazov argued that the devilish points of Ivan Karamazov, as given in "The Grand Inquisitor" section, were more compelling, more substantive, than Alexei's Christ-like response. They argued that Dostoevsky had not really addressed Ivan's points. Dostoevsky replied (perhaps with some exasperation) that the entire novel was the response to Ivan.

One could likewise say that, however compelling may be Somewhere Over the Rainbow, it is countered not merely by some speech at the end of the movie, nor by some brief chant with ruby slippers, but by the movie as a whole. Perhaps. Whether The Wizard of Oz successfully establishes that there's no place like home is a bigger question. I'm not sure it does, beyond somewhat artfully asserting the point. In the end, the writers should have worked a little harder and come up with a compelling tune for There's No Place Like Home.

I know that "there's no place like home" didn't originate with The Wizard of Oz (however much the movie has claimed it). And I know that there is a very old and popular song with that very lyric ("Be it ever so humble..."). And so, yes, the writers, had they written a new song, would have been contending with a standard.

Could they argue they were alluding to that standard, which was possibly more well known in the 1930s, and therefore they didn't need to write their own? I suppose. But the allusion, if any, is weak, and still profoundly overshadowed by Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which resides right there in the work and not in some presumed cultural background.

Flea Markets.  In Spaaace!
The Peculiar Novel Quarter Share
Monday, March 13, 2017 1:16 pm
It's been difficult to find a good SF novel. Most, these days, are beset with SJW imbecility. But I keep trying the samples at Amazon. Once in a while a sample is good enough to prompt me to say, "What the heck, I'll finish this one." Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell was my latest choice.

But like pretty much all the books I have obtained hopefully after a decent-enough sample, QS has proven to be...  well, this one's peculiar. I had been expecting a Hornblower with spaceships and, indeed, QS alludes to Hornblower. And yes, it all begins with a boy (named Ishmael, no less) joining the space merchants as the lowest of the low; and soon he demonstrates how exceptional he is.

But.

His first great demonstration is to make fantastic coffee. You can tell Lowell knows how to make fantastic coffee. Now I, too, know how to make fantastic coffee. And that's fine, I guess. I wouldn't expect our Ishmael to defeat the Galactic Overlord in Chapter 2.

But coffee?

And the entire book becomes How Ishmael and His Galley Mate Pip Figure Out Ways to Make a Profit On the Side. And no, no, no, this is not a tale of endearingly roguish space-boys finagling and maneuvering to squeeze a few credits out of rubes on orbitals. It is rather a series of discourses, soaked in Accounting 101, about market speculation and doing boring stuff with inventory.

In fact, by Chapter 21, which according to my Kindle is 71% into the book, the most profound thing our heroes have done is rent a booth in a flea market in a port of call. With the full blessing, and some investment, of their Captain and First Mate. The paragraphs about the flea-market booth have been a thrill a minute, let me tell you.

The thing is, I feel like I've stumbled onto some sort of niche fiction. Something that appeals to a peculiar, obsessive, crypto-autistic audience — like furry-fic or slash-fic or fic about Hummel figurines. As if there's a sub-sub-category of science fiction called Running a Lemonade Stand.

QS is not badly written, I suppose. At least I haven't stopped reading. But it is so bland. The characters are all so nice to each other and borderline cloying. It wasn't until Chapter 20 and the presentation of a curmudgeonly couple in a nearby booth, that I finally got some characters who conflicted. If your schtick, as an author, is adventure-via-accounting, you really need to compensate with some lively characters.

I feel bad even continuing this book. Hey, I waste time all the time, but wasting time with this book almost seems foolish. What a silly, lightweight, peculiar, peculiar book.

And to think this is the first of six books in a series — a series that is well-regarded! Maybe the series gets more properly Hornblowerish and our hero will combat the Space-Bonapartes, or cleverly conquer a Fort of Space-Spaniards, or something.

But I don't think I'll bother finding out.

Just Another Guy
God in Supernatural
Monday, January 23, 2017 8:00 pm
Generally I like what Supernatural does with Biblical mythology. Mind you, the writers are only scraping the mythology. They never explore the actual point of this or that story, but only steal from the cultural detritus of a society once Christian, re-purposing folktales they once half-heard in Sunday school.

Take, for example, the arc about the Darkness and the Mark of Cain.

Beware! Spoilers follow. 

So, before Creation, indeed before God, there was chaos, a force later called the Darkness. The Darkness was defeated by God and His Archangels and was locked away. The key to the cell containing the Darkness was entrusted to Lucifer (before his fall). Lucifer, having rebelled against God, used the key to corrupt Cain. The key became the Mark.

There have been three possessors, or keepers, of the key: Lucifer, Cain, and now Dean Winchester (one of the two brother heroes of the show, the other being Sam). Dean took on the Mark so that he could wield the First Blade (the very blade used to kill Abel) and destroy the last remaining Knight of Hell. The Knight is destroyed.

The Mark is corrupting, however, and Dean is becoming like Cain, the King of Murder. Sam conspires with a witch to remove the Mark from Dean. Unfortunately, if the key is not being held, the cell containing the Darkness will be opened. When the Mark is removed from Dean, the Darkness escapes.

No one quite realized what the Mark really was. The business about it being a key was not revealed until it was too late. Even then, given the bond between Dean and Sam (who have literally let the world suffer rather than let the other be ruined or taken away), Sam likely would not have stopped it anyhow.

Now, that is good mythmaking. I love the bit about the First Blade, the mere jawbone of a donkey that, having been used in the first murder, becomes a legendary weapon. I love how the Mark, in magical fashion, is itself a powerful object. And every episode with Cain is just great (the casting of Timothy Omundson, an actor I have otherwise never heard of, was somehow perfect).

You can see, of course, how this arc is not entirely Biblical. Its infidelity to Scripture is not the bothersome part. Nothing wrong — at all — with treating the Bible as a source of folktales to be reshaped in fiction. What bothers me, rather, are the polemical flavorings of the arc.

To begin with, Supernatural says that Cain did not kill Abel out of jealousy. Abel was not being faithful to God; he was worshiping Lucifer. Cain killed Abel to liberate his brother. In other words, Cain was motivated by love. The goody-two-shoes Abel was in fact beholden to the Evil One. Abel, like any other model to the Christian, was actually a deluded hypocrite.

How's that for a retcon? Why, it's only the conventional perspective of any de-Christianized modern.

It gets worse. It turns out the Darkness did not precisely predate God; it is, in fact, God's sister. God, though still the Creator in Supernatural's scheme, is really just a god, one of a two-member pantheon.

And because Supernatural cannot embrace the truly Christian definition of God as, in principle, being incapable of sharing a genus or family with anything, the writers are free to put God in the dock. Or, probably more to the point, intending to put God in the dock, they found it easier to diminish Him.

Ever since the Angels first appeared in Supernatural, back in the fourth season, the absence of God — His failure to help prevent even the Apocalypse, let alone the deaths or ruinations of characters — has been decried. Thematically, of course, God represents the absent Father, which plays off the failures of Dean and Sam's human father. But His absence (which, admittedly, is real enough to the superficial observer of the real world) also grounds Supernatural's judgments against Him.

For a long time I've tolerated Supernatural's take on Angels and Heaven and God. It is conventional nonsense about how following the mandates of Heaven — i.e., the will of God — is a loss of freedom. We are at our best when, like the crowd in Life of Brian, we cry out together, "We are all individuals!" We are better than Angels because we defy God. Supernatural takes this human self-worship to such a degree, that it casts Lucifer's rebellion as a refusal to venerate Mankind.

But again, I tolerated this because, hey, I have a soft spot for the monster-hunting and melodrama.

In the eleventh season, however, God makes an explicit appearance, and this is when the show becomes disappointing. The season itself has some good episodes (I particularly liked the one about imaginary friends), but the resolution of the Darkness storyline entails a rehearsal of every small-minded conception of God the Failure.

See, this is Chuck. He is an anxious, agitated drunk. A loser. In a meta-fictional turn, he writes a series of books called Supernatural. He knows what has happened and will happen to the Winchesters. He, it seems, is a Prophet.

No. Wait. Turns out Chuck is God. Or rather, this is how God manifests Himself. Yet it's not an act. God really is a sad sack. He is petulant and whiny. He doesn't listen to prayers. He stopped intervening miraculously because it was pointless. He is fatalistic. He ran away. Supernatural reduces God to One of Us. In fact Man has surprised and surpassed Him by creating music and nacho cheese. God may be the Creator, but at heart He is Chuck.

Supernatural's contribution to theodicy is that God is precisely as small as you fear that He is. Rather than deal with the problems of evil and suffering as, for example, does the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, especially in its great thinkers like Aquinas, Supernatural finds refuge in the usual, limited conception of God as a guy out of his depth, not much better than another Zeus.

Above all, this is an artistic failure in Supernatural. It is common enough. Supernatural is hardly alone in its portrayal of God; many college sophomores would concur. But it is facile. Imagine, rather, that Supernatural had foregone the Chuckism and dealt with the actual Christian God, the actual God. Artistically, yes, that would have been bad, too, since the previous seven seasons had not been preparing you for such a turn. But if the prep had been good, how much more intellectually interesting everything would have been!

By making God Chuck, the writers took the easy way out and, not so incidentally, allowed themselves to feel superior to the Deity who has so terribly failed us, we who are, despite all our faults, the most wonderful people ever.

Thus the Gospel of the Moderns.

An Inadequate Number of Robots
Hugo Awards 2015 - Short Stories
Sunday, June 14, 2015 10:42 am
I am a voter for the 2015 Hugo Awards. I am posting my thoughts about the candidate works. Be warned that spoilers abound.

There are five short stories on the Hugo list. I'll be referring to them using the following abbreviations.

OSP — On a Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli
PBB — The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C. Wright
SS — A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond
TT — Totaled by Kary English
TC — Turncoat by Steve Rzasa

My comments on these shorts will be short — and scattered.  

PBB is beautifully written.
Above the coliseum and circus, where athletes strove and acrobats danced and slaves fought and criminals were fed alive to beasts for the diversion of the crowds...
That is just one early phrase, with no particular thematic purpose. But read it aloud. It is pointed and rhythmic. And the argument among the Beasts, about who dare enter the final city of Man, is adroitly — let us say — highfalutin'. SS, though less blatantly poetic, turns words in a way that makes a fight with a Godzilla contemplative.

I appreciated that, right after a brief setting of weirdness (narrator huddled on a polar plain with aliens and a human ghost), OSP just explained the mechanics of the situation. I love piecemeal revelation; but especially in a short story, sometimes bluntness is best. TC makes very fine use of a biblical quote, one not well known, that enriches and does not merely decorate. TT's ultimate point is emotional, and to that end nicely uses emotional imagery as part of the SF mechanics.

TC's villain, if you will, is not an AI, but a post-human. The genocidal impulse of the Integration is grounded in hatred from humans for humans. This is better than the usual (often inscrutable) hatred of the Golem for its Master. All I know about samurai I know from fiction yet it seems to me that SS well depicts the point of a samurai, and makes use of it for the resolution. The defeat of the kaiju comes not from some superpowered hero but from the soul of the samurai, as distinct from the souls other warriors. I can't help but think that TT is a commercial for euthanasia; it seemed a little sour, somehow. In the end it's all emoting, not even a frank assertion of this or that point of view on human life.

That the rebellious AI in TC calls itself 'Benedict' at the end seems inapt. Arnold was a turncoat, yes, but not in a good way. Using the name of an American villain as a kind of punchline nearly knocks over the plot. Meanwhile, TT makes a cheap jab at conservatives (calling them 'Treaders'), which, like most left-wing jabs, incorrectly ascribes to conservative intent some evil that leftists actually do (i.e., government-run healthcare-rationing panels).

What distinguishes SF from other sorts of fantastical fiction is, of course, the science; and nothing says 'science' like numbers. TC's litany of empirical specifics just tickles me. True, in some ways it is less science than tech porn, but it is a milieu I love. Wright, who loves to work in eons, is very good at depicting the End of Man, no less so in PBB. SS makes the kaiju a force of nature, frightening in a way that a mere Godzilla can't be; the enormousness and enormity are very well evoked.

I love hard SF. These stories weren't thrilling me in that regard, at least not until I got to TC. Then again, I don't always like cold-hearted SF. (One of the reasons I love Solaris is that — rarely for Lem — there is actual human emotion amid the philosophy.) So while I was disappointed by the rotten paucity of robots, I did like what I read (except for TT, which is nonetheless well-written). In fact, my favorite was SS, which had nary a vacuum tube.

My final vote will be, in this order: SS, TC, PBB, OSP, TT.

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