Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Socially Distant Miscellany


Have I collected some new blogworthy topics in these days of viral isolation?  You bet.  Let's juxtapose them with the tried and true "five things make a post."

(1) C2TH << AF2K ?

My previous post, as well as my lengthier 2015 musings -- both about Rush's classic tune Closer to the Heart -- managed to neglect one important thing: it doesn't exist in isolation.  This song is the first track on side two of its album, and it rhapsodizes about possible solutions to personal and societal problems.  However, it's the first song on side one, A Farewell to Kings, that both lays out those problems...

When they turn the pages of history,
When these days have passed long ago,
Will they read of us with sadness
For the seeds that we let grow?
We turned our gaze
From the castles in the distance.
Eyes cast down
On the path of least resistance.

...and indicates, indirectly, at the end, that solutions may be forthcoming:

Can't we raise our eyes
And make a start?
Can't we find the minds
To lead us closer to the heart?

I have a feeling that these songs are best when played back-to-back, like Queen's inseparable pair of "We" songs.

(2) Grognardia is Back

On my "2020 weird events" bingo card, alongside the tiger kings, murder hornets, and babies named XÆA-12, I didn't think I'd be noting the return of one of the main D&D OSR (Old School Renaissance) bloggers after 8 years of silence. But a few weeks ago, we started seeing posts from James Maliszewski again -- sometimes 2 or 3 in a day now -- like nothing at all happened since that last post from 2012.  I haven't been reading so closely to know if he's talked about the gap, but it's good to see him back again.  I'm kind of surprised that YDIS hasn't mentioned it...

(3) Alpha-Bytes Redux

For a while, I posted a lot about my obsession with weird alphabets.  Recently, when re-watching the classic movie The Fifth Element, I rediscovered a bit of odd linguistics that doesn't get talked about a lot.  Usually, when commenting on this movie's creative use of language, one sees a lot of discussion of the (spoken-only) alien "Divine Language" that director Luc Besson had star Milla Jovovich try to commit to memory.  But there was something interesting happening back on Earth, too.  The police had the word "Police" written in two parallel scripts on their uniforms and equipment.  Some searching found a high-resolution version, and it's possible to search for some phonetic realism in those two sets of characters...

 
For example, are there only 5 letters on the right, thus dispensing with the English oddity of a silent E?  Or do the stacked dot and dash count as two?  Both P and L are backwards, but the order still seems to go from left to right.  I can find no explanation of how or why anyone associated with this movie came up with this alt-alphabet, or if any real-life script inspired it.  Does anyone know anything more about it?

(4) Sci-Fi Reading & Reviews

Last year, I really enjoyed reading through the 1967 Dangerous Visions anthology, and I've been pondering a bit about doing another one.  I've got a copy of 1972's Again Dangerous Visions, but I suspect my reviews wouldn't be very positive.  I recently dug out a set of Fantasy & Science Fiction pulp magazines from the 1980s, and I noted a few favorites in them that I could reread and review, too.  However, I'm not too excited about either of those options.  If I'm going to reread something, I think it will be Neal Stephenson's Anathem.  When it came out in 2008, I breezed through it quickly, mostly on planes... but I think it deserves another go.  We'll see.

(5) Sad News

A few days ago, I learned that one of my personal heroes and mentors, Charles Cameron, has passed away.  I blogged about him several times, and it made my year when I saw that he showed up in the comments!  God speed, Magister Ludi.


Saturday, June 13, 2020

All I really need to know...

...I learned from Closer to the Heart.


I'm not sure why I felt the need to post about this, given that I probably said all that needs to be said about this fiery manifesto of love a few years ago.  But the last time I posted to the blog, the world was in a very different place.  I think this message is needed.  So maybe just a few pictures here.

The song -- by Canadian prog-rock trio Rush if you don't know -- is only 75 words long, but I've held each of those suckers close to my own heart for more than 30 years.  You want to see the super-sophisticated Macintosh word-art that was pinned up on my desk for several years in college, don't you...

(Click to zoom for dot-matrix printer goodness)

I saw Rush live 4 times over that time...


...and it's kind of hard to believe that these peak experiences, in total, cost less than what's now one month's cable/internet bill.

I don't know what else to say except that I still miss Neil, who left us back in January.

(Okay, not my best photoshop, but not my worst)

I'll continue to sow, and mould, and forge, and try to help chart a path to somewhere positive.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Star Trek, RPG Dice, and STEAM

A few weeks ago I saw an interesting Venn diagram posted on Twitter by someone named Christine Liu:

In hindsight, I guess it's not surprising to see so much overlap between science and art... after all, the education acronym STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) includes them all.  I just enjoy seeing these intersections, and I guess I've tried to make the central region of this diagram a focal point of this blog, too.

(Sometime, ask me about a talk I heard at a conference a while ago about how astronomer Johannes Kepler got the idea for one of his eponymous "laws" of planetary motion.  The answer, I say in Buzzfeed listicle mode, will surprise you!)

Today, though, my thoughts about this STEAMy synergy turn to the world of dice.  If you're coming here from the RPG world, you know all about them.  You may know that a two-handed sword does 3d6 damage against large opponents, and no speed factors will tell you otherwise.  You may have been inducted into the illustrious Order of the d30.  You may have scratched your head about the fairness of some very non-Platonic Zocchi dice.

But did you know about how Vulcans use them?

Almost 30 years ago, Star Trek: The Next Generation brought back Leonard Nimoy as Spock.  That episode may have been a bit underwhelming in some ways, but it showed some interesting aspects of alien cultures that fans had been hungering to see for years (well... this fan, anyway, he said pointing two thumbs inward).

In the episode, a Romulan kid shows Spock a set of little dice-like blocks that supposedly convey "the syllabic nucleus of the Vulcan language."  In an episode of Star Trek: Picard from just a few weeks ago, those dice showed up on the desk of a Vulcan admiral.  Since we never got a good look at them, I always just assumed they were either cubes or four-sided dreidels (since Nimoy had a history of using elements of his Orthodox Jewish heritage in creating bits of Vulcan culture).

But no!  An enterprising (heh? heh?) fan found pictures of the actual props from 1991 and posted some detailed shots...

Click to enlarge... it's only logical
There are some shapes here that RPG veterans have probably not seen:
  1. Okay, we do have one bog-standard D&D die, an 8-sided octahedron (d8) on the left of the image above, with slightly sawed-off corners.
  2. There's also a square pyramid (5 sides), at the top, which I don't think is useful for dice-rolling at any aspect ratio.
  3. But then we come to the truncated octahedron (14 sides), on the bottom.  Essentially keep sawing off those corners of the d8 until the triangular faces erode into hexagons.  A Google image search for "d14" seems to bring up a few manufacturers that use this shape, but it's not employed by many games.
  4. Lastly, the one that surprised me the most: the rhombicuboctahedron (26 sides) on the right!  There's kind of an architectural mini-majesty to that shape, which I don't think I'd ever taken notice of before.  No less than Johannes Kepler himself gave it that Greek-derived monster of a name, but if you were around in the 1980s you may remember it as Rubik's Snake.
However, if you were around during the ancient Han dynasty, you may remember either the 14-sided one or the 26-sided one (with 8 of its corners minimized to give it 18 rounder sides) as dice for the Chinese board game Liubo.  Some random examples from Google image search...

Anyway, 8 + 5 + 14 + 26... I guess there must be 53 unique syllables in the Vulcan language.

Where was I going with this?  Oh, the ART of it all.  It's kind of amazing how these uniquely deterministic 3D geometries can be used (hacked?!) to give our brains randomized input that assists in our creative endeavors, be they games or divination or actual art pieces.  They all have the capacity to instill wonder, push boundaries, and do the other stuff in the middle of that STEAM diagram at the top of this post.  Occasionally one also finds designers of Glass Bead Games employing randomness as a spur to creativity, too!  I keep ruminating on becoming one of those designers someday, so these posts are a set of running notes that may someday be assembled into something bigger....

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Dangerous Reviews (3 of 3)

Finally... Here's the third part of my ongoing review of the 33 stories in Harlan Ellison's 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions.  In part 1, I reviewed the first eleven stories, and in part 2, the second eleven.  Some stats and summary at the bottom.


23. "Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird" by Sonya Dorman

What do you get when you mix a depressing, dystopian future with a bright-eyed, well-drawn protagonist?  I'm not quite sure.  At just 6 pages, there was nowhere near enough time or space to really find out.  What this story did do was remind me that I truly ought to read Octavia Butler's Parable series.  I've been remiss.  This story, though?  SKIP.


24. "The Happy Breed" by John Sladek

Okay, this may be another cautionary ("if this goes on...") type of tale, similar to a few others in this collection, but it was really well done.  Seriously creepy vibe, conveyed simply and straightforwardly.  It makes you feel for the fate of the protagonists, and it stings.  Why?  In the 1960s, they were a bit vague about how "The Machine" could become so firmly ensconced in our lives.  Now, we have smartphones, the internet, streaming everything, and home devices that you converse with.  It's here.  (Also, I read this on a plane, where you definitely get the sense they're trying to lull the passengers into a similar zombie-like state as the "Musselmen" in this story.)  WOW.


25. "Encounter with a Hick" by Jonathan Brand

Let's joke about that big taboo called "religion," why don't we.  This ultra-short story has the similar genetics of mockery as the ones in this collection from Lester del Rey and Damon Knight (which I loathed), and in some ways, this one is just as shallow and silly.  I won't be pulling out comparisons to Voltaire or anything.  If this was published elsewhere, I'd guess it would've been in a like-minded venue of the time, say Playboy or National Lampoon.

However...

The voice of the hippie-ish first-person narrator held my interest for the duration.  His patter (in the form of a transcribed legal deposition) was zippy and even a bit lyrical.  Still led to a stupid punch line, but OKAY.


26. "From the Government Printing Office" by Kris Neville

Despite the clever conceit -- a jaded grown-up voice narrating the thoughts of a toddler -- I can't find much to redeem this story.  It's another one that extrapolates a nasty, brutish future from one slightly whimsical and inconsequential concept.  Oooh... "Doctor Spock, but evil...SKIP.


27. "Land of the Great Horses" by R. A. Lafferty

Cute concept.  I'd never read Lafferty before, but the prose reminded me a bit of Harlan Ellison's (which is a decided compliment).  Just a bit politically incorrect by today's standards, but not a hugely "dangerous vision."  OKAY.


28. "The Recognition" by J. G. Ballard

Very well written.  About as spooky and folksy as Leiber's "Gonna Roll the Bones" earlier in this collection, but in a very different setting (swap out America for England).  However, this story also suffers from that same bleak malady of British pessimism that suffuses Pink Floyd's Time, Rick Priestly's Warhammer, and the absurdist ending to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Not my thing at all, but still so nicely wrought, craft-wise.  OKAY.


29. "Judas" by John Brunner

Silly silly silly.  Semi-interesting, possibly, as an example of a 1950s aesthetic one could call "chromepunk" (youngsters of today: visualize the pre-bomb Fallout universe?).  But the story itself was just a thin veneer for more simplistic religion-bashing.  Zero nuance or subtlety.  SKIP.


30. "Test to Destruction" by Keith Laumer

Interesting combination of a hard-drivin' rock-em sock-em adventure with an old fable that tells us how absolute power corrupts absolutely.  With a dash of alien hive-mind telepathy, for flavor.  Not really very deep, but it holds the attention.  OKAY.


31. "Carcinoma Angels" by Norman Spinrad

Entertaining O-Henry-ish tale of the "be careful what you wish for" variety.  Not very science fictional, but somewhat phantasmagorical and solidly a product of the sixties, man.  OKAY.


32. "Auto-da-Fé" by Roger Zelazny

This one was masterfully written.  A bit silly in its own way, too.  The conceit is clear in the first couple of paragraphs.  I don't need to go into the details, but I will say that it forced me to think about those creepy online speculations about the pre-history of the universe occupied by Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater.

I was a bit surprised by how "straightly" Zelazny played it all.  He didn't feel the need to drive home any explicit Moral Of The Story™.  However, I couldn't really find much of an implicit meaning or message, either.  I'm not saying every story needs that, but in this particular case I think it was reduced in stature by lacking some deeper why of it all.  It's probably regarded as a sci-fi classic in some circles, but I can't see much beyond the tricksiness of it.  Ultimately, just OKAY.


33. "Aye, and Gomorrah" by Samuel R. Delany

All righty.  FINALLY, not since perhaps the fourth story in this collection, here is a story truly worthy of being in this anthology.  I'm actually not going to say anything about the story itself, except that it makes wild extrapolations about the weirdness of humanity that really aren't that wild or weird.  I've written some purple praise about Delany in the past, and even though since that time I've heard about some other opinions of his with which I vehemently disagree, I still think his writing is amazing.  WOW.

- - - - - - - - -

Statistics:  I've recommended 12 out of 33 to skip (36%), copped out on 16 out of 33, that lie in the murky middle (49%), and given only 5 out of 33 the "blew my socks off" rating of wow (15%).  Is it ironic that the author who said "ninety percent of everything is crap" only rated an OKAY?

I didn't really expect to be so negative about the majority of the stories in this collection, and I searched for good things to say whenever I could.  It's probably just obvious that 53 years is a long time, and the norms and tastes swirling around the concept of a "dangerous vision" have shifted quite a bit.  I'm still very glad I did this, and there are a few authors that I'll be seeking out more from.

Then hopefully I'll be catching up on some other topics relevant to this blog, which hit an all-time low number of posts in 2019.  I hope to bounce back those numbers a bit, at least!  ;-)

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Dangerous Reviews (2 of 3)

This is the second part of my ongoing review of the 1967 sci-fi anthology Dangerous Visions.  Find part 1 here (for reviews of stories 1 through 11), and stay tuned for reviews of stories 23 through 33.


 12. "Gonna Roll the Bones" by Fritz Leiber

I think this might be the first time (for this collection) that, when finishing the story, my immediate thought was "I'm going to have to read more from this author."  Shame on me for being a fan of classic D&D and never having read Leiber before, but what can you do?

On the surface, this seemed like a classic American spooky tall tale, descended from Ichabod Crane through the genealogy of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.  There wasn't very much sci-fi, so maybe you can think of this story as the slightly more red-blooded cousin of Rodman's "The Man Who Went to the Moon -- Twice."  Despite the (feigned?) simplicity of the first-person narrator's working-class point of view, Leiber's words are poetic and cadent and gleaming.  Just for the craft alone, I've gotta say WOW.


13. "Lord Randy, My Son" by Joe L. Hensley

Initially, I was put off by the Twilight Zone trope of the creepy kid with the weird powers, but Hensley took the idea much further than I've ever seen it taken.  Hats off to that.  The author's vision of the not-too-distant future was hugely pessimistic.  A fair bet in the 1960s, I suppose, but I'll never be a fan of the anti-Panglossian vision of the "worst of all possible worlds."  Still, Hensley kept the tension running high throughout, and the ending did kind of leave you wanting more.  So, on balance, let's say OKAY.


14. "Eutopia" by Poul Anderson

Quite interesting.  I've read some Anderson before, and he always seemed quite adept at exploring the fuzzy boundaries between sci-fi, fantasy, and other thematic corners of speculative fiction.  This story was no exception, because it contained a combination of:

(a) The classic trope of dimension-hopping adventures between alternate Earths,

(b) Philosophical musings about how human society should be ordered,

(c) Just a pinch of taboo-busting, to give it the dangerousness required for this anthology.

Did it really need (c)?  I probably would have been more comfortable with the story if that aspect had been left out, but it didn't ruin the story for me, either.  I'm actually curious to find out if Anderson ever wrote any other stories set in this interesting multiverse.  But, for this one in particular, I think I won't go farther than OKAY.


15. "Incident in Moderan" by David R. Bunch

Oh lord, I was actually rolling my eyes.  War Bad.  Yes, we get it. Maybe there's a smidge of something interesting here regarding the unintended consequences of transhumanism (i.e., uploading ourselves into robot bodies), but it's really just an unmitigated SKIP.


16. "The Escaping" by David R. Bunch


Editor Harlan Ellison really talked up Bunch's writing, to the point of giving him two back-to-back stories in this anthology.  This second one ended up being an abstract mood piece, without even a hint of sci-fi set dressing.  Maybe I should call it the outline of a thought of a seed of an abstract mood piece.  The words were engaging and surreal, but at just over 3 pages there wasn't nearly enough room to see how this seed might sprout into something truly interesting.  OKAY.


17. "The Doll-House" by James Cross

Sigh.  Not another Twilight Zone trope.  It had some interesting concepts, and some key details of its execution certainly appealed to the wannabe Greco-Roman classicist in me.  Definitely too heavy-handed on the condemnation of 20th century consumerism and status-seeking, but that's the 1960s.  I could probably write out exactly what Rod Serling would've said at the end.  OKAY.


18. "Sex and/or Mr. Morrison" by Carol Emshwiller


Weird weird weird.  I can't quite tell if this story takes place in an alternate universe, or if it's our world and all the "dangerousness" was in the mind of the narrator.  The one main weakness of it, I suppose, is that I didn't truly understand what the author intended to convey until reading her Afterword.  Interesting concept, but mainly just OKAY.


19. "Shall the Dust Praise Thee?" by Damon Knight

Kind of a mix of the eye-rolling banality from stories #1 ("Evensong") and #15 ("Incident in Moderan").  Please just SKIP.


20. "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" by Theodore Sturgeon


The stories that I rank "okay" are a mixed bag.  Some I like, and some I don't like. This one I liked.  The writing popped and entertained.  I'm not sure I've read any Sturgeon before, but I can see clearly that his craft was on par with the greats.  The story was probably included in this anthology because of some solidly Dangerous™ squick, but you can see in my reviews that this doesn't automatically repulse me.  No, my avoidance to give the highest grade, in this case, comes from a violation of that old standard: "show, don't tell."  It's a 39-page story, and the story itself was almost over (except for a big reveal) by page 29.  Unfortunately, the big reveal came in the form of a dry 10-page monologue, told by one character to another.  Isn't that Ayn Rand's territory?  So close, but alas merely OKAY.


21. "What Happened to Auguste Clarot?" by Larry Eisenberg

Is it true that the worst thing you can say about a joke is "I don't get it?"  This wasn't sci-fi in the least, and although it was a mildly inventive take on the hard-boiled detective story, it just went nowhere fast.  SKIP.


22. "Ersatz" by Henry Slesar

I'm impressed that such a short piece could be so stupid, so offensive, and so pointless all at the same time.  Please skip this one.  If you read it, you'll think very much less of this collection and all its participants.  Every story here probably contains some little thing that marks it as having been written in the 1960s, but there's dated, and there's dated.

(In the author's afterword, there was an interesting question raised about whether fiction ought to highlight our best angels or our worst.  The case for the latter being that rose-colored glasses can sometimes blind us to real problems in our midst.  It's the case for 1984 and other dystopias.  But every piece of fiction need not play this role!)

I'll say it again.  SKIP.

- - -

Ack... only one "WOW" this time around.  That makes only 3 out of 22 so far.  Will the remaining stories change that ratio?  Come on back to see...

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Dangerous Reviews (1 of 3)

Last December, I said I was going to wait until I was done reading all 33 short stories in the 1967 sci-fi anthology Dangerous Visions before posting my mini-reviews.  Well, I'm not done yet, and I'm prone to procrastinate.  So I've decided to just post the first one-third of the bunch.  Maybe that will spur me to keep the reading and reviewing off the back burner.

In the following reviews, I'll do my best to avoid giving plot spoilers, but I won't hold back on anything else.  I'll sum up each review with one of three possible grades, which might be useful for readers who decide to pick up the anthology and want to avoid the clunkers.  Hopefully the names for the three grades (WOW, OKAY, and SKIP) are self-explanatory.  :-)


I won't be reviewing Harlan Ellison's introduction, or Isaac Asimov's two forewords.  They're interesting as character studies of these two titans -- and as an insight into some major sci-fi history -- but they're not what the seeker after visions dangereuses are really here for...


1. "Evensong" by Lester del Rey

Sorry, just a banal groaner.  I'm finding it hard to believe this was considered socially relevant, or even somehow remotely edgy, even in the 1960s.  SKIP.


2. "Flies" by Robert Silverberg

I'm sure I've read Silverberg before (I subscribed to Asimov's all through the 1980s), and I'd classified him in my mind as one of the good ones.  However, this story is pointless and unnecessarily crude.  Although the author's "big idea" is made abundantly clear at the end, (1) it's kind of just as stupid as that in the previous story, and (2) I can't quite believe the author thought readers would see past the shock-value and nod their heads sagely when seeing the big idea at the end.  SKIP.


3. "The Day After the Day the Martians Came" by Frederik Pohl

I liked this one.  It's very much a product of its time, and it's essentially all lead-up to a single punch-line at the end, but that punch line was kind of worth it.  OKAY.


4. "Riders of the Purple Wage" by Philip José Farmer

Holy crap... what a story.  At 30,000 words, it's the longest in the anthology, and so far it's been the most memorable.  A deep and phantasmagoric look into one possible future, and into the psyches of some of the people that inhabit it. The author cites Joyce's Finnegan's Wake quite a few times, but I think of it more as a crazy child of Joyce's peripatetic Ulysses, Jarry's absurdist Ubu Roi, and Huxley's soma-filled Brave New World.  If you can hold all three of those in your mind at once, you might be ready for the Purple Wage.  I fully acknowledge that, in a different frame of mind, I may have been turned off by the crazy stream-of-consciousness prose and the, um, vivid explorations of sexual taboos.  However, on the days I read it, its overall spirit and cleverness just happened to charm me.  I had to put the book down once every few pages to chuckle.  Its last words spoke to me directly.

This wild wild thing was definitely a product of the 1960s.  I hadn't heard about the Triple Revolution document before (and I can't say I'm a fan now that I have), but I've got to give Farmer points for extrapolating such an interesting future from it.  I also can't stop thinking about how this story fits into the wider scope of literature.  In addition to its forefathers Joyce, Jarry, and Huxley, I'm wondering if there was some influence from Tommaso Marinetti's blazing Futurist Manifesto.  Also, could it be possible that more recent fictions such as Idiocracy, Wall-E, and Demolition Man were influenced in some way by this particular dangerous vision?  WOW.


5. "The Malley System" by Miriam Allen deFord

The first half definitely went overboard on the "shock value" that seems to be an occupational hazard in this particular anthology, but I eventually understood the point of including it.  Interesting idea behind it all, but I'm fine with just saying SKIP.


6. "A Toy for Juliette" by Robert Bloch

Aha, now this is how to do shocking content, without the need to go overboard on the gross factor.  Nice twist at the end, though the editor's introduction kind of gave it away.  (Read the story first, if you can.)  Bloch's tale inspired Harlan to write the next one as kind of a sequel.  OKAY.


7. "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World" by Harlan Ellison

Now look, Harlan is the reason I'm here writing about this book, but I was less than impressed.  Knowing the genesis of this story from the introduction(s), it honestly felt like an unnecessary addendum to Bloch's Juliette.  Harlan did include some fascinating (and new to me) deep-dives into a historical topic that I'd assumed was already rather played out.  But I can't be very enthusiastic about this 20-page tale, after Bloch essentially said it all in just 6 pages.

For all of the above, I might have said to skip this one, but it's Harlan, and I can never recommend missing out on his impassioned prose.  OKAY.


8. "The Night That All Time Broke Out" by Brian W. Aldiss

Mildly entertaining sci-fi conceit, for the 1940s or 1950s maybe.  Aside from one drive-by mention of Nabokov's Lolita, I can't figure out for the life of me how this milquetoast story got included in a purposefully Dangerous™ anthology such as this.  SKIP.


9. "The Man Who Went to the Moon -- Twice" by Howard Rodman

This one still intrigues me.  Harlan's intro emphasizes how it may not seem initially very much of a sci-fi tale, and I agree that's it as subtle as all get-out.  Is it shockingly New Wave?  No, but that's kind of the point.  Definitely worth your time for fresh insight into the scope of history that transpired between the beginning and end of the 20th century.  WOW.


10. "Faith of Our Fathers" by Philip K. Dick

The ordering of the stories is interesting, because right after the last one (which was so understated and homespun) we get the psychedelic's psychedelic, the gnostic's gnostic, the source of weirdness at the heart of Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Man in the High Castle.

Actually, this is the first prose of Philip K. Dick's that I've ever read. I was a bit worried that it would be a drug-induced stream-of-consciousness, a la Bukowski or Ginsberg, but it wasn't.  It wore the clothes of a 1960s-era science fiction story quite comfortably.  Of course, it had those Dickian tropes we hear so much about:  Is this the real world?  Am I the one having the mind-melting hallucinations, or are they having me?  There was a taste of the Lovecraftian, too, and it reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald."  In the end, it felt a bit unfinished to me, but I guess Dick himself was working out these ideas throughout his whole life.  A lot of fascinating stuff to chew on, but I think I've got to give it an OKAY.


11. "The Jigsaw Man" by Larry Niven

I dunno.  If Niven's goal was to create a plausible extrapolation of present (mid-sixties) trends to a horrific possible endpoint, then mission accomplished I suppose.  But now, 50 years later, the scenario seems a bit silly.  Sometimes the future doesn't happen like you think.  SKIP.

- - -

Stay tuned for reviews of the remaining 22...

Friday, June 14, 2019

Noctology

Okay, I know the worst thing you can hear from someone is "Hey, let me tell you about this dream I had last night."  But in this case, I hope you'll indulge me.  If anything, it's given me some cool stuff to think about.

In the dream, I was at a middle-school reunion.  That in itself probably seems kind of odd to many readers, since those don't seem to be common.  In the late 1970s, I think some administrators in my school wanted to out-Montessori the private schools or something, so they created a weird experimental class for some of the 5th and 6th graders.  Lucky me.  That first year, our teacher looked and acted like Annie Hall.  The second year, our teacher was an ex-priest who yelled at us a lot about our apathy.  We didn't really learn a whole hell of a lot, but I'm still great friends with many of those weird kids.

Okay, the dream.  I could name the four classmates I was sitting with at this imagined reunion, but I won't.  In that bit of subconscious reality, we had all become scientists of some kind, and we had just (in an hour or two of chatting at the reunion) made a major collaborative discovery about how the human brain works.  We managed to prove, conclusively, that the brain actually does make a permanent record of everything it experiences -- both external perceptions and internal trains of thought -- and that aging does not degrade that record in any way.

Unfortunately, we also proved that it's completely and utterly impossible to retrieve those records past a certain point.  Something about the brain carefully laying down layers of cells on top of one another, and you'd have to destroy the brain to peel them back.

But still, we showed (somehow!) that nothing is ever really lost.

The actual first moments of my dream were maybe just 10 or 20 seconds of happy chatting about the fame and fortune that would soon be coming our way, once we published our amazing discovery.

I didn't mention that the reunion wasn't just for our little nerdy group.  There were hundreds of people there from many other classes and years at the same school.  Jocks, too.  Dreams can be very cliched, can't they?  The jocks mounted a kind of mock "attack" on the nerds.

It was actually just a jokey pantomime of an attack; nothing truly dangerous.  Although it was meant in good fun, it still impelled our group to laugh along for a second or two, then grab our drinks and find some more peaceful place to chat.

Dreams being what they were, we found ourselves in a much older and decrepit part of the building hosting the reunion.  It essentially was a huge rickety barn filled with junk.  Have I been watching too much American Pickers?

Ever the nerd, I sought out the piles of old books.  In waking life, I've been working a lot on my teaching, so in the dream I found all kinds of useful resources.  Old textbooks.  A module for teaching the stuff that I'm teaching right now, but with the theme of the Netflix show Stranger Things.

I also found a set of astronomy books, but they were filed alphabetically under the letter N.  The reason is that some of them had the title "Noctology."  The study of the night.  I swear to you that I had never heard that word before, and a Google search tells me that not many other people have, either.

That's essentially the dream.

And I'm absolutely entranced by the idea of being a full-on Noctologist.

Sure, I've always been a stargazer.  Readers of the blog have seen plenty of sci-fi fandom here, and a bit of actual astronomical musing, too.  It's under the stars, and only under the stars, where I feel an immediate emotional sense of divinity. I look up, remember what it is I'm looking at, and I think "Oh yeah, that's right. I love you. How could I have forgotten since the last time I was out here?"

But noctology isn't quite the same as astronomy, is it? About 25 years ago, I was introduced to the folk singer John Gorka, and saw myself in "Good."
I am good at night
I am good at night
Sun don't fit me right
I tried with all my might
I am good at night
I am good at night
There are plenty of other musical paeans to the dark side like this.  One that I think is kind of interesting is inserted subtly in just a single line of Poison's hair-metal ballad "Every Rose Has Its Thorn."  You remember the line, don't you?  "Every night has its dawwwwn..."  For years, that line just passed over my head.  I assumed it was just conveying that old saw about it always being darkest before the dawn.  But look again, in context with the rest of the verse.
Every rose has its thorn
Just like every night has its dawn
Just like every cowboy sings his sad, sad song
Every rose has its thorn
Each line begins by talking about something good, then says how it can be ruined by one little flaw.  The night is the good thing, and the dawn is the flaw!  Good old Bret Michaels... closet noctologist.

I wonder how much more I should explore noctology as a frame of mind.  I kinda sorta started already a few years ago, with some thoughts on cosmicism.  There are traditions -- both real (Judaism) and fictional (Tolkien's elves) -- that start the new day at sunset rather than sunrise.  There's Mozart's star-studded Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute.


Technically, she's the villain, but she's also enough of a force of nature to snag the only slot for opera on Voyager's golden record that was sent out into the darkest reaches of space.

Nocturnes and aubades.  Night owls and early birds.  Nuit and Hadit.  Cherry red and midnight blue.

There's a lot there to ponder, and I don't have a crisp ending to bring it all together.  Maybe coming up with the perfect words is a concept more appropriate for the stars.  The night is okay with letting stuff happen, then layering it over with other stuff.  Nothing is ever really lost, after all.