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.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Holiday Roundup

Ever since my new job started in 2015, this blog has definitely taken a back seat.  I'd like to try to reverse that a bit, and maybe by posting a quick list of highlights (from 2018) and wishes (for 2019), I can kick things into gear.  Anyway...

HIGHLIGHTS

1. A few months ago, I was hugely flattered and humbled to receive blog comments from one of my favorite authors.  The wonders of the internet...

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2. This year, an old classmate of mine from 5th & 6th grade (roughly ages 10-12 for non-US readers) joined Facebook, and we spent a few weeks over the summer reminiscing over the groovy late 1970s.  Digging into old boxes from that time revealed something else that I had forgotten:  As a kid, I once wrote to sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, and he wrote back!  It was just a form letter, but he added a few flourishes at the top and bottom...


For the life of me, I don't know why I didn't remember this when I wrote this post.

By the way, I'm not sure what the "P.T.O." at the top meant.  Clarke's letter came from his home in Ceylon... now Sri Lanka... so, maybe "Pacific Theater of Operations?"  Doesn't sound right.  "Please turn over?"  I think the sheets were typed on one side only.  Any ideas?

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3. This blog has gone into some oddball territory, but I'm not sure if I've ever talked much about my love of coins.  I never really amassed a huge collection, but I've always liked the history, symbolism, and lore.  I also have had a sweet spot for the pre-decimal coinage of Britain... you know, pounds, shillings, pence, farthings, and so on.  At two different times this year, I took a deep dive and constructed some interesting graphical images.  First, some nice visual examples of the classic types, with their amounts laid out clearly:


Next, after finding an auction catalog of weights of silver coins -- listed by monarch from the Dark Ages to the 20th century -- it was interesting to tabulate and plot how British silver money has been "debased" over time... i.e., how the amount of silver needed to make up one "pound sterling" got smaller over the centuries.  Here's the data:

Click on any of these to enlarge

Note the gradual drift downward from 1400 to the late 1600s... until Isaac Newton came in (as master of the mint!) around 1700 to bring together perception and reality!  There's also a mini-history of metal-working technology in this plot, too.  The spread of weights gets narrower over time, as mass production became more accurate.

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4. What do the following songs have in common?

The Who's Baba O'Riley, Slade's Run Runaway, BTO's You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet, and Rush's The Necromancer (final part: "Return of the Prince").

I'll attempt to hide the answer on your screen... just highlight the text to see it:

The majestic I-V-IV-[V]-I chord progression!  (That second [V] in square brackets is optional; just lengthen the IV if it's missing.)  I don't know why, but that particular progression does it for me every time.  Finding quasi-universal patterns like this is a fun side-quest in my search for a playable Glass Bead Game....


WISHES

1. Believe it or not, I'm still working on a piece of short fiction that I first got excited about in 2014.  The first draft is about halfway done, and I've gotten some feedback on that half from the best writer I know.  I've got my fingers crossed that I'll grab enough time to finish it this year.

2. Yes, I'm also continuing to add notes to my corpus (corpi?) of thoughts about: (a) the Glass Bead Game, and (b) my own D&D retro-clone Homebrew '82.   Low low priority these days, but still going.

3. I've been slowly working my way through the 33 short stories in Dangerous Visions, the ground-breaking book edited by the late Harlan Ellison and published the year I was born.  This anthology exemplified the "New Wave" of the time, and it was only this year -- after collecting Harlan's works for the past few decades -- that I found a copy at a used bookstore.  As I read each one, I'm writing spoiler-free mini-reviews, and ranking the stories into 3 groups (skip, okay, wow).  I'll publish them on the blog when I'm through the whole thing.

4. I'm kinda sorta still doing tumblr, even after the controversial purge of NSFW content earlier this month, but I'm mainly just collating and reblogging stuff I find cool.  I'll occasionally scan images from old comics or magazines that I haven't found online, or maybe post some of my numismatic musings (see above), but I'm not a super-user by any means.

I hope everyone who got to the bottom of this post has an awesome 2019!

Friday, December 14, 2018

A little nonsense now and then...

...is relished by the wisest men!


And this man had no idea that Willy Wonka's defense of snozzberries comes from a longer poem, simply titled "Ode," by one Arthur O'Shaughnessy:
 
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And sitting by desolate streams;
World losers and world forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
 
With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities.
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.
 
We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth. 
 
I'll be pondering this one for a while.
 
[I hope to have some other blog updates coming soon...]

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Second star to the right...

Should I start a category of posts for "tropes that get me every time?"  For some reason, this well-known line from Peter Pan provides instant feels.


There's something ineffable -- especially to this person who's thought a lot about the equations that govern the physics of the stars -- about setting such a whimsical course into the boundless, impossible ether.

Weirdly, I don't think J. M. Barrie ever wrote the line the way everyone quotes it.  When I searched through the text of his original plays, all I could find is

"Second to the right, and straight on till morning."

Peter gave this as his address, and I'm sure the star was implied.  I just can't find direct mention of anyone saying "second star" prior to the Disney movie.  Did the star get added somewhere on the stage during the decades between 1904 (first production of the play) and 1953 (the movie)?

The line crops up in the strangest places.  At the end of the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Captain Kirk seems to set a course for Neverland...


I guess nobody on the Enterprise cared too much that the original "undiscovered country" (in Hamlet's original "To be or not to be" speech) was actually a reference to death.  Still, Captain Kirk was known for flouting no-win scenarios...

Another place where I hear echoes of this line are in the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen.  First, in 1973's Blinded by the Light,
Well, I jumped up, turned around,
Spit in the air, fell on the ground,
Asked him which was the way back home.
He said, "Take a right at the light,
Keep goin' straight until night,
And then, boys, you're on your own."
Not an exact quote, mind you, but I see it hiding in there.  Then he followed it up, later that same year, with Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),
Well, hold on tight, stay up all night,
Cause Rosie, I'm comin' on strong.
By the time we meet in the morning light,
I will hold you in my arms.
Maybe that's even a more distant echo of the original.  Am I hearing it whenever people rhyme "night" with "light?"  I don't know, but two years later, Bruce explicitly takes on the role of Pan himself in Born to Run, in which he addresses his girl by her true name,
Wendy let me in, I want to be your friend,
I want to guard your dreams and visions.
You know the rest, and you know the name of that place those tramps go, where they can walk in the sun.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Give me Star Trek (Cygnus version)

Six months... probably the longest the blog has gone without an update.  I really want to be posting here most often, but life is busy.

A week or two ago, I saw an interesting Star Trek related meme by someone named Skye Gray (but it's hard to pin down its true origin).  I thought it really got to the hopeful heart of the franchise.  However, Discovery wasn't represented -- meaning it was probably made prior to 2017 -- and there were a few pieces of the puzzle that I didn't quite think were optimized.  Thus, I made my own version... 

Click for dreadnaught-sized

Trek fans may find aspects to complain about (Pine and not Shatner? Broccoli for Courage?) but I stand by my choices.  Share if you like, and live long & prosper.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Tumbling into New Media

The blog's been a bit quiet lately... not so much because of lack of things to say, but mostly just work & life doing their thing.  I am mulling over long-term plans for the 2018 April A-Z Challenge.  If it happens, some fraction of it will be a serialization of the story that I started writing about 3 years ago and haven't talked about much since.

Focusing on the here and now, I've also (impulsively) decided to give tumblr a try.  "Another blog?" you may say, "You can't even keep up with one, dude!"  Well, the tumblr format is a little more "micro" than what I'm used to around here.  For some reason, I associate this blog with archiving my long-form deep thoughts.  Many ideas come and go because they can't be expanded into something that I think is servitorludi-worthy.  Tumblr is also more about quick reblogs and memes.  Those can still be deep and impactful, but there's less of a mental cover-charge (at least for me).  Thus, let me introduce My Own Weird Way...

https://myownweirdway.tumblr.com/

Before anybody asks...
  1. Yes, the title is based on a line in the song Santa Monica by Everclear.  I'm not a rabid fan of theirs or anything (though I always loved that the lead singer was a guest actor on "Ned's Declassified"); I just always kind of liked that line.
  2. The header image is the Cygnus Loop (duh), with overlaid hexgrid and Star Fleet Battles counters, just for kicks.
So although I may occasionally do tumblr things about the main topics of this blog (Glass Bead Games & Role Playing Games), I'm planning on being much more free-range with my fannish & esoteric interests.

In other words, I have no idea what will show up there, but it's going to be fun & interesting!